Devotion to Saint Death

The Washington Post/December 6, 2009

Mexico City - On the first day of each month, one of the most unusual religious congregations in Mexico gathers here at Alfareria Street in a tough barrio that even aspiring outlaws regard as a place to watch your back.

In the late afternoon, thousands of acolytes arrive in the Tepito neighborhood, home to the wildest black market in Mexico, where truckloads of pirated goods -- from bootlegged Disney DVDs to stolen vials of swine flu vaccine -- are trafficked in back alleys where police fear to go, and God help the unwary.

So perhaps it makes sense that they come here cradling portable altars bearing a statute of a female skeleton, often sporting a Barbie wig and wrapped in a sequined gown -- a specter the Lonely Planet guide says bears "an eerie resemblance to Mrs. Bates from the film Psycho" -- a sexualized grim reaper wielding a scythe in one hand and a globe in the other. The icon represents one of the most popular cults in Mexico: Santa Muerte, or Saint Death.

The devotion to Santa Muerte rattles many, even in Mexico. She is widely and purposefully misunderstood. The media focus on the lurid cult as a sign of the country's descent into new-millennial madness, a perfect partner for a danza macabra, played out against the backdrop of a modern plague -- the drug war -- and its obsessions with body counts and ritualized decapitation.

The Catholic Church has rejected the cult, calling it demonic, and the Mexican military has swept across the border region, destroying roadside shrines built in the saint's honor. The authorities have condemned Santa Muerte as a "narco-saint," worshipped by drug traffickers, cartel assassins and dope slingers.

But the worship is more a reflection of contemporary Mexico, says the anthropologist J. Katia Perdigón Castañeda, the author of "La Santa Muerte: Protector of Mankind." The cult is an urban pop amalgam, New Age meets heavy metal meets Virgin of Guadalupe. It is no accident that it is also cross-cultural -- that the centers of worship are the poor, proud heart of Mexico City and the violent frontier lands of Laredo, Juarez and Tijuana. The cult borrows equally from Hollywood and the Aztec underworld. Altars, necklaces and tattoos honoring Santa Muerte also make appearances in Mexican American neighborhoods from Los Angeles to Boston.

"The believers may be drug dealers, doctors, carpenters, housewives. The cult accepts all. No matter the social status or age or sexual preference. Even transsexuals. Even criminals. That's very important, that the cult of Santa Muerte accepts everyone," Perdigón told me, "because death takes one and all."

Where mainstream Mexican Catholicism promises a better life in the hereafter, "central to the devotion of Santa Muerte is the fact that the believers want a miracle, a favor, in the present, in this life, not when they are dead," Perdigón said. "They want help now."

Enriqueta Romero began to worship Santa Muerte more than 50 years ago. Now the mother of seven is the patron of this patron saint in Tepito. She and her family tend the main altar in the neighborhood where the faithful gather each month. An hour-long devotional rosary is recited by the thousands of people who close down the streets, so it's like being in church -- if your church includes supplicants smoking big, fat joints.

During the service, the faithful promise devotion while imploring for miracles large and small -- for work, health, money, love and, sometimes, for protection from enemies corporeal or spiritual. "Santa Muerte may give something different to each person," Romero explains. "It depends on the problems that each person has. Maybe a pregnant woman will pray for the health of her baby. Or a man will pray for a job."

After the rosary is recited, the crowd mingles and begins to form a line snaking several blocks to enter the shrine. As they wait, holding images of the saint in their arms, the believers make offerings. Some place cigarettes or candies at the feet of the saint. Others blow marijuana smoke in her face. There are gifts of apples, coins, flowers, tequila, bread.

The faithful include many young goth Mexicans, dressed in black, with tattoos and piercings. But instead of fulfilling the sinister stereotype that they worship Santa Muerte to help them smuggle dope, several of the faithful told me they prayed to the deity to keep them away from drugs.

"I ask her to save my son, to keep him from harm, from prison, from the police, to protect him from the drinking and the marijuana, to help him find work," said Carmen Quintero, 44, who said she believed in Saint Death with all heart. "She takes," Quintero said, "but she also gives."

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