25 October 2007

Santa Muerte offers hope to those on the fringes of society


By David Agren
The News

Alberto Jiménez considers himself a good Catholic.

The third-generation vendor at Mexico City’s Mercado Sonora, where stalls hawk everything from miracle herbal cures to witchcraft paraphernalia, believes in the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. He also professes a liking for San Judas Tadeo, the patron saint of lost causes.

But perhaps more strongly than any other saint, Jiménez believes deeply in Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a scythe-wielding skeletal figure that is not recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint.

“She isn’t a sacred figure for the Catholic Church, but for people that believe in her, Santa Muerte is sacred,” Jiménez said.

The Archdiocese of Mexico urged Catholics to reject Santa Muerte and has branded the figure as dangerous. And the Interior Secretariat still refuses to officially recognize a Santa Muerte-centered church, despite members’ recent efforts to make her appearance more angelic and less skeletal.

Yet despite the objections, Santa Muerte’s popularity has grown throughout Mexico in recent years – Director Paco del Toro, who in September released a the fictional movie “La Santa Muerte,” estimated she has two million followers nationwide.

And according to experts, those followers are most likely to be people who have been marginalized by the greater society or who operate outside of the law.

Death has been an accepted theme in Mexican culture dating back to pre-Hispanic times – the colorful Día de los Muertos festivities each November being perhaps the most vivid example.

But according to Sylvia Gutiérrez, an anthropologist at the Universidad Iberoamericana, the Santa Muerte phenomenon began much more recently – in the 1980s, and among prison populations. Then, as the inmate adherents were released, Santa Muerte worship expanded into the larger society.

“It began spreading and is now often found in poor barrios, where the locals sell drugs or produce pirated products,” Gutiérrez said.

Pilgrims to Tepito

Tepito, a run-down area in the capital’s historic center famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise, serves as a sort of Mecca for Santa Muerte followers.

Vendors in the barrio, the setting for sociologist Oscar Lewis’s classic work on urban poverty “The Children of Sánchez,” peddle bootlegged CD’s, yet-to-be released Hollywood blockbusters and porno flicks, as well as stolen merchandise ranging from car parts to designer handbags. Legend has it Tepito has been the domain of outlaws since Aztec times, and a commonly told joke in Mexico City advises robbery victims to search Tepito’s markets for their missing belongings.

Tepito is also home to a popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a simple home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the gruesome saint.

Some who arrive via the Metro subway system pass by a stall operated by Rocio Hernández, where they purchase chocolate coins, pink marshmallows, cigarettes and red apples dipped in honey and cinnamon. The items are then left as offerings in front of the Santa Muerte statues that line Calle Alfarería, the street leading to the shrine.

Hernández, a non-believer who acknowledged a purely economic interest in the death saint, also sells Santa Muerte candles, lotion and perfume, which adherents spray on their statuettes as they wait patiently for their turn to enter the small shrine. Others splash the figurines with liquor, and one follower placed a lit cigar in the mouth of his life-sized statue.

While much of Santa Muerte’s popular with current and former lawbreakers, not all who come to the Tepito shrine are seeking spiritual assistance for nefarious activities. Many are simply looking for intervention in their daily lives, Hernández said.

Followers often dress their figurines in colors corresponding to the type of help they are seeking. White generally represents spirituality and requests for protection, while red represents love and yellow or gold is used to attract wealth.

Black, however, is for harming an adversary.

Gloria Franco, a hairdresser from the Doctores neighborhood, stopped to buy an apple for her Santa Muerte figure. She said she hoped the apple would absorb the bad vibes that had been plaguing her salon.

Franco turned to Santa Muerte for help after police officers detained her son several years ago for what she believed to be dubious reasons. The youth spent some time in a holding cell before he was released without harm, which Franco attributed to Santa Muerte, whom she had discovered by chance on a trip to Tepito.

Borders and barrios

Beyond Tepito, Santa Muerte shrines have popped up in other parts of the Federal District, including three in Doctores, according to Franco. The saint’s appeal has also spread to the northern border region, where both migrants and drug runners ask her for help before crossing illegally into the United States.

In recent years, elaborate shrines dedicated to Santa Muerte have sprouted up along the lonely highways leading toward the border.

“It’s the narcos that are putting up the money for the roadside chapels,” said James Griffith, a retired University of Arizona folklore professor and author of the book “Folk Saints of the Borderlands.”

U.S. immigration officials report noticing an increased number of smugglers bearing images or tattoos of the Santa Muerte.

“Often times when we bust a smuggled load, we’ll see a Santa Muerte image,” said Vincent Picard, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Phoenix.

Despite Santa Muerte’s increased popularity in Northern Mexico, many narcotics dealers still believe strongly in Jesús Malverde, a pseudo saint that reputedly stole from the rich and gave to the poor a century ago in Sinaloa.

The Catholic Church has condemned the worship of both Malverde and Santa Muerte, but that hardly matters to Julia Huerta, a resident of the capital’s gritty, working-class Ixtapalapa neighborhood. She still brings her meter-tall Santa Muerte statue to Tepito every month.

“The [Catholic] Church asks you for money. The Mormons ask you for money. The [evangelicals] ask you for money,” she said. “Santa Muerte doesn’t ask for anything, only what you want to give.”

Like many Santa Muerte followers, Huerta attributes miracles to the unofficial saint, whom she discovered eight years ago after kidnappers abducted her son. She credits Santa Muerte for his safe return, although he was both beaten and robbed.

Ironically, said Gutiérrez, the Iberoamericana researcher, many kidnappers also request intervention from Santa Muerte.

“She protects those that fall into the hands of kidnappers, along with the kidnappers too,” she said.

Many Santa Muerte followers also believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe, but Gutiérrez said that for people working in the informal economy – essentially outside of the law – Santa Muerte covers large parts of their lives that official saints can’t.

“You have the Virgin of Guadalupe to help you with the part of your life that’s regulated, but in addition, Santa Muerte helps you with things that are outside of that,” she said.

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