Narco-Saints Are Melding Catholicism with the Drug Trade in Mexico
Since the 1970s, Mexico has been plagued with high-volume drug traffickers attempting to satiate the United States’ demand for low-cost narcotics, resulting in country-wide violence and guerrilla warfare in the streets. In Mexico, a rapidly adopted narco-culture built on the back of folk Catholicism has transformed from back-alley prayers to narco-saint Jesús Malverde into public altars for Santa Muerte, Lady of the Holy Death.
Patrick Polk is a professor at the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures, as well as a curator of Latin American and Caribbean Arts. His current exhibit at UCLA’s Fowler Museum takes on representations of narco-culture, along with marginalized religious icons and unrecognized sacred figures from Latin America and the United States. Called Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners, the collection plays on folk legends and the drug traffickers and impoverished who rely on them as nonjudgmental sources of strength and protection. I sat down with the bespectacled, bearded professor, who has an upside-down tattoo of St. Expedite on his right arm.
VICE: Where does your interest in narco-saints start?
Patrick Polk: Well, I got my MA and PhD in folklore here at UCLA, so my interests have fundamentally been religions and ritual traditions of the African diaspora and also popular religion and religious art in the United States. A lot of my work has been where Europe and Native America and Latin America and Africa sort of collide in Los Angeles, particularly with the way in which religion, material culture, and visual spirituality mix and mingle and reshape in LA.
Not a lot of saints here.
I’m from an even more sinful place: Las Vegas. But I love to drive around LA and just look and see what kind of things pop out. I’ve done exhibitions on storefront murals, muffler sculptures, little rider bicycles. A lot of folk art in general and religious art in the sense of the vernacular.