The Saint Of The Dead
By Bill Dean
Nadie se va de este mundo vivo.(No one leaves this world alive). Mexico can hardly be credited with being the country of origin of something so obvious. Yet, Mexicans can be credited for recognizing that dreading death is not the only way to think about it. Octavio Paz (a Mexican writer and winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature) wrote: “The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it…celebrates it…. Our songs, proverbs, fiestas and popular beliefs show very clearly that the reason death cannot frighten us is that life has cured us of fear.”
While Mexicans may joke about death, there exists a fringe cult that nobody jokes about: the two million or so followers of Santa Muerte, the Saint of the Dead. (The Catholic Church has declared that there is no such saint.) Worshippers of Santa Muerte are found where desperate people are found, particularly in impoverished neighborhoods and in prisons. Santa Muerte followers are frequently linked to crime, whether they are criminals, victims of criminals, or simply are surrounded by criminals. Some glorify crime. The cult’s followers are largely Catholic but Santa Muerte worshipers will find no altars to their Saint of Death in any Catholic church. The Church is particularly offended by the attempt to confuse Santa Muerte with the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Altars to Santa Muerte can be found in homes or along highways. The police call them “narco-altars” and they have found Santa Muerte chapels deep in the mansions of drug lords. Santa Muerte altars are disturbing to the eye. Her figurine is often encased in a glass box, a hooded female skeleton with a menacing smile; her bony hands extend from the sleeves of her long robe. She holds a sickle in one hand to remind everyone of the long reach ofdeath.In her other hand she clutches a globe signifying her dominion over the world. The message is the universality of death – and, its inevitability.
The altars are decorated with color-coded flowers and candles. Green is for help with legal problems; red is for love and passion; yellow for healing diseases; black for protection. Each color at the altar has a separate meaning.
Those faithful to Santa Muerte are blunt and specific in what they ask her for: help me get out of jail; protect me from the police; make me rich; ruin my enemy – and so the wish list goes. Her worshipers seek protection and favors, not spiritual peace.
Santa Muerte does not bestow favors for free; her practitioners place cigarettes, tequila and fresh flowers at the foot of her altars. The greatest concentration of Santa Muerte followers is in the impoverished neighborhood of Tepito, in Mexico City. There a self-annointed archbishop presides over midnight masses. Some in attendance are teenagers clad in spooky cult garb, but many are ordinary people who feel their petitions are not answered by Catholic saints. Santa Muerte does not lecture to them about the consequences of sin because all people are sinners.Everyone is welcome because everyone dies.
Followers of the cult seek to form a linkage with the Aztec past. Some claim linkage to Europe, Guatemala, or Africa. The cult is not old. Practitioners can only be traced back about 50 years, but its numbers are growing. It has crossed the U.S. border and its images can be found on candles, necklaces, and junk merchandise just about everywhere. Despite the growth of the Santa Muerte cult, its adherents account for a very small part of Mexico’s population. Its growth among the desperately poor probably is tied to economic times. Better times are apt to reverse the trend. Nonetheless, Mexico’s fascination with death flourishes – in its many fascinating forms.