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Benjamin Smith, University of Warwick Uk

Saints and Demons: rechristianization and dechristianization in modern Mexico

This article attempts to place the Santa Muerte cult in historical context by using Talal Asad's ideas on "authorizing discourses" to examine the patterns of Mexico's revivalist movements over the past two centuries. Since Independence priests and parishioners have struggled to define the bounds of worship. Negotiations have often centered on debates over the aesthetic, theological, and political meanings of religious icons. In regions of what I term "rechristianization", church representatives and worshippers have worked together to reform old icons and construct new ones, creating hybrid versions of Christ or the Virgin Mary,which both answer popular demands and remain within the language of orthodox Christianity. Yet, in other regions of "dechristianization" social tensions have generated more heterodox religious entrepreneurialism as worshippers have deliberately provoked churchauthorities by blending orthodox iconography with less acceptable images, drawn from a shifting lexicon of popular tropes. Some have sought to integrate state discourses, establishing rituals and shrines for revolutionaries like Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata. Others have relied on indigenous myths to create distinct, local, ethnically-specific icons. More recently, urban Mexicans have sought to blend Christian rites with stories of criminality, social banditry and in the case of the Santa Muerte, diabolism, often drawn from the pages of the nota roja. Many of these revivalist movements have limited "fields of force" and drop quickly from view. But increasing geographical mobility, the mass media, and the internet has offered the Santa Muerte cult reach, influence, and longevity. In conclusion, the paper suggests that Mexico's contemporary civil crisis is framed and even sustained by these distinct rhythms of lay-church interaction; that in many regions the drug war is also a religious war.

Benjamin Smith

Benjamin Smith is Associate Professor of Latin American History at the University of Warwick. He is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth-century grassroots politics in Mexico, who specializes in post-revolutionary politics, regional bossism, social, violence, as well as religion and popular conservatism. His most important publications are Pistoleros and Popular Movements: The Politics of State Formation in Postrevolutionary Oaxaca (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009); The Roots of Conservatism in Mexico: Catholicism, Society, and Politics in the Mixteca Baja, 1750-1962 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, September 2012), and (with Paul Gillingham, eds.), Dictalanda: Politics, Work, and Culture in Mexico, 1938-1968 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

 

 

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