Since it is the season of the Days of the Dead, I decided to re-post one of my very first blog posts, published on November 18, 2008, about a painting I did inspired by some of my visits to Mexico. (I'm hoping to make another visit to Oaxaca in February.)
Several years ago I traveled with her to the isolated Church of the Virgin of Juquila on the mountainous road from Oaxaca to Puerto Escandido. Pilgrims come here by foot from all over Mexico to ask for a miracle from this tiny, dark-skinned figure of the Virgin who is housed in a massive church.
The pilgrims walk for days, sleeping in village squares, fed by pious Mexicans, until they reach Juquila. They often approach the saint on their knees. The tiny figure (who is considered Indian because of her dark skin) has a white train which stretches out of the church and far into the distance. Pilgrims leave on the train gifts and hand-made wooden crosses either specifying the favor they need or thanking her for favors received. My photo at right below shows two Indian women on their knees approaching the Virgin, one with a blond baby on her back.
http://seasonsofmyheart.com/). We were at El Tajin – a pre-Columbian archeological site in Veracruz, composed of multiple pyramids. It was the Spring Equinox and hundreds of Mexicans, all dressed in white, came there to be cleansed by the Sun God with the aid of cueranderos (healers).
On the way into the pyramids, among the many objects on display on the road outside, I noticed the skeletal lady dressed as a Spanish Senorita. I had never seen anything like her … she was like the many Guadalupe virgins seen everywhere, but she was Death. So I took her photo, but no one could tell me exactly what she was for. They told me she was Santa Meurte and I could see she was available for some kind of religious ceremony (for a price) but I couldn’t get any other kind of information. Everyone seemed reluctant to talk about her.
Last year in February in Oaxaca I attended a class sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum called “Expanding Your Vision -- Painting and Photography in the Magical World of Oaxaca, Mexico”. It was taught by my friend Mari Seder and Oaxacan artist Humberto Batista. (Nowadays they still offer classes in Oaxaca, but they're doing it on their own: http://www.artworkshopsinoaxaca.com/) Humberto strongly encouraged the students to think outside the box and to paint something unlike their usual style.
At his urging (although I am VERY literal – usually painting just what I see) I incorporated the figure of Santa Meurte from El Tajin into my painting of the interior of the Church of Juquila. The result is the painting above.
I was surprised and excited when I recently picked up the New Yorker dated Nov. 10 and found an article by Alma Guillermoprieto called “Days of the Dead, The new narcocultura.” She wrote about the narcotics trafficking that is causing such bloodshed in Mexico and she investigated the role of “The Holy Death” – especially as she is celebrated in a mass every day in a troubled neighborhood of Mexico City called Tepito where the drug dealers and addicts collect.
The author suggested that there are two thousand shrines in Mexico to Santa Meurte and that she is the saint of drug traffickers (although the woman who established the large shrine in Tepito denies that it is only for drug traffickers.)
When I painted the watercolor at top, showing a woman crawling toward the Virgin of Juquila , I imagined that she was going to ask the Virgin to heal her baby and was encountering Santa Muerte blocking her way to salvation. If it’s true that Holy Death is the saint of narcotics dealers, that adds another dimension to the painting. Perhaps the baby’s health and safety are threatened by some version of the narcocultura (maybe not now but when he grows up.)
The thought gave me a shudder, appropriately enough at this season which celebrates the Days of the Dead. And it adds a layer of unexpected meaning to the painting