ROBIN ALYSHA CLEMENS
Mexico is a country where different mystical and religious traditions blend and mutate against a backdrop of a complex history: starting with the indigenous rituals of the Mayans and Aztecs, then Catholicism imposed by the Spanish colonists to the various cultural influences from Africa and from Latin and North America. While the majority of Mexicans identify as Catholics, the influences of indigenous customs prior to the colonization are still present today.
‘Yo soy otro tú, tú eres otro yo’
(I am another you, you are another me) is a portrayal of the Mexican people and their faith. Focusing on the diversity of contemporary spirituality in Mexico, this project explores the unseen and unveils the underlying similarities between these spiritual practices. It looks beyond the altars, icons and religious symbols, to capture the people behind these beliefs.
This project is made possible by Melkweg Expo, Fotolab Kiekie, EIZO Europe and Amsterdam Fund for the Arts. It was exhibited at the Melkweg Expo in November 2019 and has won the ‘New Generation Prize’ of PHmuseum.
Every week in the church of El Divino Salvador in Mexico City, people gather for a group exorcism. Church workers use prayers, oil and the bible to cast away the devil. Exorcisms can take a few hours and can result in strong emotional reactions: from speaking in tongues to crying, screaming and convulsing. Priests say that the rise in exorcisms in Mexico can be linked to the rise of ‘satanic’ folk religions, like Santa Muerte, the use of witchcraft or voodoo, and the increase in crime, substance abuse, abortion and gay marriage.
Enrique Marthen Berdón is a sorcerer who uses both black and white magic to help his customers. At 54, Enrique is honoured to be known as the ‘Brujo Mayor’, a title that is normally only given to sorcerers over 70. The people who turn to Enrique are usually desperate for help regarding love, revenge, money or medical conditions. He has a self-made cave with a 3-meter high statue of the devil where he sacrifices chickens and other small animals. His business card reads: “Visit us and solve your problems.”
When she was very young, Montserrath Reyes had a very serious case of pneumonia. The doctors gave her zero life expectancy but her father prayed to Santa Muerte (The Lady of Holy Death) and she eventually got better. Santa Muerte became her guardian angel and she has many tattoos devoted to her. She also has a cross tattooed on her arm that she got together with her mom at 12 years old: “I placed the cross upside-down, as a sign of my appreciation to Satan.”
Socrates is a traditional dancer, medicine man, musician and studies law. He is part of the indigenous Seri tribe in the Sonora Desert. Once a group of 5000, the Seri’s population has declined heavily because of the Spanish colonists and their conflicts with neighbouring tribes. They speak their own language, Comcaac, and live mostly in seclusion. Socrates has created new laws in his community and the council of the elders call him the ‘life of the earth’. He performs the traditional ‘Dance of the Rams’, originated because there are many rams living in Seri Territory. “My dance is a form of identity, innovation, health, spirituality and magic.”
Estella is a curandera, a spiritual healer. She hears voices in her head, talks to spirits and has the power to cure people of illness and misfortune with the help of plants. After her sister saw her floating in mid air, her family got scared and wanted to lock her away. “What a beautiful girl you have,” people would tell her mother when she was little, “it’s a shame she is crazy”. At 12 years old she ran away from home, and now – years later – she is working as a full-time curandera.
Mario Martínez is a young poet, student and Catholic. “To me, religion is not a chain or a cage, it is a source of wisdom just like science or art.” He was trained in western literature, reading well-known European authors, but also grew up listening to the traditional stories of miracles and witchcraft that are so common in Mexico. “The union between the cultures is my biggest passion and is also the foundation of my poetry. I want to learn more about the Africans, the Muslims and the Chinese because I feel that our cultures have a lot in common.”
Edgar is a priest in training at the seminary, a school of theology, in Mexico City. At the monthly San Judas Thaddeus celebration in the San Hipolito Church, Edgar blesses the people and their San Judas Thaddeus statues with holy water. San Judas Thaddeus is a patron saint among the lower-class and is very popular amongst criminals. Petitioning the saint to get away with their crimes, some have titled him "The Saint for the Hopeless and the Despaired”.
A Catholic man crawls on his knees in front of Basílica de Guadalupe, one of the most important religious sites of Mexico. Every year, millions of people come to the church to show their devotion to The Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s dark-skinned version of Virgin Mary. After the image of Guadalupe first appeared o an indigenous man on the hill of Tepeyac, the Spanish built the Guadalupe chapel right on top of the sacred indigenous site devoted to Aztec goddess Tonantzin Coatlaxopeuh, also seen as “The Sacred Mother”. Because of Guadalupe’s appearance at the sacred site of Tepeyac, many indigenous people recognize Tonantzin and Guadalupe as the same figure.
Don May is a Granisero who practises in his own personal cave. A Granisero is a spiritual healer and someone who can control the weather through offerings and chanting. This spiritual gift can be received in three different ways. One is by surviving a lethal disease, second is crying in your mother’s womb as an unborn baby and the third is by being struck by lightning and surviving it. Many of them, including Don May, are located on the foot of the Popocatépetl Volcano.
A group of young people gather every week in the church of the Nazarene in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Most people are in their 20s. The young pastor, Mauricio, is only 40 years old and does his sermon through a powerpoint presentation. “I teach in a new world and translate old theology to the younger generation.” There is a band playing music and the attendees read the bible from their smartphones. “There is not one Mexico. We are young people, born in a digital era, in a post-modern culture, but our roots are indigenous.”