Dancing With Death
By Miracle Tapia
The beeping monitor is lulling me to sleep but I can’t let my eyes close. In that moment I remember how scared I used to be when I was younger to close my eyes after hitting my head. She would say that if I fell asleep I would not be able to wake up. Death. She was describing death. Now, I sit in this hospital room being comforted by the monotone beep from the monitor and the rhythmic noise keeping my heartbeat company doing the work my parent’s voice should have. I recognize that I should be afraid of being alone just a few eye flutters away from…death? But I’m not scared. I’ve known for too long that this illness has no cure, at least not one I can get. My eyelids are feeling heavier and I stop struggling. Like I stopped crying, searching for a medicine, covering the red marks on my body, and recently like I stopped fighting against the violent nausea every night. In those moments I feel enveloped by the warm embrace of knowing that My eyelids drop lower. The monitor seems to be slowing down, keeping my heart beat company. The door shyly opens. Through the haze I make out a tall dark skinned woman. She is my mother. She gently rubs my head and the heart monitor doesn’t need to keep me company anymore. She is here.
Catholic Tradition is the living, flowing, ebbing, movement of the Truth. It is believed that the Gospel (Truth) can be passed down through oral Tradition or written message through Apostolic succession. The Catholic Church encourages its congregation to face those that challenge Tradition in what they call a “postmodern attitude” that Tradition is “just a reflection of particular judgments and biases”.
Simontaenoulsly, in the twenty-first century, The Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex marriages. An exclusion from one of the seven Sacraments, marriage is a commitment to help build up the community. In a 2017 statement by the Vatican, they recognized the “positive elements” of queer relationships and even acknowledged that they should be, “appreciated and valued” however in the same breath also stated that they were an “imitation of the nuptial blessing”. Critics of the Catholic Church have called out its discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community and the Vatican calls on Catholics to welcome with respect and sensitivity persons with “homosexual inclinations”. However, without the Vatican fully including queer people in important Catholic rites it’s congregations are confused on how to follow those instructions. A tradition of gender roles and heterosexuality is upheld that erases and continues to justify the marginalization of many queer and LGBTQ+ community members across the globe.
This tradition of alienating rhetoric of queer and non-binary people has historically been wielded as a violent tool of colonization to break down indigenous communities and better exploit them.
Racism and white supremacy justified the violence and exploitation of indigenous and black people by Latin America’s colonizers. Adding a religious white savior complex, the exploitation of labor, resources, and land of Latin America has adapted to fit a post-colonial capitalist system that continues to do the same thing.
In a broader context of colonization, the violent cleaving of queer people from their communities and the exploitation of people of color is not exclusive to Latin America. In Leanne Simpson’s book, As We Have Always Done it, she writes from her own perspective as a person of indigenous ancestry. She writes about the consistent “intense targeting of Indigenous bodies, self-determination, sexuality, and relationships, and this targeting continues to happen to my children”. Prior to colonization, indigenous communities did not organize under a single monarch and required communication between several subcommittees. To propel the colonizers’ capitalist goals they needed to seize control of the land and labor that indigenous people had been cultivating and cohabitating sustainably with for years. Colonizers needed to come up with how to dismantle a laterally organized society instead of a vertically organized hierarchy. When they could not simply fight off one ruler they targeted characteristics of individuality instead. The extermination of non-binary, third-gendered, non-heterosexual people from these cultures was intentional. An accumulation of rape, violence, and fear-mongering forced indigenous people to violently assimilate and internalize fear which in the present day manifests as homophobia.
The Living Dead
Though at the time Columbus’s violence towards indigenous peoples was deemed as morally corrupt, racialized slavery became the driving force of colonialism in Latin America. The Spanish encomienda system is an ironic intersection of the Catholic Church’s “responsibility to save” indigenous people and the capitalist drive of the Spanish Crown. The transatlantic slave trade ripped families and individuals from support networks. Haitian Vodou, an Afro-diasporic religion, became one of the many ways for enslaved people to cope from the separation from their cultures. For people that were not enslaved and extracted across the Atlantic Ocean, spiritual beliefs of the “living dead” zonbi explain how their loved ones could become stripped of their life and humanity.
Vodou became a belief that provided comfort, familiarity, and explanation for the extreme violence people’s enslavers were subjecting them to. From the Haitian revolution, the first declared black nation was born. Once upon a time, Dutty Boukman, a literate slave, and a manbo [priestess] offered a black pig to the lwa spirit Ezili Danto and organized with slaves from neighboring areas in order to fulfill a sacred mission to ensure the revolution would successfully overthrow the French. Or so the legend goes. This has often been characterized as the condemnation of Haiti, an ignorant understanding of the importance of Vodou deems this event as Haiti making a deal with the devil. In reality, Haitian Vodou is rooted in western African vodun and provides a sense of comfort.
Vodou is a practice in which practitioners communicate with lwa energies to fulfill their life purpose. Vodou since its conception has been inclusive of gendered and sexualities and has given queer people to see themselves represented within important cultural roles historically. Beyond Ezili Danto often thought of as a lesbian or Dambala, the highest most powerful of Vodou thought of as the creator, a significant amount of mambo (priestess) and houngan (priest) that serve the lwa are queer are plenty. Vodou’s “queer past” as author Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha coins, has developed a wide and time-withstanding network of support for queer Vodou followers that Haiti’s nationally recognized religion, Catholoiscm, does not provide.
~~Denis hurriedly rushes into a Catholic Church where she kneels to pray at a shrine of the Virgin. ~~
Unlike Catholicism, Vodou fosters a broad support network that is inclusive of various genders and sexuality. Through a relationship with lwa, people are able to achieve their interests and goals which intrinsically pushes for the self-accomplishment of queer people that is not only accepted but encouraged in their religion. Lwa spirits are considered to be forces of nature and are imagined as complex characters with flaws as well as powers, their humanity is what helps their followers draw on a pantheon of characters to aid when faced with different challenges. Similar to Catholicism, where followers can pray to ask for a saint to intercede between them and God for help when facing hardship. However, in this case, because Voudou is practiced and spoken about in a familial sense. There are families of lwa: Guede, Rada, and Petro. Lwa spirits are often addressed as “Papa” or have families themselves, including children, wives, cousins, etc.
~~Innocente, looking radiant in her ceremonial whites, dances with a childlike glee for Ezili at a Vodou ceremony. ~~
There is a pantheon of Ezili, and besides revolution, they are often associated with: love, sexuality, prosperity, pleasure, creativity, and fertility. Ezili is also considered the protector of femmes, masisi, and madivin. An oversimplification of these terms can be understood as transmasculine and transfeminine Haitians. Ezili Danto, the lwa spirit that through the medium of the mambo infused black slaves with revolutionary spirit to successfully overthrow the French. She is often imagined as a mother figure with a child and is colloquially considered a lesbian.
“Danto, whom Brown describes as a “hardworking, solitary, sometimes raging mother, is a warrior spirit who fights alongside the oppressed–particularly oppressed women…There’s one thing you should know. Dantó, she a lesbian”
As a queer guiding spirit Ezili Danto provides patronage to queer-identifying women and through Danto’s characterization as a mother heterosexual women are also embraced by her. The embracing of Vodou within Haitian culture.
Dennis is a real actress in the documentary Ezili Fréda, tell all the children; Ezili Fréda, call the community; It’s time for remembrance, and her struggle to find a job to support herself is followed throughout the film. She explains that she only feels comfortable doing “travay fanm” (women’s work) and if she is forced to find work in a different country she is not hopeful of being included in the market for these jobs, possibly because she views herself as an outsider to the jobs which would provide familiarity to her: seamstress, hairdresser or being a nail technician. Dennis quietly resigns to the fact that it is unlikely that she will conceive a child, and is devastated because she will not have a loved one to bury her.
Dancing for Ezili has provided Innocente with a little more hope to even envision a future. “Even if I can’t have children, even if I don’t have my periods, in my mind I’m a woman.” Her femininity extends beyond her physical self. She claims herself as masisi and hopes that she will be able to be in partnership with another masisi and “together become a madivine” (female same-sex couple). The difference in being able to envision and be excited about their futures is that Innocente can remember the echoing words, it’s not God that makes people that way, it’s a lwa called Grande Erzulie”.
Words wielded like the Spanish’s swords through the flesh of the Joyas. Words more powerful than the sharp teeth of the dogs unleashed at the Joyas that tore through bone with ease. These are not scenes of just homophobia or ignorance but gendercide.
Tension defines the relationship between queer people and hegemonic Catholicism in Mexican culture. Unlike the distant and omnipotent God in Catholicism, Santa Muerte is tangible. Her skinny skeletal figure should not fool you—to her devotees she is a trusted: protector, healer, all-knowing, a deliverer (to the afterlife), and not least, a cabrona. A cabrona can be understood as “a bitch” but it can also mean “bad-ass”, which is why members of Mexico’s working class identify with her. Convicts, gang members, the poor, prostitutes, children, adults, and LGBTQ+ members. Left to their own devices by their Catholic-influenced government. David Romero, an ex-Catholic Missionary through a traditionalist Catholic group, had become the leader of Misioneros del Sagrado Corazón y San Felipe de Jesús and started a home for children that had been orphaned by AIDS. Their funding was provided by the Anglican Church. Their funding was later revoked due to a terrible accident that involved the drowning of a child under their care.
Romero went on to become the founder of the “Mexico-USA Tridentine Catholic Church ” which was officially recognized as a religion in 2000. Though it was a church that was founded with the same “traditionalist” ideas from the Misioneros del Sagrado Corazón, the Church became a place that attracted devotees of Santa Muerte. Rather than outcasting part of his congregation that believed in the personification of Death, Romero embraced such thinking. He encouraged research on the compatibility of La Flaca and Catholicism. By 2003 his Church had concluded that devotion to Santa Muerte was valid. This led to a revocation of the Church’s official status from the government. At the time the PAN political party of Mexico was very heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, according to Romero. This impacted the Churches ability to receive funding from the state among other things.
Being able to practice devotion to Santa Muerte connected to a Church is important because it allows for LGBTQ+ identifying people to participate in rites that have cultural importance in Mexico. The Church of La Santa Muerte Mexicana celebrated its first gay union in 2009 while at the time the Mexican Supreme court did not make a ruling until a year later.
The devotion of Santa Muerte has the power to envelop people that are left on the outskirts of both their government and hegemonic Catholic perspectives in Mexico.
Santa Muerte’s skinny skeleton frame and Ezili’s dark complexion and unafraid yet protective eyes are different characterizations of the family they have created for doubly marginalized peoples. Ezili’s motherly characterizations have created an asand character to draw strength from. Santa Muerte’s all too familiar altars allow for her devotees to find a place within hegemonic Catholicism that they too can participate in. Not only do these motherly figures incorporate them into that religion like in Haitian Vodou but in the case of Santa Muerte, helps people position themselves within the popular culture.
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