Sunday, August 3, 2014

Origin of the New Orleans Chapel of the Santisima Muerte

The New Orleans Chapel of the Santisima Muerte owes its existence to the teachings of Nick Arnoldi, aka Hechicero Nick. A New Jersey native, Nick spent a year in Mexico in 2001 and met an hechicero (native sorcerer) who was known as Don Gilberto within his community. When someone was born with a special gift to work within the spiritual realm for the benefit of the community he was said to have the "don." Don Gilberto passed Nick the system of working with La Muerte which consisted of the three robes of white, red, and black. Nick returned to NJ and maintained his personal connection to la Flaka, working for clients over the years. Nick and I met in MA in 2008, but it wasn't until after I returned to New Orleans that the subject of the Santa Muerte came up. Before returning she had approached me in a dream and offered a solution to a problem I was having. At that point, not having any experience with her, I was hesitant, but I accepted. She fulfilled her end of the bargain, and I repaid her as best I could. She remained content with this until about a year later when she made it known she wanted me to work with her more. I set the condition that she needed to bring me a teacher before I'd go further with her, and right after is when Nick brought his devotion and workings with her. A couple of days later Nick contacted me saying La Muerte came to him in a dream and instructed him to teach me and pass along Don Gilberto's system. 

La Muerte wasted no time in responding to my prayers through this system, and she quickly became the dominant spiritual force in my life and practices. Once I got to a comfortable point with her I asked for a major, personal favor. Within a couple of weeks she delivered what I asked for, and I knew then that this relationship was the one I'd been preparing for most of my life. So, in payment I built an outdoor shrine as my way of spreading her devotion. Around the same time, the indoor space I had set up for her grew exponentially, and she eventually took over an entire room in my home. This became the indoor, private chapel. Before I could even put on the finishing touches, Santisima began to bring other people to attend the chaplet services I hold for her, and in two and a half years there is now a very close-knit family of devotees and beginning workers who live in New Orleans and other places. We've been honored to have as guests other traditional workers of La Muerte, as well as Prof. Andrew Chesnut, the leading academic of Santa Muerte in the English-speaking world.

Tragically, Nick's life ended soon after my training in his system was completed. It seemed Santisima Muerte wanted him to pass along his teachings before she came for him. He has an altar in the chapel, and I make certain to keep his memory alive and spirit honored. Without him, none of this would have been possible. I've been blessed to have some of his friends in New Jersey contact me and send me many of his statues and devotional items to continue their service in the New Orleans Chapel. His best friend, Lorraine, who knew Nick since high school and remembers when he was in Mexico has visited, and we've exchanged stories of Nick's personal and spiritual life.

What to Call Devotees and Workers of La Santa Muerte

Although there are no universally recognized "titles" for those who devote themselves to la santisima muerte, there are a couple of them that I've seen used. It should be noted, however, that these personal descriptors are not in any way a sign of an established priesthood or organization and can be used by anyone who has developed a strong connection to la muerte. 

Quick Spanish lesson for all of us Anglophones. "La Muerte" is the Spanish word for Death. Although is doesn't have the traditional "a" ending, it is a feminine word, denoted by "la". This may be a contributing factor as to why "Saint Death" has manifested in Mexico/Central America as female. One of many. Maybe, maybe not.

"Santa Muertero" for men, "Muertera" for women. Muertero/a is a Spanish word for someone who works very heavily with the dead, the muertos. (When you add "-ero/a" to the end of a word in Spanish, it's kinda like adding "-er/-ess" to the end of an English word, making it "someone who does this.") Now, add "Santa" to Muertero, and you have "someone who is devoted to/works with Holy Death. "Sta" is the abbreviation for "Santa," which I personally like because everyone in the English speaking world thinks of Santa Claus when you write out Santa. Lol.

Another descriptor you'll see is "Santa Muertista" which usually only has the "a" ending. Personally, this seems like a borrowing from the term Espiritista as a general Spanish word for a person who works with spirits. Espiritista is used throughout the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands (but is also found in Mexico, possibly due to the Cuban diaspora, which is also why you see Lukumi and Palo there) as one who is accomplished within the realm of Espiritismo, their version of Allan Kardec spiritism (which is a whole other ball of wax!)

So, Santa Muertero/a or Santa Muertista. Take your pick. And I'm sure there are probably others out there I've yet to encounter. La Santisima Muerte is very quickly growing, changing, expanding, and one never knows exactly what to expect from her.