On each of our trips to San Antonio, Texas—a mind-deadening, twelve-hour driving marathon through mostly barren landscapes—we'd noticed signs pointing the roadside Chapel of the Holy Death and had intended to stop and check it out. It's hard to miss: a squat, bright-blue mini-church missing only the usual crucifix on top.
|C'mon in, you lily-livered non-believers.|
Even though I've grown into a grumpy agnostic borderline atheist, I still hesitate to proclaim my skepticism too loudly about either one of the two strands of Catholicism—the formal church or the outlier cults and superstitions like the veneration of Holy Death, quite widespread throughout Mexico, or santería, even more popular in my native Cuba.
Other Latino non-believers often conceal similar doubts and fears with a really lame caveat: "No creo en eso, pero sí le tengo respeto." "I don't believe in all that, but I do respect it." In other words, you never know.
So each time we went past the shrine to Holy Death, a scuffle broke out in my head between curiosity and fear of whatever went on in the chapel. Fear invariably won. We just kept on driving, weaving through the caravan of semis clogging the highway. Whatever it is, we'd better not mess with it.
Last Saturday, curiosity finally won and it brought to mind some of the mixed-message religious beliefs with which I grew up in Cuba, where staid old-world Catholicism mixes with the feverish, drum-beating African beliefs brought to the island by Nigerian slaves. The result is santería, which thrives despite the scorn of the mainline Catholic church.
Even Fidel, and his deposed predecessor Batista, were said to have their personal santería priests, to help them navigate through the turbulence of Cuban politics. It didn't work out so well for Batista, though he slipped out of the island and on to a very comfortable retirement in Spain.
At home my mother kept a small but centrally located altar to Santa Barbara, a versatile saint who was a central figure in both the Catholic and santería pantheons. Our statue of Santa Barbara was about eighteen inches tall, decorated with a tiny metal crown and chalice, plus a sword she held on her left hand and could be set to point up or down, I suspect depending on my mother's spiritual moods or in case of some family emergency.
|Santa Barbara supplies available|
from a vendor in California.
Growing up I developed chronic bronchial asthma, a wheezing, relentless malady I wouldn't wish on anyone. I went to doctors who prescribed inhalers and other medications, in addition to shots of penicillin, the cure-all back in the fifties. All to no avail.
So my parents consulted a santera—a santería priestess or practitioner—who proposed an unorthodox cure. I imagine that by now my parents had given up on the usual Catholic prayers and invocations.
So at sunrise the next Easter morning we went out to the countryside and stood at the foot of a ceiba tree, one of the largest trees in the island. There, the santera, after mumbling what sounded like some Catholic prayer, probably spiced with ñáñigo, a language brought from Africa by the slaves, cut a lock of my hair and solemnly tucked it into a cut she had made on the trunk of the ceiba. She predicted my asthma would be cured when the incision healed.
|A giant ceiba tree, similar to the one|
that cured my asthma. Maybe.
Or did it? My asthma went away just about the time I came to the U.S. Maybe I was allergic to something in Cuba. Maybe I grew out of it. Or maybe yet, santería might have done the trick. Hence my allegiance to both agnosticism and back-of-the-head respect for religious mumbo-jumbo, even some of the more far-fetched beliefs. You just never know.
The Chapel of the Holy Death, is located about two-thirds of the way home between the exits to the cities of Matahuala and San Luis Potosí in a landscape that is fittingly dismal. The soil is a whitish clay that resembles cracked plaster. Vegetation is sparse except for mesquites and a species of tall cacti tilted in all directions as if they were periscopes peering through the dust for a way out of this unforgiving patch of nature.
Signs of human habitation were equally scarce, mostly a few dingy cafes and restaurants and a vulcanizing and tire repair shop, the typical establishments in parts of Mexico where even bare survival is a daily struggle.
|Your choice: Lunch, some freshly vulcanized tires or a live chicken.|
Most of her sere offerings were pathetic but I found a couple of specimens I didn't have. She asked $150 pesos, a ridiculous sum that I promptly paid, so shaken was I by this family's misery. As Stew so often says, such are not rational commercial transactions but acts of income redistribution.
Heartened by our generosity, the woman took us to the patio of her ramshackle dwelling and offered to sell us songbirds, pants, socks, shoes and even a three-inch coyote fang she produced from her pocket. It would make a fine necklace, she said. I passed.
|OK, how about a coyote fang?|
Even before we'd exited the highway I had warned Stew not too giggle, point or show any disrespect to anything or anyone in the shrine. I didn't want to piss off Holy Death, or more immediately, some of his or her followers who might be offended and come after us with a machete.
After a brief and grumpy conversation with the young man working on his car, an attractive bosomy woman carrying a four- or five-month old named Darwin approached us as if to ask about the nature of our business.
I introduced myself and politely, rather obsequiously, asked her if she was a believer in the cult of the Holy Death and could she provide any details. Though she lived next door to the chapel she claimed not to know anything about its function, except that believers came by occasionally to pick up a statue from inside the chapel and take it home for a fiesta.
"Why would you bring a statue of Holy Death to a fiesta?" I asked. She explained that the fiestas were religious celebrations on important religious holidays.
|The chapel included a kneeling bench.|
In addition, one of the walls was filled with framed prayers, testimonials and declarations by people who apparently had been helped by Holy Death. One testimonial was a photo of a tanker-truck driver beseeching Holy Death for his or her protection.
|May we help you?|
Stew was baptized in a small-gauge church in Iowa that unlike Roman Catholicism did not burden him with any sense of religious guilt, fear, hell or damnation. The chapel was no more than a curiosity. Lucky him.
I respectfully, almost fearfully, put the photo on the shelf—I couldn't tell which framed testimonial it had come from—and urged Stew to keep his hand off the relics, followed by "let's get the hell out of here."
|Testimonials or pleas to Holy Death|
I paused for a second before my Guardian Angel helpfully whispered in my ear: "Get back in the car and go home, you fools."