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Eye of
the Whale
The Man Who
Knew Too Much


Part 1

SANTA MUERTE (Holy Death) - Part 2


from REFORMA, Sunday, May, 2004

Next to the chapel of the Santa Muerte in Alfareria Street is the store belonging to Raimundo, Dona Queta's husband There the faithful buy statues and candles that they light and place on the ground to the left of the altar.

Dona Queta remembers how, when she built the chapel with the help of a mason, her husband and someone who gave her the image, people would scream at her to stop, that she was a satanist and she was going to die. "How was it able to expand so quickly?" I ask. "The religion already existed, it just took off. People pass it on to their children. There are people who use it for evil but that is nothing to do with us", she answers. And her son Jurek, a dentist by profession, adds: "In Mexico, our roots, death was always worshipped. That's where it began. This is a very powerful image, concealing a lot of magnetism. While granting it so much power people ask for many things, help in love, in their wars with other people".

A half-crazed woman passes by and insults Dona Queta. She takes no notice of her, perhaps realizing her good fortune not to live in the days of the Inquisition, when the Dominicans would have declared her a heretic and burned her alive. Then she tells me that one day when she was walking in Tepito with some friends attackers, pistols in hand, got out of a truck to assault her. The Santa Muerte protected them by making them invisible and the evil doers left. In tough neighborhoods you have to be careful. On another occasion an Englishwoman with me started walking off by herself. As we watched her disappear around the corner she said to me, "hey, tell blondie not to go alone or she won't come back."

"Because of everything that has happened, we have lost a lot of credibility with the Church. The Church says that the Santa Muerte doesn't exist, but it doesn't say she's bad," she adds, showing me a canvas with a picture of the Santa Muerte. "The picture on a blanket that someone brought is over there. You wash it and wash it and she never comes out, isn't that right little one? The image stamped itself only on the canvas." At that moment a neighbor comes by with her children on the way back from school, she crosses herself. A woman with a baby comes to ask for good fortune. Another one kneels at the altar, saying: "she protects my husband, my children and my grandchildren. For me she is a great miracle worker".

A bill collector called Raimundo Medina arrives on a motorcycle, and points out that the Santa Muerte has helped him to still be here (in this world), and he lights a white candle. A boy wearing sunglasses says an 'our Father' and prays for protection for his father who is a bodyguard. "Praying to her is not an act against God; before praying to her we ask for God's permission," Queta explains, while a funeral procession passes by the altar on its way to burial.

"I have great faith in the Santa Muerte because she helps me in everything I ask of her", says a woman. Before people used to assault me and I had a number of problems." "She and the virgin of Guadalupe are on the same level", concludes a male worshipper of the image, wearing lots of medallions and necklaces. "I was kneeling over there. She appeared before me here (in the chapel in Tepito). She gave me this medallion. I went to the corner and she was gone". "Praying to her is not an act against God, before doing it we ask God's permission," assures Dona Queta.

"I work as a policeman and I have many enemies, police as well as criminals. In the Colonia Roma there is a lot of theft", says a man with a silver tooth buying two black candles. "What are they for", I ask. "For protection". "And where are you going to place the other black candle?" I ask as I watch him light one and place it on the floor, because, as in "Death's Adopted Child" by the brothers Grimm, where millions and millions of candles, large, medium and small, representing the duration of human life burn in a huge cave, so it is here. "Ah, I don't know yet", he replies, moving towards his car with the mysterious candle in his hands. "The other day there was a raid in Tepito, and the police found altars in many houses with images of the Santa Muerte. Likewise among the police", another policeman tells me, wearing Santa Muerte medallions. "Every two weeks I leave her candles and flowers".

Four girls about eight years old, poor, bright and pretty, who are always roaming around the street where the altar is, and whose parents are in jail for selling cocaine, marijuana, assault and battery, come and touch the glass window of the Santa Muerte, asking her to protect their parents and help them get released soon. "My daddy is on vacation (in prison)", says Carla.

A man with a tattoo on his back says, "I was put in a cell with a prisoner who was a true devotee of the Santa Muerte. His ferocity and nocturnal practices terrified me", referring to the fact that some use the cult for violence, like those gangs in the State of Mexico who promised her 100 murders. Or like the rites of the self-styled priests who periodically travel to Vera Cruz to interview the witches of Catemaco.

A pact with the Santa Muerte is often made by those who receive favors from her, like the couple who brought their three year old boy to the altar. "The little boy needed an operation and he was a hopeless case. And, since she miraculously saved him, we dedicated the child to her", they said, seeming to be like characters from the brothers Grimm.

Suddenly, three tough-looking guys got out of a car, but when they saw me they pretended to be gathering flowers for the altar, and left. Then a man dressed in black, with a shaved head, got out of a taxi. He was bringing a candle from the airport. He had worn a tattoo on his back for nine years. He was emphatic that nothing could go wrong for him.

One by one they leave their offerings: bunches of flowers, apples, eggplants, candy, chocolate, cigars, lit cigarettes, bottles of water, beer, wine, vodka, brandy, cognac, tequila, money and blankets with her image. The statue of the Santa Muerte holds in her skeleton hand a scale whose tray is loaded with bank notes: pounds sterling, dollars, yen and pesos. On her long fingers are rings, necklaces, pendants. In addition, as though she was a creature of enormous appetites, people feed her abundantly. For breakfast they bring tamales and atole; at lunchtime sandwiches, and even shrimp. For snacks, sopes, atole, chocolate, quesadillas and pambazos. Whatever strikes the fancy of the devotees. "People bring tequila and we pour out a cup and put it with the offerings", Queta tells me.

According to her, the Santa Muerte never asks for anything. Everything given from everybody depends on the need, or gratitude for the miracle or favor received. In this way her interventions are frequently described by the faithful like the miracles ascribed to the Virgin Mary. But the Santa Muerte is a worker of miracles both conventional and unconventional. She can be asked for things that cannot be asked of a saint of the Catholic Church. For example: a career criminal can ask for protection in the commission of his crime, a kidnapping, an assault, selling drugs or stealing cars, or for protection from ambush, betrayal or arrest, or for the destruction of his enemies. Or to protect those living in prisons, where injustice and violence are the daily bread.

When I think about the present day cult of the Santa Muerte, the words of Franz Kafka in his "Prometheus" come to mind: "Legend seeks to explain the inexplicable. Having been born of a truth it has to become inexplicable."

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