[published in the London Guardian Weekly in 2007]
Although Mexico is predominantly Catholic, their Church has been facing some stiff competition recently. In part due to the pressing economic problems most people in Mexico are experiencing these days, the Church’s offering of eternal salvation has been losing ground to other religions and practices that offer help with daily problems of existence.
The Catholic Church attempted to ensure their monopoly on religion and spiritual matters when they established their bloody Inquisition in Mexico just one year after the Conquest of Tenochtitlán/Mexico City. From that time one, the great majority of Mayan and Aztec writings were burned, most of their temples and images of gods were destroyed, and indigenous spiritual practices were prohibited and punished. In general, though, the Inquisition was relatively lenient with indigenous people, while treating harshly the thousands of African slaves (especially the Moslems) brought to Mexico, many of whom were sentenced to torture or death for such crimes as denying Christianity and witchcraft. Most of the African slaves in Mexico publicly accepted Catholicism, but in private continued to worship their orishas disguised as Catholic saints (Spanish slave masters invented the term Santeria, or "Way of the Saints," a derogatory way of describing the exaggerated attention Africans paid to saints). Due to the almost three hundred years of slave trade in Mexico, as well as Mexico’s close cultural ties to Cuba, African-based culture and religious practices have deeply influenced local religious and spiritual practices.
The Church’s persecution of pre-Hispanic curative and spiritual practices and Santeria was continued with the emergence of Mexico’s medical institutions (the Medical School was located in the same building that had housed the Inquisition), and the exclusion of all native religious and spiritual practices was ensured up until the 19th century by requiring all doctors to prove that their Spanish heritage was free of any and all mixed blood. Yet even today, most Mexicans get sick and cure themselves at times in ways that the medical establishment doesn’t recognize or approve. People (especially women) in Mexico often complain about ‘frights,’ ‘evil airs,’ ‘evil eyes,’ and ‘nerves,’ which the medical world tends to view as only psychosomatic symptoms, and for which they have no cure.
To treat these and other problems, people often seek help from curanderos and santeros whose treatment often include the use of limpias, a ritual practice in which evil spirits caused by envy, jealousy, or rage are driven from a person’s body. In addition, help and advice for marital, amorous, economic and tax problems, all of which directly affect people’s mental and spiritual health, is increasingly sought from La Santa Muerte, the ‘outlaw’ saint with close ties to Aztec gods and rituals that is robbing the Catholic Church of a sizable part of its constituency, especially among the poor and criminal element.
Perhaps the biggest competition to the Catholic Church these days, though, is the Pare de Sufrir (Stop Suffering) movement of Protestant evangelists from Brazil who have been converting giant old movie theaters in Mexico City into temples where they hold mass ‘rallies,’ and who also reach out to sufferers through their late night television program. These Brazilian ministers are tireless, fast-talking men with thick Brazilian accents, shiny dark suits and slicked back hair, who tag-team sermonize for hours, selling ‘miracle cures’ for a small fee.
To counter the attraction of these other spiritual practices which offer personalized attention and dramatic cures, the Catholic Church in Mexico has had recourse to one of its most controversial practices, namely, exorcism.
According to Father Mendoza, one of the eight exorcists authorized by the Vatican to operate within Mexico City, over the past few years there has been an outbreak of ‘diabolical possessions’ in Mexico. Father Mendoza, a short, balding, corpulent man, looks like he just stepped out of a medieval monastery, and his discourse about all the enemies of God and the Church seems to harken back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the New World. Mendoza believes there are more diabolical possessions these days than ever before in the history of man, due in large part to the rise in the last decades of hippies, rock and roll, drugs, satanic symbols and cults, New Age, and Protestantism. According to Father Mendoza, the majority of people who ask for help from the Church’s exorcists are people who have ‘opened the door to the Devil” by using Ouija boards, or those who have dabbled in Santeria, witchcraft, shamanism, Tarot readings or limpias.
Each week, up to 40 people who believe they are possessed seek Father Mendoza’s services. Mendoza states that he sends these people to be screened by psychologists, psychiatrists and medical doctors, and in the end around one in four are deemed to be suffering from the influence of the devil. Possessed people can be recognized by their aggressiveness and by a hatred of all sacred Catholic symbols. Exorcism helps drive out this hatred, and thus, the devil, from the body of the person.
Father Mendoza holds his exorcism sessions, which can last up to five hours, every Friday at noon in a church on the outskirts of Mexico City. During these marathon sessions, the devil is ‘asked’ to leave the body of the person in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and through the power of the saints. People are asked to bring salt, water, oil, and candles to clean the objects related to their possession, such as fetishes, images or amulets from their houses and workplace.
Mendoza calls these sessions minor exorcisms, to be distinguished from the diabolical possessions where the person speaks foreign tongues, has the strength of several men, and has the ability to predict things that are happening far away (a phenomenon he has never witnessed). In minor possessions there are no spectacular scenes of heads spinning around or projectile green vomit, as portrayed in The Exorcist, a film which Mendoza believes gives a bad view of the practice and even ‘opens doors’ for the devil.
According to one of the official exorcists in Rome, exorcists are treated badly within the Church, often seen as crazy or fanatics. In Mexico, however, exorcists are well regarded, as they represent a healthy source of revenue for the church (contributions are suggested for these sessions), and they help compete with the other religious and pagan practices that also offer services of liberating people from evil spirits and possessions. Exorcism is not only the Church’s most effective weapon to expel evil spirits from it followers, it is also an attempt to expel foreign influences from the spirits and minds of Mexicans.