VENEZUELA’S THUG SAINTS

Imagine praying to the plaster statue of a young man on a motor bike, with dark tinted goggles and a gun stuck in his belt. A santo malandro, or thug saint, one of a ‘court’ of spirits in the virtual queendom of María Lionza, a Venezuelan deity of popular origin. The first images of the Queen herself were pastoral, a beautiful young woman against a background of nature, ‘protector of waters, goddess of harvests’. The distance from one image to the other – from the lovely nature goddess to the rough city delinquent – covers a little over a hundred years and the tumultuous historical and political developments in Venezuela during that time.

First, however, I should define the premises of a spiritualistic cult. This one, though such a European term is used to define it, and it was influenced also by the spiritualist movements of the late 19th century in Europe, has strong roots in indigenous beliefs and practices. The acrid-smelling cigars, for example, that are used to help achieve contact with the ‘other’ dimension are a native inheritance, and smoked even by young children, who can be seen at the cult’s altars puffing away with their eyes half closed. Continue reading