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Carlos Rael, a modern-day santero
Photo courtesy: Carlos A Rael, El Santero Facebook

By Joshua Pilkington

Carlos Rael adds political edge to faith-based art form

For centuries art has often been connected to religion. Whether it’s art made to worship gods of the East or the West, many of the most famous pieces on display across the world are tied to religion or worship in some way.

“Before artists like Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael were commissioned to create pieces that mirrored the experiences of the new world of the 15th and 16th centuries, the art of religion really belonged to the people,” said historian Armahn Matis. “It was the people who would depict cultic practices and ritualistic worship through wall paintings and sculptures.”

Though ancient, religious art is most commonly tied to Europe, Asia and the then-burgeoning empires of the Middle East, artist Carlos Rael added that a form of ancient art in the American continent also bears close ties to religion.

The art of the santero

“I see it as a re-identification of our culture,” said Rael, a renowned New Mexican santero. “In this modern day we have a completely different set of standards than what people had in the times of the lives of the saints. If we were to compare the lives of the saints back then to now, I would consider their lives to be somewhat like superheroes. They stood up against the Roman Empire at all odds and with death staring them in the face.”

Rael added that similar comparisons could be drawn to some figures today.

“Today we have a few courageous people who are like that,” he said. “They aren’t afraid to speak out and say what’s on their mind. Like a lot of people who have been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and other movements who have not been afraid to express themselves.”

As a modern santero, Rael has used his art form to not only call upon the European influences of the past, but also look at his own lineage and culture.

“I gather my own pigments. I make my own paints. I carve my own wood and I make my own yeso. I do everything the way things were done in the Spanish-Colonial period,” Rael said of his methods. “I use a lot of the same subject manner that was done in those times, particularly in what pertains to the history of northern New Mexico in the Spanish-Colonial period.”

Becoming an artist

Rael did not intend to become a santero, or even an artist for that matter, but an injury caused by a visit to the chiropractor left him disabled and unable to work. That incident led him down a different path: the path of the santero.

“When I came to the realization that I wasn’t going to be able to work again and I wasn’t going to be able to support my family, I began thinking a lot and drawing and praying to God asking, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to support my family?’” Rael said. “I began to draw to pass the time and I began to realize that there was something going on with what I was drawing, because what I was drawing was mainly religious subjects.”

It hit him like a brick. That was his destination. Though not lucrative, it has been a positive direction for Rael for over 20 years now.

“I don’t make large amounts of money, but I make enough to make a living,” he said. “Northern New Mexico is very much part of the Southwest art scene, especially around the Taos and Santa Fe area, we have an incredible amount of artists down here, so there is a lot of creativity around this area and I get a lot of inspiration from Hispanic culture and also from the Native American culture.”

Church meets state

Rael has also drawn upon current events as inspiration. His most recent piece depicts the Archangel Michael subduing Donald Trump.

“I became so upset with what was going on in the political outcome of the election and everything, I was really afraid of Donald Trump getting in there and I’m afraid with what’s going to happen with him,” Rael said. “I thought I could get some of the frustration out of me by drawing about it, so I began to do that.”

Another idea that Rael envisions depicts a mariachi band summoning the collapse of Trump’s border wall between the United States and Mexico, similar to the biblical account of Joshua and the walls of Jericho.

For more information on Carlos Rael’s work, including photos, visit





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