Mexico’s Holy Death
The Santa Muerte, as she is known, or “Holy Death” in English, is a morbid adaptation of the Catholic religion, some could say the dark counterpart of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
In the rough Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito, known for its huge illegal market, past boxing glories, drug dealers and gangs lies a strange cult that unites hundreds, if not thousands of people the 1st of every month.
The Santa Muerte, as she is known, or “Holy Death” in English, is a morbid adaptation of the Catholic religion, some could say the dark counterpart of the Virgin of Guadalupe. What is behind this cult, and is it really just worshipped by criminals? How did it come to be so popular and part of Mexican culture? On the 1st of December 2008, I decided to join a few photographers and video artists as they went to 12 calle Alfarería, in the middle of the Tepito neighborhood, to witness the monthly oration to the Holy Death.
Tepito is not a place where one should wander alone. It is very easy to get lost in the endless rows of stands selling illegal merchandise, and you are never sure if you might bump into the wrong kind of people. Calle Alfarería 12, where the Holy Death altar is set, is just a few blocks North of the Tepito metro station. It is a small street, with a few shops. On the day of the oration, it was already very busy, with a long queue of worshippers waiting to give thanks to the Holy Death. The sidewalk and most of the street were taken up by people’s very own self-made representations of the Holy Death and others selling candy, soft drinks or all sorts of trinkets and memorabilia relating to the icon. Visitors came from all parts of Mexico, some even traveling for a few hours just to give thanks to their saint.
The common depiction of the Santa Muerte is that of a skeleton wearing a robe, with a globe in one hand, a scale in another and an owl at her side. She often wears a crown or hat with ornaments, and just like most depictions of the grim reaper, carries a scythe. Worshippers affectionately call her La Flaquita (the skinny girl), La Niña Blanca (The White Girl), La Comadre, or Hermana. When we visited the altar, she was dressed in both an orange gown and large hat and had both arms and neck full of jewelry.
No one knows for sure where the cult of the Holy Death comes from or why it originated. According to one source, she is “a banned saint, the Roman Catholic cover for the Aztec goddess Mictecaccihuatl, (…) ruler of the underworld.”
According to its followers, the cult of the Holy Death is all about accepting and embracing death. The relationship with the saint is ambiguous, as she is both respected and feared. If you do a good deed she will reward you, if not, you could be punished. They claim she gets rid of poverty, lack of love or unemployment. The cult is all about giving. One phrase that came up was “un regalo vale mas que comprado”, which in Spanish means, “a gift is worth more than a purchase”. During the celebration people spontaneously offer each other, even to strangers, small gifts such as candy. Worshippers bring the Santa Muerte all sorts of gifts, from pieces of cake to bread, beer, a glass of tequila or even a cigar, which they leave at the foot of the icon. The altar itself is full of decorations such as small dolls representing death in different attires. Visitors can leave a candle, just like they would at church, in a small room next to the altar.
Unlike common wisdom, which would have us thinking that the saint only attracts criminals, many children and families are present on the day of the oration. What is true though, is that the Holy Death is particularly famous in tough neighborhoods, like Tepito, where a large part of the population has already experienced jail time. Raquel Hernandez, who coordinates the visitors and chants, is standing next to a large collection of bouquets, brought by followers of the Holy Death. She tells us that there are more and more people coming every time, and that they form a strong community that just keeps getting bigger. One visitor, Luis Alberto Quiniones Ramos, came all the way from Chimalhuacan, Estado de Mexico, to visit the altar. He explained to us that he truly started believing in the Holy Death, and asked for her protection, after he and one of his sons were badly beaten by policemen, who mistook them for criminals. Luis Alberto spent a few months in jail for no reason, where other inmates seriously wounded him with a knife. The large scar on his stomach is still there as a testimony of the ordeal. According to Luis Alberto, the Holy Death helped him get through these tough times. To thank her, he had a number of effigies of the saint tattooed on his body. Tattoos of the Holy Death are quite a common sight, and they also reveal each person’s relationship to the cult. Not one tattoo of the saint is the same.
Doña Enriqueta Romero, a strong woman with a steady stare, short black hair with a white streak, is the one who set up the altar in calle Alfarería a few years ago. It all started in the street, until the increasing popularity of the icon led her and her family to build an altar, with its glass protection, right into the side of her home. She has also set up one part of the building to sell candles, chanting books and other objects relating to the cult. She vigilantly watches other the proceedings to make sure that all goes well, and greets visitors, most of them already familiar to her. Enriqueta Romero’s family prepares atole, a hot drink composed of milk, chocolate and corn, which is then offered to the public.
Around 18h30, a group of mariachis step up to the altar and start singing songs to the Holy Death, adding to the surrealness of it all. Once they are gone and as the sun starts to set on calle Alfarería, Raquel Hernandez starts encouraging visitors to sing a few songs to their saint. “Se ve, se siente, la santa esta presente” (You can see it, you can feel it, the saint is here) chants the crowd repeatedly.
At 21h the oration, largely inspired by Catholic tradition, marks the focal point of the day. All followers gather around the altar as a speaker, often one of Enriqueta’s sons, takes the microphone and begins reading a few rosaries. He asks God to invoke the Holy Death and then begs for protection for all those who are sick, in jail, or going through a rough patch. A moment of silence is taken for personal petitions to be made to the Holy Death. A chain of strength, where all followers take hands and close their eyes, is then made so that the saint’s energy can flow through the crowd. The event ends with all worshippers lifting up their effigies of the Holy Death all at once.
If the Santa Muerte is related to acts of violence is tough to say. True, most of its followers come from rough neighborhoods and generally have been involved in illegal activities, but the atmosphere that exudes from events such as the oration are that of a community, of sharing and ultimately of getting by difficult times. Although still largely underground, its customs, representations and symbols are already part of the Mexican culture and there’s a good chance that a visitor to Mexico will come across it at one time or another.