“Josephina and the Holy Spirit” begins with Santa Muerte observing a violent assassination between white gangsters in the Mexican town of Ensenada in Baja California. The coastal city was once named San Mateo and renamed Ensenada de Todos Santos or Bay of All The Saints, but later shortened to Ensenada. It was, for a time, the capital of the region and the seat of power of the American adventurer, William Walker, who attempted to take control of lands in Mexico, which he called the Republic of Lower California. Walker then declared himself President of that self created Republic. He later usurped the Presidency in Nicaragua. As strange as it might seem now, it was a practice called Filibustering that was popular in the mid to late 19th Century among American soldiers. These soldiers acted without approval of the US Government, but William Walker did manage to have his regime in Nicaragua recognized as official by President Franklin Pierce. The drive for conquest among Americans was still strong even at this time.
The Indigenous people of the area are the Yuma.
As we know, the arrival of Santa Muerte signals imminent death. Machine guns to mow down the foreigners and Mexicans alike, and time is taken to put an additional bullet in each body of the intended victims. In the scene, Santa Muerte is silent, but prior to the gunfire she exchanges a glance with a young girl. You can see her pain in the knowledge that she will soon be collecting that innocent soul. One of the things that has struck me about Lorena Izzo’s performance is that while she does not speak much, she still communicates quite a lot. Muerte claims to be unmoved by the deaths of the people that she brings to the afterlife, but increasingly, you see a sense of injustice and anger at the deaths, such as those of the Mexican bystanders - especially the little girl. As you may recall from my first column, the present-day cult of Sante Muerte is one of outsiders, LGBTQ, the poor, and sex workers, among others. Santa Muerte’s people are those who feel rejected by society. The Chicanos who are attacked by the police for defending their homes in Los Angeles, the Mexicans gunned down in Ensenda by whites, the sex workers who are forced into prostitution to survive, the Pachucos who show their pride in who they are and who are proud of their sexuality, the poor who have no voice in government.
I think that this is part of the purpose that Muerte plays in the story. I think that she is the quiet and mournful witness whose outrage at the unfolding events continues to grow. She is, so far at least, the supernatural force for good and happens to be a Latino character. Remember that. Remember that she did answer Maria’s prayer to bring Raul back to life when the doctor at the hospital told Tiago that he had no chance. The connection is the current cult’s belief that Muerte can be petitioned for grace or favors and I believe this is part of the character’s core. Penny Dreadful’s Muerte can grant petitions, but she seems only willing to grant those that are in the service of justice. The person she is saving or the action she takes has to balance the scales. In this, she is the intensely moral flip side of Magda’s chaotic trickster.
Another thing that I don’t think is a coincidence is that the scene directly after the massacre is a scene of Tiago discovering the Pachucos who were picked up in the raid at the Crimson Cat are being held in the city jail. He sees the sadistic cop Riley (Rod McLachlan) brutally torturing a young Pachuco while “interrogating” him. Tiago can no longer take it and attacks Riley himself to stop the beating. His captain, Ned Vanderhoff, intervenes and tells him to do his job if he wants the police brutality to stop.
Councilman Townsend finds himself facing the opposition of Councilwoman Beck in the Transportation Committee meeting. He is completely outclassed and loses the argument after announcing that Via Hermosa, Nazi agent Richard Goss’ company, will be taking over construction of the Arroyo Seco. Councilwoman Beck informs him that the Parkway can be re-routed easily to spare Belvedere Heights and blocks him into a trap with his own duplicitous words. He is so enraged by what Beck has achieved that he yells at Alex/Magda in public and storms off.
Lewis has a talk with his female friend, Dottie Minter (Lin Shaye) who accompanied him during his surveillance of the Nazis. He tells her that he is so desperate because of the things he now knows about the Nazis’ plans that he has resolved to ask for help from Benny Berman (Brad Garrett), a fearsome gangster who is one of the Jewish Mafia's lieutenants in Los Angeles.
Tiago breaks into the beach home that Hazlett and Molly shared. The home is clearly still occupied and he cannot ignore the truth of Molly’s relationship with a married man. His disappointment turns to anger when Molly arrives. She has no problem admitting that she was having an affair with Hazlett and coldly tells him she never wants to see him again and to leave. Molly’s arc parallels the life of the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson - whom Sister Molly’s character is based on. McPherson disappeared in 1926 and caused a scandal that led to at least two deaths. That’s how popular she was and how fanatical her followers were. McPherson vanished for a month and reappeared in the desert near Agua Prieta in the state of Sonora, Mexico, claiming to have been kidnapped. There were many rumors that surrounded that disappearance, but the one that the police seriously investigated was the one involving the simultaneous disappearance of Kenneth Ormiston, a married engineer who worked at the Christian radio station that McPherson’s Foursquare Church owned. The two knew each other well since Ormiston was her radio operator during her broadcasts. The suspicion was centered on a beach house in Carmel-By-The_Sea, California because eyewitness accounts said that McPherson had been sighted in the area during the alleged kidnapping. Ormiston was known to have been having an affair with a mystery woman in the cottage. He denied that the woman was McPherson, but the investigation of fraud went all the way to the grand jury before the jury voted that there was not sufficient evidence to proceed. McPherson continued on in her ministry and the mystery was never fully resolved.
Lewis Michener meets with the gangster Benny Berman in the cemetery at the grave of his friend, Anton Chevic. Though Berman seems none too pleased to be meeting with a cop, Lewis explains his fears about Nazis in Los Angeles and tells Berman about the dangers of the V-2 rocket. He adds that his friend in the grave before them was killed by those same Nazis in Los Angeles. Lewis says that he is scared and needs help from Berman, whose boss, Meyer Lansky, sends guns to Irgun, a Zionist Jewish paramilitary organization that operated from 1931 to 1948.
Berman warns Michener to never say the name of the organization again. Irgun operated under the ideology of Revisionist Zionism, a concept that was created by Ze'ev Jabotinsky. The ideology states that “every Jew had the right to enter Palestine” and encompassed the belief that Jewish settlers had the right to occupy the entire territory of Palestine. While I couldn’t find direct evidence of any covert shipments to Irgun or other Isreali forces in Palestine before WWII from Lansky, his organization, Murder Incorporated - which was founded by Lansky and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, definitely had an agreement with Judge Nathan Perlman and Rabbi Stephen Wise to bust up German American Bund meetings on the East Coast. True to his word and the agreement with the Judge and Rabbi, Lansky’s killers broke arms and legs, terrified Bund members, but murdered no one. That’s some restraint from an organization that is credited with between 400 to 1000 contract killings, considering exactly who they were fighting. Lansky did contribute once WWII officially started.
Perhaps this should help put to rest the false belief that the Jewish people were always passive in the face of Nazi terror. They weren’t. As it happened, Meyer Lanksy refused any payment for the services of the members of Murder Incorporated who participated in these attacks. They did it for their people.
Benny Berman, who seems both sinister and oddly vulnerable, mocks the thought of Jewish solidarity bitterly, noting that he had sought entrance into every Jewish Temple in Los Angeles and been rejected. He too is an outsider, even among his own people, because he is a criminal. Like many outsiders, he desperately desires inclusion, but is frustrated at every turn. Lewis points out that if the Nazis get what they want, it doesn’t matter that he’s a stone cold killer, to the Nazis, he’s just another “greasy Yid” to be disposed of. He reminds Benny that the only area that they could get approval for a Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles was in Elysian Park. This is the example that finally gets Berman to soften.
Elsa Branson, again Magda in disguise, attends (with her “son” Frank) the birthday party of Peter Craft’s son Tom at his home in Pasadena. Members of the German American Bund who marched in Pershing Square with Craft are there and seem disaffected. One man, Herman Ackerman (Ethan Peck), seems particularly domineering and pushes the idea of getting on the radio to spread the message. One of the other Bund members insists that “Jews own the radio” which is a long standing Antisemitic canard spouted by racists, Nazis, and even Rupert Murdoch in the fairly recent past. Ackerman insists that they should work with anyone, even “that woman from the Temple,” obviously referring to Sister Molly. Peter sees Elsa and rushes to talk to her. When Ackerman comes over and seems interested, Craft does his best to keep them from going off alone. Peter also tries to hide the true nature of the group from her. Elsa is asked to sing a “beer hall song” and responds with the song Ein Heller und ein Batzen, which is ominous in this context. The innoculous tune later became one of the marching songs of The Wehrmacht or the Unifed Nazi Army during World War II. The irony is thick in this moment, possibly to Elsa/Madga’s amusement.
While the children break open a piñata, which I’m sure speaks of their housekeeper Maria Vega’s influence, Elsa has a passive aggressive conversation with Peter’s angry and dissatisfied wife, Linda [Piper Perabo). Linda tells Elsa that Peter is not the kind man she thinks he is. She says that Elsa should ask Peter about Essen. I think that Linda is referring to the The Night of Long Knives in 1934, which was HItler’s purge of the Sturmabteilung aka the Brownshirts who had outlived their usefulness to him. It was a violent massacre of the German members of the Nazi Party that Hitler feared were disloyal and dangerous like Ernst Röhm. Linda is implying to Elsa that Peter was part of a bloody act against his fellow Germans, despite his seemingly gentle demeanor. None of these warnings or barriers do anything to keep Elsa and Peter from surrendering to their desires as Elsa/Magda intended, and Craft finally crosses the line into infidelity with Elsa. After the party and during the sleepover, the boys enjoy the tradition of telling spooky stories to each other while holding a flashlight under their chin. Frank volunteers to be next and tells a terrifying and much more sophisticated story of a child who was kidnapped nearby. In the story, after the ransom was paid, the kidnapper pushed the dead and mutilated body of the child out of his car. The father was unaware that his daughter was dead because her eyes were held open with wires. Tom is deeply affected by this story and during the night sees the girl in his room, screaming at him. This is another one of the series’ moments of pure horror and it’s a really disturbing one. In Los Angeles history, this story is true. 12-year-old Marion Parker was kidnapped and murdered in in 1927, in the same grotesque fashion as Frank describes. As an additional level of horror, the girl’s missing limbs were later discovered in Elysian Park.
Councilman Townsend is found by Kurt (Dominic Sherwood), an agent of Richard Goss, with a young male prostitute. Kurt abruptly murders the young man and drags the Councilman from the hotel. The terrified Townsend doesn’t know why this is happening and fears he will be murdered next. But Kurt takes him another hotel and does something unexpected: offers to have sex with him. Unbeknownst to Townsend, he is being set up by Goss and Alex, filmed through a two-way mirror. It recalls the true story of a politician who was accused of being gay and potentially in league with Nazi spies in this period of American history. His name was David I.Walsh and he was eventually cleared by the FBI. Of course, this is only one example in a long history of men who were threatened and outed as a way to neutralize their power or for blackmailers to realize a material gain. It was an unjust tool of control and punishment used on gay men for centuries while homosexuality was illegal.
Mateo and Josefina are returning home from a shopping trip when Officer Riley finds them and sees an opportunity to punish them. He quickly realizes that Mateo is the same Chicano that Fly Rico (Sebastian Chacon) saved and he decides to dole out a hideous punishment to Mateo by raping and degrading Josefina. Officer Riley is a lot like the soldiers who accompanied the Spanish Mission Friars in California and some of the Caucasian settlers of the Eastern United States. Both the Conquistadors and some those settlers would rape Native women whenever they pleased. They used rape as a punishment and a tool of colonization.
It is a tactic that is still being used in our time: in Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Iraq. It might be easier for us to think that now Americans wouldn’t do this, but American soldiers have, as recently as 2006 in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, gang raped a 14-year-old girl and murdered her and her entire family. The only reason we know about this crime is because they were caught. Make no mistake: to women, this sequence is also horror. Riley follows the pattern of colonizers who like to use rape and sexual subjugation to assert dominance over a people whom he has contempt for. He furthermore routinely keeps young Chicana women on drugs and available for him to abuse sexually. This practice was known to Lewis Michener and to the Pachucos of the Crimson Cat and is nothing new in the history of colonization and genocide.
Mateo is enraged, but Josefina begs him not to tell anyone. When they get back home, the family discovers Mateo’s new Pachuco tattoo and a truly Mexican family fight begins. Amid all the shouting, Josefina feels alone and cannot cope. Her family is too busy being angry at Mateo and ignores her pain. Granted they don’t know, but both Mateo and Josefina leave home to seek their own types of solace from other sources. Mateo with his new friends, the Pachucos, and Josefina in the ministry of Sister Molly and God. Mateo seeks the vengeance of physical violence and Josefina seeks the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
Much of this show and the series revolves around the choices that we make as human beings and how they shape our lives. Mateo, Josefina, and Lewis are presented with choices at the end of this episode. While Mateo and Lewis’ choices are more visceral, Josefina’s spiritual choice also may bear some unpleasant fruit in the future, judging by what we are starting to uncover about the true nature of Sister Molly.
Mateo is given a choice, with Rio/Magda watching, to avenge Josefina and the family honor. There is another gruesome moment of horror in this choice.
Lewis Michener is given the choice to commit an act that is antithetical to him as a man, but one that would get him the help he needs. They both make these deadly decisions and you have to wonder what effect this will have on all of them. They’ve chosen a course, but no one ever knows exactly where that choice will lead them.
I do have to mention that the sequence with Lewis and Barry Berman in the fish shop seems like a homage to the classic Mafia film, The Godfather. Why? Much like Luca Brasi, Leonard Schiff (Terrance J. Rotolo) sleeps with the fishes.
Dolores Quintana is a Chicana actor and writer from Southern California who lives spiritually in her beloved Los Angeles at all times. She has written for Pocho.com, Nightmarish Conjurings, The Theatre @Boston Court and late period Buddyhead. All praise, complaints, celebratory rituals and debate challenges should be directed at the author on Twitter.com.