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The Cult of the Holy Death. Understanding Mexico’s New Iconography


Mexico is a country with a rich history of iconic images, widely recognized across Mexico itself and abroad, and by elite nation-builders as well as popular groups. Even without asserting an essentialist perspective, these icons are cultural and visual images believed to represent core elements of Mexican history, culture and society. While some enjoy an undisputed and lasting force and presence, like the Virgin de Guadalupe, the popularity of others may be more subject to the passing of time and fall into oblivion. Icons of the Mexican revolution, such as Emiliano Zapata, are no longer the subjects of state-orchestrated hero-cults, but maintain their iconic significance in the popular imagination. Some icons originate in the domain of religion, others are rooted in social struggles and politics, and yet another was born on the drawing table of a creative artist, such as Posada’s La Catrina. Some icons have become enshrined in official institutional discourse, think of Hidalgo as the icon of Mexican independence (or Juárez as the icon of Mexican liberalism), while others originate in and remain confined within the domain of popular culture. One can think of the famous lucha libre fighter Canek. Some icons have their roots in colonial Mexico, while others are the product of post-Second World War mass culture (Pedro Infante would be a good candidate, or, more recently, Juan Gabriel). What applies to all icons, irrespective of the origins and influence, is that they are always subject to shifting processes of meaning making. What they symbolize for people is not some unmediated and ahistorical meaning or essence, but the result of negotiations between different social actors conditioned by shifting social, political and cultural discourses and practices. National iconography is dynamic, despite all efforts to fix and stabilize meanings.

Mexico and its people have been experiencing deep changes during the last decades in almost every domain: the economic system, the political landscape, in social and demographic terms, their place in the world, and, last but not least, in the sphere of crime, violence and insecurity. In view of the social production of icons, Mexico´s violent democracy fosters the emergence of new (or reinvigorated) icons. The 2014 Día de Mexicanistas of the University of Groningen will examine one of if not the most significant iconic expression of current Mexico: the Santa Muerte. The cult of the Santa Muerte has gained in influence and popularity across Mexico, and even in the US. While the Santa Muerte is often associated with illegalities and violence (and is hence to drug trafficking), it´s roots and meanings reach beyond the world of crime The Centro de Estudios Mexicanos (CEM) will bring together a unique group of important scholars who have worked on different aspects, and from different disciplines, of this visually ‘spectacular’ icon of Mexico´s post-transitional violent democracy at the beginning of the 21 century. The seminar will therefore have a multidisciplinary look at a phenomenon that is growing rapidly and drawing international attention.