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Paying tribute to death: Santa Muerte enjoys devout following among working-class folk, gangsters in rough neighborhoods of the capital.

In the heart of one of Mexico City's roughest neighborhoods, Death is ever-present, and not just the risk of it on the streets of violent Tepito--parts of which are a no-go zone for police. An increasing number of people are flocking to a popular street shrine there to Santa Muerte or Holy Death, an unofficial patron saint who is not recognized by the Catholic Church.

Dressed in a shimmering gown, a tiara perched on the hair covering her skull and her skeletal fingers dripping with gold rings and notes in yen, pesos, dollars and pounds, Santa Muerte watches over Alfareria Street from the glass box in which she is encased.

Every day, gangsters, petty criminals and ordinary Mexicans visit the shrine to pray to Death for Life. Often they pray first to God to ask for permission to pray to Death. Some will ask for protection before carrying out a robbery or a major drug-running operation, while others will simply ask for good health for their family.

"She doesn't ask questions. She doesn't ask if you are looking to do good or evil. Her followers believe that after God, Death is the most dominant image and powerful figure in the world," said writer and poet Homero Aridjis, who recently published a book of short stories entitled "Santa Muerte."

"The poorest and the richest in the neighborhood come here," said taxi driver Mario Juarez, 35, sporting large tattoos on his forearms and neck. Driving a taxi through the city's dangerous neighborhoods, "she provides a little more security, and you have to respect that."

PART OF THE CULTURE

The lead story "Santa Muerte" of Aridjis' latest work was based on a decadent birthday party he attended of a powerful politician involved in drug trafficking where he first encountered the cult.

At the party, beauty queens from different Mexican states and Latin American nations offer drinks, drugs and sex to the wealthy guests, comprising Mexico's political and business elite, from governors and police chiefs to judges and bishops.

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All are portrayed as utterly corrupt and amoral. The climax of the story is a scene in which a state governor and a prominent actor are sacrificed in a gruesome rite at a clandestine chapel to Santa Muerte in the host's home as punishment for betraying a fellow drug trafficker. The sacrifice is fiction, but the existence of the private chapel in the home of the host--whose true identity the author is careful not to reveal--was not, Aridjis said.

"There are two kinds of people who worship Santa Muerte, the high-level participants in organized crime who have hidden chapels in their houses and the common people, housewives, couples, children, policemen and vendors selling smuggled goods and drugs on the streets," he said.

Reverence for death is a national characteristic in Mexico, as evidenced by the mass celebration of the Day of the Dead, when Mexicans cook up a feast for their departed and set up beautifully tended altars to the dead in their homes.

Whereas Westerners are often squeamish about death and its accessories, Mexican artisans delight in showing death personified in often humorous scenes, and bakers fashion a range of candy and bread treats in the form of skulls for the November occasion. Since Mexican cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posadas created the caricature of Death called La Catrina, often depicted as an elegant skeleton in a wide-brimmed hat and long fitted dress, the image has become a fixture of Mexican folklore.

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Aridjis said the Mexican obsession with death dates back to before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Certain ancient Indian civilizations worshipped a god of death called Mictlantecuhtli and in some cultures the sacred calendar culminated in human sacrifice.

With the advent of Spanish priests who converted the indigenous Mexicans, the cult of worshipping death faded but in recent years it has begun to be revived, particularly in more violent northern states that are home to drug cartels.

"It is a syncretism between the pre-Colombian worship of death and the Christian sanctification of death," said Aridjis, noting that members of the nation's elite are more surreptitious about their practice of the cult, maintaining secret altars at home.

SELLING THE SCYTHE

In the Sonora Market, famous for the range of witches brews and cleansing herbs on offer, stalls selling paraphernalia relating to Santa Muerte have multiplied as vendors cash in on the cult. Where just two years ago, images of Santa Muerte could only be found in two stalls, today a whole corridor is devoted to the phenomenon.

Customers can buy Santa Muerte images in every color, size and shape, some looking more like the Grim Reaper, some dandy in top hat and tails and others coyly dressed in feminine attire. The blue Santa Muerte for instance takes the human form of a pretty young girl, whereas the red one represents passion, according to the salesgirl.

The latter comes with a detachable right hand. "You take off her hand when you want something and don't give it back if she hasn't given you the boyfriend you wanted. It's a way of punishing her," said Karina Perez, a salesgirl at one of the stalls.

SIGNIFICANCE OF COLOR

Similarly, worshippers buy candles to light to Santa Muerte, colored according to their prayers--yellow for money, red for passion, white for protection and health, green for luck in legal matters and black to request retribution for an enemy's wrongdoing. But burning a black candle is a dangerous move, according to Aridjis, because it's like entering into a pact with evil. "It's the most violent candle. It's a deal. If you ask a favor, you have to pay it back in some way," he said.

People buy the image of the saint that reflects their wishes and needs, many setting up altars in their homes. These normally comprise an image of Santa Muerte, a glass of water, a tequila shot and an apple or two. In addition, there are herbal limpias, or cleansing concoctions, incense sticks, perfumes, candles, pendants and keyrings bearing the image of Santa Muerte--every trinket that can be imagined packs the stands of the market. The salesgirls often impart advice and recommendations to followers of the cult, both on ways of worshipping Santa Muerte and on personal problems.

On a recent day at the market, one of the girls convinced a customer to purchase a full herbal limpia, a watermelon scented candle and some special lotion in the hope of resolving his problems with his wife and in his work as a fruit-and-vegetable vendor. At the next door stall, an elderly man, a middle-aged woman and a young girl queued to buy images of Santa Muerte.

Business is especially brisk at these stalls prior to the first day of every month when there is a nighttime ceremony for Santa Muerte at the Tepito shrine. At midnight the night before, she is given a different colored gown and hundreds of worshippers flock to pay her homage. In March, she was dressed in a shiny white gown to suggest protection, according to Enriqueta Romero, who tends the shrine; for all of April she will wear a robe of blue. Supposedly, she has gowns to last until 2007.

At the ceremony, an appointed priest reads out the names of around 200 people who are in jail or ill, for whom relatives have requested protection from Santa Muerte. Devotees lay huge bouquets of exotic flowers, colored candles and offerings of fruit and tequila at her altar and bring images and medallions of her for the priest to bless by blowing cigar smoke on them. Later, mariachis arrive to serenade Santa Muerte with love songs, and the festivities continue late into the night.

"I bring a cigarette or a beer so that she looks out for me and my husband," said a 20-year-old woman who declined to be named.

MECCA OF TEPITO

Romero has kept an altar to Santa Muerte for the past 40 years, a tradition she inherited from her grandmothers. Less than three years ago she decided to move the shrine to the pavement outside her home since it was too big. "I never imagined so many people would come here. It's the faith of the people," she told BUSINESS MEXICO.

Romero says Santa Muerte has worked numerous miracles for her, including saving her life. Once a group of gangsters arrived with pistols and approached her in a threatening manner but the saint made her invisible to them, she said. "Thanks to God, Holiest Death covered us with her hand and the men went away, who knows what they wanted."

Romero keeps tens of glasses of tequila, whisky and brandy topped up at the foot of the altar and leaves out Mexican specialties like tamales and sopes for the unofficial saint in the morning and at night. Others bring sandwiches or whole dishes and leave them before the altar throughout the day. Among the more unusual offerings are the piles of apples and eggplants supposedly representing abundance that are crammed into the glass box. "We put the eggplants there because she likes them," said Romero.

To one side of the shrine, a sea of multicolored candles flickers on the pavement--traces of the worshippers' prayers whose content can be guessed by the colors. As well as tending the shrine, Romero, whose rasping voice is that of a three-pack-a-day smoker, runs a small shop selling candles of all colors, various Santa Muerte merchandise and, for devotees who work up an appetite praying, chicken wings, nuggets and hamburgers.

NEXT TO THE VIRGIN

On the nearby street corner, stands a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Mexican version of Mary and the nation's patron saint. Most worshippers do not see any conflict in the proximity of the two images, insisting they can pay homage to both the Christian saints and Santa Muerte without offending anyone.

For most of them, God comes first, then Death followed by Virgin Mary and the host of saints. They genuflect and cross themselves in front of Santa Muerte as they would before Christian images.

"We go to mass every eight days," said street vendor Helena Hernandez, 56. "One thing is the mass and this is another. We must pray to Santa Muerte as we do to Guadalupe."

Despite the fact the shrine is located in the heart of the run-down neighborhood, where peddlers hawk everything from ecstasy pills and viagra to firearms, the shrine has the aura of a haven where worshippers are not in danger. Heavily tattooed gangsters sporting designer chains and sunglasses cruise by in their sportscars, sometimes stopping at the shrine to touch the screen encasing Santa Muerte or to leave a gift to her.

Ordinary grandmothers, fathers, youths and children rub shoulders with shady characters without risk. "You can't ask those who come here, 'Are you rich or poor? Are you a murderer?'" said Romero. "It's their faith that counts."

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Nadia Tate is a Mexico City-based freelance writer.

Photos by Margaret Myers
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Author:Tate, Nadia
Publication:Business Mexico
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:May 1, 2004
Words:1839
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