The Animitas, a story told twice
by Lydia Nakashima Degarrod on
I will tell you two stories. The first one is in a written form, and the second is a series of mixed media paintings. Both of them tell the story of the cult of the animitas in Chile.
I grew up in in Santiago, Chile, a city that houses the spirits of the dead in small shrines on the sidewalks or roads where the deaths have occurred. Every day walking to and from school to home I used to see a small shrine built of bricks at the scene where a young man was killed in a traffic accident.
Out of respect, and also of fear of the residing soul, I used to make sure that I never walked too close to the shrine. It was regularly adorned with flowers, candles and small plaques thanking the dead man for helping people to overcome difficult moments. There are other thousands of animitas in Santiago like this shrine, some of them over a century old.
According to believers, the animitas's power to help the living is derived from the unjust nature of their deaths. It is this injustice that prevents these souls from resting in the afterlife. They are forced to remain trapped forever at the sites of their deaths, helping the living with their plights.
The contemporary cult of the animitas emerged during the rapid urbanization of the major Chilean cities during the late 19th century to the first decade of the 20th century. This practice originated in the countryside and was brought to the cities by rural migrants. Prior to this massive migration, peasants venerated the souls of famous bandits killed by the Chilean authorities. These bandits were celebrated in popular lore for sharing their stolen riches with the poor. In exchange for miracles, worshippers said prayers and left flowers and candles at the spots where the bandits had died.
When the new urban residents joined the workforce and experienced a wide range of oppressive circumstances, this practice became widespread in the cities. Because they struggled with inadequate housing, epidemics, high crime and exploitative, unhealthy living conditions, they found in the souls of those who had died violent and unjust deaths supernatural allies who could sympathize with their problems.
Throughout the twentieth century and up to today the cult of the animitas has become a tool used by those who are oppressed to obtain help that institutionalized religion don't provide, as well as to express the injustices of everyday life.
The animitas are those who have suffered a violent and unjust death in the streets of major cities. These souls tend to be victims of horrific murders, traffic accidents, state executions and anybody else whose death had captured people's imaginations by its sheer injustice.
Examples of some popular animitas in Santiago are: Carmencita, a young girl murdered in a public park fifty years ago; Romualdito, a man robbed and killed, over a century ago, upon leaving the hospital after a prolonged illness; the "Jackal of Nahueltoro," an executed criminal who had undergone a radical change of heart during his time in prison and repented of his gruesome crimes; and some of the desaparecidos—those people believed to have been brutally killed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, but whose bodies have never been found.
The animitas share in common with other shrines that memorialize urban deaths in the public space the ability of resisting the power of the cities to erase the tragic events and the individualities of the deceased. For example, anthropologist Paul Mullins views the memorials of cyclists killed in the streets of New York as acting as symbolic "open wounds" which remind pedestrians of the urban trauma caused by the accidents and call them to change the conditions that caused the accidents.
The animitas, however, differ in one aspect from these ghost bikes memorials in that they are also expressions of a popular religion which has transformed ordinary deceased people into popular saints who help the living.
My second story is presented below in a series of mixed media paintings. I created these paintings to convey the emotional and sensorial experience of living surrounded by shrines that house the souls of the dead and the beliefs associated with this popular religion. The paintings aim at revealing those textures lost in the ethnographic text as well as to imbue the artistic work with ethnographic reality.
Animitas inspired artwork by Lydia Nakashima Degarrod
According to believers, the animitas's power to help the living is derived from the unjust nature of their deaths. It is this injustice that prevents these souls from resting in the afterlife.