Mexican markets are purveyors of cultural identity, myth, superstition, and religious appropriation. As places of cultural commerce, they become living museums reflecting what is happening in Latino communities. Largely influenced by Mexican markets as well as by the local markets in Denver, this installation is somewhere between a retail experience, with obvious references to commercialism and consumption, and a more spiritual encounter.
One of the first things that you see is a T-shirt rack that anchors the space and signals that this is a retail environment. The T-shirts function like a ’zine, but on a rack, and you can flip through them and see the different iconography that’s on display throughout the bodega. There are also ten speaker boxes with praying hand sculptures on them, which are used here not to generate sound but because they are found everywhere in custom car culture from Mexico to the United States. The hands have colorful fingernails with intricate detailed patterns, because nail art is ubiquitous through Latino and Mexican cultures. Waters or elixirs on display are part of spiritual practices that are done for myriad uses related to cleansing. Some of them are to bring you money, like Señor Dinero, which is something you bathe in or mop your floors with, a really strange relationship. Along with Señor Dinero are other elixirs that speak more to black magic or white magic because they are used to break spells.
My larger sculptures of folk saints have religious iconography that touches the intersection between Catholicism and cult religion. The folk saints represent a mixture of Catholic and Mesoamerican belief systems and illustrate the complexities of morality. I chose cult deities and heroes that clearly had connections to drug culture. I am also personally interested in these figures as a platform for me to consider my father’s past as a drug trafficker. One of the first times that I talked to him in my adult life, he was in prison in Kentucky. Recently, I found out it was because he was selling drugs.
Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, comes from a combination of Catholic and Aztec beliefs. Based on the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, queen of the underworld, who watches over the bones of the dead, she also provides protection, good health, and passage to the underworld. Legend holds that Santa Muerte is a fallen angel trying to win God’s forgiveness and, therefore she performs many miracles. She has different iterations that employ various objects and colors, each carrying unique symbolic meanings: scythe, scales, owl, or a globe. These attributes reinforce Santa Muerte’s wisdom, judgment, prowess, and domain. Likewise, Santa Muerte’s robe appears in various colors to indicate health, wisdom, economic help, justice, or protection. Worshippers make offerings of money, flowers, fruit, cigarettes, candles, water, and incense. Santa Muerte is associated predominantly with working class, outsider communities and drug cartels. The Catholic Church has declared that worship of Santa Muerte is blasphemous. My sculpture of Santa Muerte is super ethereal, cut from thin aluminum, and coated in automotive paint that shimmers. Its visual presence might get lost, depending on where you are in the installation, so it has a creep-up-on-you effect. I want it to be mysterious because my relationship with my father and my relationship to Latino culture has been mysterious, although always present.
Jesus Malverde is both a historical and mythological figure, who is an amalgamation of characteristics of a few bandits from the Mexican state of Sinaloa. According to legend he worked as a tradesman. After his parents died he became a bandit known as the “angel of the poor” or “el bandido generoso,” because he supposedly stole from the rich and gave to the poor, much like Robin Hood. He died at the hand of the governor of Sinaloa after Malverde humiliated him by entering his mansion and scrawling the equivalent of “Malverde was here” on the wall. Malverde was publicly hanged, and his body left to rot. Since his death, Malverde has become a folk saint for the poor and unfortunate. Mexican cartels adopted his image and branded themselves with his attribute of generosity to the underprivileged. The most famous narco, El Chapo, is also from Sinaloa and is known for giving back to his community, much like the myth of Jesus Malverde.
Saint Raymond Nonnatus is a Catholic saint known for paying the ransom to free Christian slaves in Algiers. Once his money ran out, he offered himself as a hostage for captives and was thrown in jail. While imprisoned, Saint Nonnatus preached to the other prisoners. When he was discovered, his jailers tortured him by putting a hot iron through his lips and then padlocking his mouth shut. He is the patron saint of priests defending the confidentiality of confession. His story has been co-opted by drug traffickers, and Saint Nonnatus is worshipped to protect them from snitching and being snitched on.
I chose a portrait from the museum’s Spanish colonial collection, an anonymous sitter, who overlooks the bodega as if he’s a Mexican overlord or drug lord. Cartels and people are using these saints as a way to seek protection against law enforcement. People generally associate religion with morality. It’s interesting that in turn these saints are being used to justify drug-related commerce. It’s also intriguing that the cartels’ ethics are different from the Catholic views of morality. For me, that complexity is fascinating.