A few weeks back, we featured a story on Mexico's Santa Muerte followers by New Zealand photographer Erin Lee. While shooting Santa Muerte, a cult associated with violence and crime that is said to be the fastest-growing religion in the world, she came across a stranger and lesser-known sect called Angelito Negro. We spoke to her about the "devil cleansings" she witnessed.
VICE: What is Angelito Negro about?
Erin Lee: Angelito Negro basically translates to "Black Angel." It's a sculpture of this black angel dressed in a mariachi outfit and holding tequila, except he's a devil with massive horns. What we were told about Angelito Negro is that you shouldn't use the Devil as an excuse to do bad things and say, "Oh, the Devil made me do it." The Devil only exists to judge whether you get through to heaven or hell when you die. He's there to judge you, not to push you into bad things. So it's different from Satanism.
What happened during the Devil cleansing that you photographed?
They put a woman in a circle of fire and made these four symbols out of salt. Then they cut all these lines in her back. We were told that the symbols represented the four portal doors to the invocation of the summoning of the supernatural. And then they drew the same symbols that she's standing in the middle of with her own blood on her back. After that they threw salt and alcohol all over the wound—the whole thing probably only lasted 20 minutes.
Who was the women?
She told us she has a daughter who is 12 years old. That daughter was born three months premature, and at the time they said to her husband, "You have to choose between your wife or the baby." He chose the wife because they had other children. Anyway, they both survived—and she said this is a sacrifice she does once a year for saving them both. I'm not sure how it's related to the Devil, she didn't say that, but she said that's why she sacrifices herself. They believe in the Devil because it provides protection. That's what they're asking for when they pray—they're asking for protection rather than excuses to do bad things.
Is this a sect of Santa Muerte, or is this a completely different thing?
I'm not really sure. I guess it's a different thing. But it's weird because this church, the majority of it is dedicated to Santa Muerte—there are statues of her everywhere. But when you walk in, there's Jesus Christ, the Virgin of Guadalupe (which is a totally Catholic symbol), and then Santa Muerte and Angelito Negro, both of which are totally condemned by the Catholic Church.
It's like a religious superstore?
Pretty much! It's just a little bit of everything. There's also a separate room dedicated to Santería, which is from the Caribbean. I don't really understand how all these little cults connect. But not everyone who goes for Santa Muerte goes to the part of the Devil.
Was it hard to watch the woman go through all that while you're just standing there taking photos?
Yeah… especially when it was her choice. I think that's different to seeing someone get hurt not by choice. They pay to do this.
She pays the guy who runs the church. Initially we heard it costs 1,500 pesos, about $100, which is kind of a lot for over here. But when the leader of the church was talking, he said he charges up to 5m000 pesos, which is more like $400. This guy we were talking to runs the whole church, but he told us he'd been in and out of prison and done some pretty sketchy things. But then he was like, "Now look what I have. I built this from nothing." His idea was to build it to help the people who wanted to be a part of the church.
So he built the whole church?
So he claims. But they make a lot of money as well. When there's a celebration, everyone pays. They serve you tequila, there's mariachi playing… but they're definitely making money. Everything's for sale. He says the money goes into maintaining the church. There are massive statues and lots of flowers, and there's always booze.
How do people usually respond to you photograhing them in the street?
In my whole life, not even just Mexico, there have been very few times where people have gotten angry at me for taking photos. It's happened, but not very often. Here, people don't get angry—they just get really shy. People are very reserved. Maybe it'll annoy them, but then they'll go away. People are very nonconfrontational.
You're a long way from New Zealand. Will you be staying here much longer?
I'm still going with the Santa Muerte project. I'm about to go to the north of Mexico. I'm exploring the same topics—family, religion, cult, trust, and corruption, all these things I feel are kind of interlinked, and the way it's formed the Mexican society is really different to what I know. I want to create a visual representation of how or why these things are linked, and the effect that that has on the way people treat each other here. The idea of life being so finite—you're reminded of it everyday. You're constantly reminded you don't know what's going to happen. People here live very in-the-moment. They love to celebrate; they care about their family, their friends. You can party for whatever reason, so in a way it's a good thing. People do live life enjoying everything, but there can be a downside. Maybe people don't feel responsible for their actions. Certainly I think that's the case when you look at the way impunity rules this country.
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