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The Aesthetics of Communal Survival: Recasting the Relation between Santa Muerte and Violence

 Agnes Mondragon Celis Ochoa, PhD student, Anthropology 

Photo by Toni François

Santa Muerte, a folk saint so little known before the turn of the century—in a religious landscape mostly populated by centuries-old figures—has become widely present in the Mexican public sphere in the past few years and, just as quickly, has been associated with criminality and drug violence in the media. This association has depicted Santa Muerte’s followers not only as criminals themselves, 1 but also as engaging in illegitimate, even blasphemous, 2 devotional practices. While this mass-mediated association resonates with old, Porfirian-age and ultimately colonial discourses linking Mexican lower classes to criminality 3—which of course, says more about class hierarchies in Mexican society than about Santa Muerte devotees themselves—I consider there to be, indeed, a relation between this saint and violence that remains unexplored. By examining a collective ritual that takes place in Santa Muerte’s main shrine in the downtown slum of Tepito, Mexico City, I wish to explore one of the ways in which such a relation plays out.

Tepito is a neighborhood best known for its massive informal market—where, allegedly, one can buy commodities of all imaginable kinds—but is also remarkable for its strong communal identity, which claims a pre-Hispanic past and which was able to resist gentrification efforts by the local government 4. It seems to have harshly felt the well-known effects of neoliberalism: unprecedented flows of money (especially of illegal trades), greater inequality, harsher capitalist competition, and the violence this brings about. The practices surrounding Santa Muerte, I argue, are means through which this violence is collectively acknowledged, evaluated and addressed, while offering a space by which the community of devotees reminds itself of such a fact and (ritually) reconstructs social bonds, which are crucial for both collective and individual survival.

Photo by Saúl Ruiz

On the first day of the month, devotees gather around the Santa Muerte shrine well before the main ceremony. Many are seen close to their Santa Muerte icons, either because they are holding them in their arms [image 1] or because they have placed them over a piece of cloth on the floor, like small, improvised shrines [image 2]. All sorts of small objects—candies, toy bills, beaded bracelets—can be seen in people’s hands or adorning their statuettes. The objects are gifts brought and distributed by devotees in return for miracles granted by Santa Muerte. As has become customary, devotees bring many such objects, which indicates the magnitude of the intended repayment. Devotees will offer them as gifts to several of the numerous Santa Muerte statuettes gathered on that day—insofar as all are equally indexes of the same Santa Muerte. While offering the saint her gratitude, however, it becomes unclear whether the recipient of the gift is Santa Muerte or (also) the devotee carrying the icon. Moreover, the gift is usually accompanied by a que te cuide y te proteja, “may she look after and protect you”, whose target is clearly a fellow devotee. In this way, the gift giver is demonstrating Santa Muerte’s efficacy to the recipient and encouraging others to engage in or maintain relations with her. As anthropologist Timothy Knowlton shows for a similar ritual, [5. Timothy Knowlton, “Inscribing the Miraculous Place: Writing and Ritual Communication in the Chapel of a Guatemalan Popular Saint”, Linguistic Anthropology, 25(3), December 2015] these individual communicative acts, superimposed on each other—as can be seen in the accumulation of gifts adorning the statuettes [image 1]—constitute and help sustain this collective devotion overtime.

But there is more to this. Gift giving, one of the classical concerns in anthropology, has been found to be at the very foundation of sociality, as acts that inaugurate (or, in our case, reestablish) social bonds and that carry the obligation to reciprocate. Following Nancy Munn, 5 a gift may initiate a reciprocal transaction, and thus a social bond—a connection between the two persons involved where the gift giver is constituted and remembered as a generous person and her action reciprocated through a return gift sometime in the future.

This logic of reciprocity, although inverted, appears in devotional practices through which Santa Muerte followers attempt to harm others, to retaliate against others’ abuses of power or to counteract a competitor’s conspicuous economic success, situations that have become increasingly common, as mentioned, in recent years. The possibility to engage in these harmful practices, however, comes with a warning: Santa Muerte takes a loved one if a devotee fails to repay a favor. In other words, Santa Muerte takes revenge by mirroring the devotee’s harmful act, and thus breaking this devotee’s network of social bonds in the same way that she mirrors a devotee’s thankful repayment by creating a new social bond through gift giving, as the ritual above describes.

Knowledge about Santa Muerte’s revengefulness, for devotees, is thus a recurrent reminder about the perils of destroying social relations. Communal ritual practices not only result from the collective acknowledgment that a network of friends and kin is fundamental for everyday survival—especially in communities that have faced the hardships of poverty 6—but also that violence is ultimately unsustainable for social life. Santa Muerte followers then gather once a month in order to ritually suture back these severed bonds. In this way, the community becomes an agent that sustains itself into the future.

  3. See Ricardo Pérez Montfort, coord., Hábitos, normas y escándalo: prensa, criminalidad y drogas durante el porfiriato tardío, Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés, 1997
  4. See Alfonso Hernández and Laura Roush, “The Vita-migas of Tepito”, Ethnology, 47 (2/3), Spring/Summer 2008: 89-93; Diane E. Davis, “Zero-Tolerance Policing, Stealth Real Estate Development, and the Transformation of Public Space: Evidence from Mexico City”, Latin American Perspectives, March 2013: 53-76
  5. Nancy Munn, The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society, Durham: Duke University Press, 1992
  6. See Mercedes González de la Rocha, The Resources of Poverty: Women and Survival in a Mexican City, Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994; Hernández and Roush, op. cit.
Mobility as Investment in Southern Peru: Notes and Images from a Moving Field

Mobility as Investment in Southern Peru: Notes and Images from a Moving Field

Eric Hirsch | Ph.D. Candidate, Anthropology

Photo 1. El Señor de los Milagros.

   There are plenty of ways of getting around southern Peru’s Colca Valley. Many people find themselves in packed Toyota Hiaces, plunging through streams and over rocks as impressively as any off-road vehicle. Others watch the scenery unfold from the windows of nearly empty Mercedes vans used to shuttle tourists between their hotels and the Cruz del Condor, a lookout point marked by a cross where the famous Andean condor can be seen up close. In Colca, a basin of twenty interconnected villages, constant mobility is essential to daily life.

In this context, my dissertation, “Investing in Indigeneity,” investigates the ways development organizations, national initiatives, and municipal institutions are trying to put the idea of local indigeneity and other imaginings of what it means to be Colcan to work for economic growth. One surprise when fieldwork began was that so much of this research has consisted of traversing between Colca’s villages in various forms of transportation, accompanying many different kinds of investors. One of my initial research questions asks, what does it mean to make an investment? Now, as I approach the end of my fifteen-month stay in Peru, one answer to that question can be found in how people move throughout the valley and the region.

The further you go into the Colca Valley from Chivay, the provincial capital, the more you have to wait, and the more of an investment of time, money, patience, and physical endurance it entails to move from place to place. Peru has adopted a large-scale policy of political and economic decentralization over the past decade (see, i.e., The  Economist 2014). But in the Arequipa region, where Colca is located, this has not meant a true local autonomy, but rather a series of hubs and spokes, where the hubs today have much more power than they used to with respect to Lima, but in their zones remain a highly centralized focus. This means, in practice, that participants in so many different economic sectors, from merchants to manufacturers, to healthcare workers and teachers and development experts, must make constant regular commutes to the capital city of Arequipa (see photo 2). In a contemporary variation on what Andes historian John Murra famously called the “vertical archipelago” (1972)—in which families, since before the Inca and Spanish invasions, would colonize land at distinct altitudes in order to diversify their crop supply—many families maintain an archipelago of homes, terrains, businesses, family members, and contemporary social networks in multiple sites in the region that crisscross through the capital city.

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Photo 2. On the Road to Arequipa.

   It is not only where people are going, but also the way they move, that can reveal a great deal about what it means to belong to these communities. The details I note here may not be completely unique to Arequipa and Peru, but what I want to suggest in these moving scenes is that at the level of ethnographic methodology, the textured ways in which people circulate through space deserve our attention. For a great number of Colcans, much of economic life here depends upon spending a great deal of time on buses. Most of the longer journeys between Arequipa and its hinterland take place on large coach buses such as those of the Señor de los Milagros line (see photo 1), some of which are so old that they cannot exceed 40 miles per hour, even on the puna’s desolate open highways. What happens on the bus is a kind of opportunistic convergence: near the city and the rest stops, men and women board for some fifteen minutes at a time selling snacks, sodas, and newspapers, spending their days zigzagging back and forth along the bus route selling their wares; passengers may also be witness to the occasional infomercial-like lecture from a representative of Herbalife or somebody selling magazines or self-improvement videos, advertising the value of reading and the idea that “culture begins at home” to a captive audience. People who caught the bus at the last minute or who could not afford a seat might sit and sleep on the cold floor, trying their best to make themselves comfortable. Spending so much time on buses seems a peculiar, and perhaps even unnoticed, form of labor: the labor required to bridge the gap between hub and spoke, center and periphery, town and country, always reinforcing and reforging that relationship in a way that goes much deeper than simply passing time. The time spent on the bus is full time. It’s eventful; it is in turn relaxing and tedious. It’s a public in motion.


Photo 3. Combi

   Shared Hiace, or combi, rides become a form of delivering supplies—sending packages to work around an unreliable mail system, transporting corrugated tin for making rooftops, and driving the occasional alpaca to pasture along the combi route. When they fall on religious holidays, these rides are sometimes an occasion for singing Church songs. A person’s habits and practices of getting in and getting out of the van index his or her respect for the elderly. In the afternoons, young students pile in, excited to be on their way to the nearest Internet café. Long rides and long waits become fora for public debate about the upcoming elections, collective reaction to Profesor Celso’s radio talk show about local politics, and arguments over the merits of a combi timetable. In sum, moving publics at various scales put both what communities value and what people aspire to on display.

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Photo 4. Pickup truck.

   The pickup truck has its own role as a moving stage of investment (see photo 4). For an ethnographer, there is something special about getting into a truck. These were the vehicles of choice for contracted trips used in focused interventions. Pickup trucks became the lifeblood of some of the most important investment projects happening throughout the valley ranging from a development visit to a political campaign, and as in many places around the world, were the highly conspicuous indicator that members of the NGO class were approaching. At the core of my research was a group of twenty young entrepreneurs living in Colca who had won seed capital investment from the Desco NGO, and thirty others who had won non-monetary support, for business plans they had proposed. Much of the daily work on a development intervention was spent in the NGO’s Mitsubishi truck traversing the valley. Rides lasting more than an hour, for example between the NGO’s offices in Chivay and its entrepreneurs in Lari, would often become informal staff meetings.

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Photo 5. Sierra Sur INTERCON.

   A second intervention I’m following, the Sierra Sur initiative, a program run out of Peru’s Ministry of Agriculture, gives us a distinct image of development investment as a movable system of staged exchanges: Sierra Sur staff hold periodic contests in public squares throughout the region—spaces founded in the Spanish colonial reducción, or massive effort to resettle a dispersed Andean population into dense, gridded, Christian villages—which they transform into sites of evaluation that cultivate the newly valued figure of the indigenous Colcan entrepreneur (see photo 5). Between these and the many other investors who make daily trips traversing the valley and the region—political candidates (see photo 6), construction workers, miners, farmers reaching their far-off terrains—we can begin to paint a picture of investment in Peru’s Colca Valley as a process of keeping communities in motion.

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Photo 6. Ricardo Ramos


The Economist. “Divide and bribe.” 7 October 2014. [Accessed 14 October 2014.]

Murra, John V. 1972. “El ‘control vertical’ de un máximo de pisos ecológicos en la economía de las sociedades andinas.” In Iñigo Ortiz de Zúñiga (1967-1972[1562]), Visita de la provincia de León de Huánuco en 1562. Vol. 2. John V. Murra (ed.). Huánuco: Universidad NAcional Hermilio Valdizán, 427-476.

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