This article originally appeared on VICE United Kingdom.
Since the 1970s, Mexico has been plagued with high-volume drug traffickers attempting to satiate the United States’ demand for low-cost narcotics, resulting in country-wide violence and guerrilla warfare in the streets. In Mexico, a rapidly adopted narco-culture built on the back of folk Catholicism has transformed from back-alley prayers to narco-saint Jesús Malverde into public altars for Santa Muerte, Lady of the Holy Death.
Patrick Polk is a professor at the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures, as well as a curator of Latin American and Caribbean Arts. His current exhibit at UCLA’s Fowler Museum takes on representations of narco-culture, along with marginalised religious icons and unrecognised sacred figures from Latin America and the United States. Called Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners, the collection plays on folk legends and the drug traffickers and impoverished who rely on them as nonjudgmental sources of strength and protection. I sat down with the bespectacled, bearded professor, who has an upside-down tattoo of St Expedite on his right arm.
VICE: Where does your interest in narco-saints start?
Patrick Polk: Well, I got my MA and PhD in folklore here at UCLA, so my interests have fundamentally been religions and ritual traditions of the African diaspora, and also popular religion and religious art in the United States. A lot of my work has been where Europe and Native America and Latin America and Africa sort of collide in Los Angeles, particularly with the way in which religion, material culture and visual spirituality mix and mingle and reshape in LA.
Not a lot of saints here.
I’m from an even more sinful place: Las Vegas. But I love to drive around LA and just look and see what kind of things pop out. I’ve done exhibitions on storefront murals, muffler sculptures, little rider bicycles. A lot of folk art in general and religious art in the sense of the vernacular.
What do you mean by “the vernacular”?
Well, I mean, like, muffler sculptures. They’ll make little devils or robots or aliens; it’s like signage but playful. What I love to look at is the ways in which people express their ideals, their lives, their values. How they share their deepest concerns, how they add humour to our environment. So for me, this exhibition, Sinful Saints, is getting into the ways in which people live their religion. And so a lot of times when I talk about folk or vernacular art, it really is not dogmatic or theological but simply, “Here’s how we pray; here’s whom we pray to; here’s the kind of saints, spirits, that may not be recognised by the Catholic Church, may not be recognised or deemed appropriate for the mainstream; here’s the powers that do things we need.”
Is there more validity to the common man’s idolatry than to what prescriptive religion offers?
Well, I think it’s a different kind of take. Some folks who are really into the philosophy of religion and doctrinal philosophy will come to [the show] and may be horrified by some of it. But for me, it seems more distanced from the lived experiences. I think it comes down to the researcher’s sort of interests, if that makes sense.
Sure, yeah. When you say researcher, I’m thinking not just people like you who are doing historical research, but people who are, you know, researching their own lives through religion.
Yeah, for example, one thing you see in the show is an altar to St. Expedite. Now, St. Expedite is a major saint in New Orleans, Argentina, Brazil, etc., but most Americans have never heard of him, and if they had, it was likely a story in New Orleans that he is unofficial and a box of unrecognised statues were delivered to a church with the word “Expedite” on the box, and they thought, 'Oh, it’s St. Expedite.' People tell that story all over the place.
But the reality is he’s an official Catholic saint; it’s just that he doesn’t appear on the radar much in America. So what I like is the way in which people creatively rework and make new meanings. Another thing is that in the exhibit we’ve got a chromolithograph of St. Expedite that’s upside-down, and the folk perspective is, when you’re asking for a favour, he wants to get right side up, so he’ll make it happen faster. And that’s the kind of stuff that I like. We also didn’t often see Santa Muerte either; now she is pretty close to just about the first figure we find.
Do you think there’s a particular reason?
I think one is the reality of the drug war in Mexico and the instability of society, of simply how dangerous it is. I saw a statistic that compared murders in El Paso, Texas, and murders just across the border, in Ciudad Juárez. It’s something like 5 to 3,600. So, [Santa Muerte] is the protector of people on the wrong side of the law and the patron saint of people on the right side of the law in a place where you can hardly tell the difference sometimes.
Part of it is the way in which people talk about her as a spirit that doesn’t judge. Sort of as a “come as you are” divinity, so that people forced into all walks of life by economy, immigration, political reality, places where they generally would rather not be – they see that, 'OK, I don’t have to hide myself away from religion.' You have this idea that the Virgin Guadalupe is this pure mother and Santa Muerte gets the rest.
She’s totally unofficial?
I can’t imagine the day the Catholic Church would recognize her. That would be a far cry. They look at her like witchcraft or Satanism, as black magic. These are narco-saints; they’re completely associated with sinners.
What attracts you personally to this kind of work, to this idea?
Well, it goes back a little bit to my interest in African diaspora religions. I grew up in a generation when Gilligan’s Island was sort of like one of the key windows to the world.
Ha-ha. Go on.
I always remember, like, the witch doctor and all the fantasy. Now, as an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to go to São Paulo, Brazil. Thirty million people, and I thought I was going to a seaside village — dumb. So anyways, I get down there, they arrange some kind of voodoo ceremony, and I’m like, “Ooh, I want to see some crazy voodoo,” and it turns out to be like the most beautiful religious ceremony I’ve ever seen in my life. It was just really powerful, moving, just unbelievable.
I remember thinking, 'Why was I so trained to think I was going to see something in particular?' Our culture and our understanding of other people’s religions, be it people from the African diaspora or Latin America — where we have black magic and voodoo and witchcraft and all those things those people do there – is totally off.
Yeah, our pop culture doesn’t really pride itself on accuracy.
Like, Santa Muerte has been in a lot of films and televisions shows recently, they just did Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, where she’s central to it. Breaking Bad has Santa Muerte, a bunch of these things, and it’s almost always presented as, “Here’s this dangerous saint for these dangerous people.” And the reality is that you go to a Santa Muerte ceremony — it’s kind of boring, just like any church service; I hate to say that.
But what is it about? It’s about basic things: How do I get better? How do I have better communication and unity in my family? How do I stay safe in a dangerous world? You know you’re doing wrong things, but in the meantime you have to survive or change and so there’s no question that people who break the law will turn to folk saints in particular because they’re often understood to be more forgiving.
So, for me, I’m interested in trying to give people a view on what saints like this mean, how they’re used, how they’re understood from sort of a street view. And then also trying to put it into a context that maybe helps people get it a little better than what they might immediately think.
Or if they’ve just been the same story forever.
Yeah, what they’ve been told: “Ooh, that’s scary, evil stuff.”
I think saints make a perfect way to go about that because, in Christianity in general — but also particularly Catholicism — we’re all sinners, and there’s no saint who hasn’t made it to heaven to be held up and wasn’t a sinner. So I’m playing on the thing, you know, “We’re all sinners.”
It’s also kind of a very black-and-white issue for the church, you’re kind of muddling in that.
Well, a lot of people make it black-and-white, and, you know, like, we have an image in there of St. Dimas or San Dimas as a great place to go out to the waterslides.
I used to live there. Raging Waters was our Holy Land.
Well, San Dimas was the good thief who got crucified to the right of Jesus. Why was he being crucified? Well, because he was a thug and a murderer and a robber, and he deserved to be crucified. Why did he get into heaven and in fact become basically the first saint? Because he recognized Christ. He says, “Hey, remember me in heaven.” Christ goes, basically, “Okay, dude. I’ll see you there.”
That’s a big promise.
Exactly, and that makes him, in fact — if you really look at it — the only indisputable saint because Jesus anointed him personally. But he’s a total criminal, a thug. Or take, you know, St. Paul, pretty much the main founder of the Catholic Church. When he was Saul of Tarsus he was killing Christians; then he has his Road to Damascus epiphany and suddenly becomes St. Paul, but to his dying day he admitted he was a sinner. He just turned it around.
Every saint’s a sinner.
Every saint a sinner, every sinner a saint. So, a lot of times, it gets overlooked in these kinds of things. You know St. Augustine. If you’re from Santa Monica, you’ve got to know one way in which S. Monica became a saint is 'cause she was willing to wait basically half a lifetime for her drunken, lecherous, trouble-making son Augustine to figure it out. Now he’s St. Augustine, doctor of the church. He didn’t get there without being seriously messed up. So that’s the kind of thing I hope people will get — that sanctity can come by way of sin. And some of these folk saints, some of these ones who aren’t official, could become official. It’s not going to happen soon, but you never know.
Maybe through your work.
I doubt I have that much power, but the power is in people’s lives. But there are folks that get kicked out. You know, St. Valentine got booted. But for the ones we’re highlighting, it’s going to take…
Hell might have to slightly freeze over.
What is the name of the hustler saint? That’s my favorite.
Zé Pilintra. Zé Pilintra is never getting up there.
See Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners at the Margins of the Americas at UCLA’s Fowler Museum now through July 20.