La Santa Muerte (Or the Saint of Death)

The chapel of the Santa Muerte is a window on Alfareria Street and is open 24 hours a day. Her statue, dressed in satin clothes with lace and a white cape, wears a tiara. Rings adorn her fingers and her skeleton hands hold a globe and a pair of scales whose trays are laden with pesos, dollars and pounds sterling. A medal hangs from her breast. The image, with its skeleton face, directs its gaze downward toward the faithful, as if the eye sockets were seeing not only those passing by her, but into the invisible world beyond. For devotees, there is no one after God who is more powerful than the Santa Muerte. For this reason she is considered the Angel of Light, the Angel of Mercy, and even the Angel of Motherhood.

“Now she has her wardrobe until 2007, so she will look really pretty,” assures her guardian Enriqueta Romero, or Don Queta, who placed the sanctuary three years ago in the house where she was born and raised. She dedicated it to the White Girl Child. “But really the Santa Muerte was born in me 40 years ago. My aunt used to pray to her. I love her more every day. There is only one God and one Muerte (death), this one. The Virgin of Guadalupe is also my friend. I go to church, but I don’t like listening to the bossy priests: Sit down. Stand up. Kneel. They are good at asking for money.” And as though she was addressing a real person, she says: You are happy, right? She is very pretty.” And she points out, “the Flaquita (thin one) is not mine, but for everybody.” When I was looking for the altar in Alfereria Street a man standing in the street told me: “I have nothing to do with the Santa Muerte, she is the mother, the really big deal for convicts. I am not one of her followers but I pay my respects.”

This underground cult that is running through Mexico inspired my novel La Santa Muerte, from the time I stumbled across an image of her, a violent death, in the chapel of a ranch where a political businessman with possible ties to the drug trade, threw an incredible party for 24 uninterrupted hours. Then I found her among a gang of kids called Los Cosmos. One morning when my daughter Eva was making her full-length documentary Ninos de la Calle and the kids were sleeping on the sidewalk, the only figure standing, leaning against the wall, was the that of the Santa Muerte. A woman selling drugs, was furious when she discovered that they were filming, not her, but the Santa Muerte. I visited the Sonora market where they do personal grooming and sell “Mystical, Religious and Esoteric Products,” statues, reproductions, pamphlets, copal, incense, coyote teeth, oils proof against witchcraft and the evil eye, soaps, candlesticks, sprays and medals to worship her (the Santa Muerte). There used to be just a few stalls, now there are entire passageways.

Sol, the granddaughter of Angelita, a shaman from Oaxaca, who has Stall 189 in passageway B of the market, is sure that the Santa Muerte is an Angel of Light who, sooner or later, will capture us all. “Everybody gives her something in exchange for something.” Her grandmother used to give human blood to a Santa Muerte made out of human bones. “Now they put out candles for her, money and, if it’s a matter of love, apples, honey.” But she warns, “she is the one who makes the choice.” When I returned to the market the image with its terrifying beauty, inherited from her grandmother, had disappeared. Sol pretended that she didn’t know what I was talking about.

The present cult comes from the past, and is the result of a syncretism of the pre-Hispanic view of death and that of mediaeval Christianity. In the nighttime ceremonies in Tepito one has the sensation of witnessing a Dance of Death. The culture of Death in Mexico has survived through the centuries and has fused with Catholic beliefs. It is spreading now, perhaps due to emerging Mexican movements, the esoteric manners of the New Age, heavy metal music, confused values, urban violence, family disintegration and the informal government of organized crime.

According to believers, the present cult of Santa Muerte with its relationship with the Virgin of Carmen and Oya, the Lady of Cemeteries, began around the sixties in the last century. In Actopan, Hidalgo, it is known as San Bernadino, a stone figure that is still venerated in the home of the Hernandez family and whose custodian is an elderly woman. People have associated it with the Santa Muerte and since miracles have been attributed to it, the worship has increased. The figure of San Bernadino-Santa Muerte is quite strange, with his skull face crowned with flowers, his white pyramid shaped robe, like a shroud or a wedding dress. The cult is also established among miners in Zacatecas. In a XIV century ruined church, images of The Lord of Holy Burial and of the Santa Muerte are guarded by a nonagenerian called Natividad Zamora. In the Federal District, besides Tepito, there are altars in Lecumberri, Calle Baja California, Colonia Artes Graficas and in Villa de Guadalupe. This is true of the states of Oaxaca, Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, Morelos, Veracruz, Guerrero, Nueva leon and in the border cities where the drug dealers operate. The image of the Santa Muerte has crossed the Northern and Southern borders and has put down roots among Mexican communities in Los Angeles.

The Santa Muerte is not accepted nor recognized by the church, but she has her priests, bishops and archbishops, like the one at the National Sanctuary of the Santa Muerte, although there is no seminary. The Santa Muerte has been inscribed into the Lives of the Saints and “canonized” by mariachis and in Mexican dances. The spread of this cult has been explosive, attracting mostly a marginized population, skeptical of governments and churches. With similar origins, on the other side of the coin, is the dark side of the Virgin of Guadalupe. But the faithful, who place the images together on their household altars, care little about the confusion of the Santa muerte with Catholic saints. (Behind the altar in Tepito is one of the Virgin of Guadalupe). However there are those like Karina who think that an altar to the Santa Muerte should not be placed with other saints. “We put out flowers, water and tequila, and since she is very miraculous we give her more.” She speaks of her as if she were a catholic saint, and people kneel and cross themselves in front of her altar. When they arrive and when they leave they touch her window.

The believers are not just drug traffickers, criminals, prostitutes, policemen, kidnappers, convicts or ex-convicts, and all those who live exposed to treachery, vengeance and ambush. They are also ordinary people who have to face and survive difficult situations in a world infested with criminality, injustice, unemployment and drugs. Her followers include housewives, sellers of stolen goods, car thieves, drug dealers, young students, general workers, cancer patients and those in trouble with the law. Her Protective Scythe is a double-edged weapon. You can ask her to bless the pistol, the badge, money, but also to get rid of undesirable people: “Jesus Christ, conqueror, who was himself conquered on the cross, conquer he who is conquering me, in the name of the Lord.” They also pray to Jesus Malverde, the saint worshipped by drug dealers: “Today, prostrate and before your cross, Oh, Malverde my lord, I beg you for mercy and relief from my pain. You who dwell in Glory and are close to God.” And they say three Our Fathers and three Ave Marias.

The parade through the sanctuary of the Santa Muerte never stops. Sometimes there are two or three people together, but suddenly there will be twenty, thirty. Families come all day long, and even children partake of the cult. Visitors come at night too since the altar is open. “Who are they”, I ask Dona Queta. “Oh, I didn’t see them”, she quickly answers me, because the visitors came in Grand Marquis cars surrounded by bodyguards and armed to the teeth, bringing floral arrangements and lighting candles. The visitors use candles of different colors: the white are to give thanks for favors received, the red are for love, the blue for studies and health, the green for judicial problems, the black are lighted against enemies.