Visiting Santa Muerte

*This is part 11 in a 13-part series. Read part 10 here.*

“Do you want to come along?” S. asks in an upbeat tone of voice.

“What are you crazy!” the heavily pierced backpacker yells and moments later, as if forgetting what she just said, she continues “You’ll be fine, just bring some mug money.”

Well that’s an uncomfortable jumble of words I say to myself before stuffing pesos in my empty pockets and making sure everything else is out. And off we go.

To Tepito

A march for Santa Muerte in Tepito. Photo credit: Wikipedia
A march for Santa Muerte in Tepito. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Our anxious nerves pulsate rapidly as we amble on down to the Metro station. As the highly efficient and affordable (well done Mexico City) subway stops at the Tepito station, we feel the air thicken with paranoid possibilities. My travel partner S. and I stare at each other for a brief second, and then walk upstairs.

Above the train station is a densely packed marketplace selling everything from popcorn to porn, cocaine to tacos. As a pleasant-faced woman is selling the tacos, we walk on up hoping to ask for directions.

“Santa Muerte?” she says before we can even ask, and points on down the road.

“Gracias.” Clearly we look a little out of place.

And the place we walk towards takes us over a trash-strewn bridge where a fresh pile of feces exists stoically in the corner. Walking down the stairs and taking a right corner, we pass by a half-dozen cardboard beds with some mangy-looking sleepers nearby a dead cat wrapped in an old maroon coat. Insurmountable piles of flashy magazines and food wrappers form the grass of this rough urban jungle.

Approaching the shrine, we pass by the hardened gaze of a deeply sun-glassed man who stands with a tied-up German Shepard outside a convenient store sealed with protective glass. Across the street a tortillera with barred windows. Past that: the shrine.

Santa Muerte

The Aztec God of Death Mictlantecuhtli. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The Aztec God of Death Mictlantecuhtli. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On All Saints Day in 2001, Doña Queta started this shrine. It’s a shrine to a Saint with a story that is far older than that. Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, can be traced back in written records to the 1790s according to Andrew Chestnut, the author of Devoted to Death. It was at this time that the Spanish Inquisitors wrote about their attempts to stamp out the blasphemous practice of venerating this skeletal Saint.

Santa Muerte herself seems to be a syncretic being, a mixture of newer European influences like the Grim Reaper and older Aztec influences like Mictlantecuhtli (pictured above). For 150 years after her first mention by Spanish Inquisitors, the figure of Santa Muerte seems to have been entirely forgotten or at least a lot more secretive.

It isn’t until the 1940s that she reappears in the written record, but now as a love Saint. Now her main devotees are wives and girlfriends who suspect their husbands and boyfriends of cheating. They seek consolation. This is an integral part of Santa Muerte’s identity, one that is far more acceptable to most than what comes later.

In the 1990s when Mochaorejas, aka “Ear-Chopper”, a notorious kidnapper, was finally arrested and sent to jail, guess what he brought along? A Sante Muerte figure. Suddenly her association with love is thrown out the window and her identity as the “narco-saint” takes center stage.

Although narcos only make up a small percentage of all the devotees of Santa Muerte, the incentive to sell ads through media means that sensational pieces make for big news, and what’s more sensational than deeply religious drug traffickers? Authority figures get involved and soon you have a situation where 40 shrines are demolished on the Texas-Mexico border.

The Shrine

The Tepito Shrine. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The Tepito Shrine. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The bony lady stands behind a glass box wrapped in a supernatural-green gown. Her jet black hair falls down far past her shoulders. From her neck dangles a Cross.  All around her lies an eclectic mix of toys, icons, skulls, grim reapers, necklaces, and champagne glasses. On a low altar before her lies a few bottles of Cracken Rum, the rising smoke of lit incense, endless cigarettes, some eggplants, and the melted forms of burnt candles.

As I look around, something strikes me: there are no narcos! Or at least no narco-narcos, outwardly narco looking characters you see from movies. What I saw instead was a lot of very normal looking people, middle aged mothers with their kids, standing in front and praying. One woman who probably was a mother judging from her shirt which reads “you will always be remembered” below the picture of a small boy, holds a candle and grieves.

In the violence of drug trafficking, death is a far more common occurrence than in normal life and perhaps that’s why Santa Muerte become so popular in their world. But death and the potential to love shows up everywhere and the bony lady is not picky with her devotees. Many come to visit and pray. I keep that in mind as we walk back to the notorious marketplace above Tepito.