Taking a walk in Mexico City to observe the living, I end up chasing death.
I love to walk. I see it almost as a spiritual ritual that makes me feel a bit like a people-watching pilgrim. During my many walks in Mexico City, I stumbled across a phenomenon so intriguing that it turned me from a pilgrim into a detective.
Fighting my way through the usual crowds, I pass by the Sonora market and notice what looks like a Christian altar dedicated to a veiled saint. Nothing extraordinary for me, after all I grew up in a Catholic country where saints are ubiquitous. I sneak a look at the figure’s face and am completely caught off guard when I realize it is a skull! Is this the grim reaper hiding underneath the white veil covering the Virgin Mary in my grandparents’ town?
I start asking questions but find that people avoid answering me, a fact that only contributes to the odd statue’s aura of mystery. Finally, Dona Maria, a nice old lady selling tamales, explains that the altar is dedicated to Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death. “God gives you life, Death takes it. Both deserve to be worshipped.” I talk to Pedro, ta waiter at this local restaurant. He, too, seems uncomfortable. “The people who worship Santa Muerte are the bad people, the drug dealers, prostitutes, all those ‘bandidos.’” Considered the protector of illicit activities, Santa Muerte is the patron saint of the Tepito district, a part of the city center cops don’t dare to go. “She is the Saint of the Narcos, guey,” Gerardo, the hostel bartender, tells me. “They ask her for favors, like to dodge bullets. In return they give her tobacco, marijuana etc.” I recall seeing a full ashtray on the altar. But is she only the drug dealers’ saint? “No. A lot of people worship her.”
And just like that, my aimless stroll has a purpose: to find out more about this cult. I follow Pedro’s instructions and find another huge altar, in a street ironically named Jesus Maria. I take a few pictures and watch the people passing by. I find that they react to the statue much like to Catholic shrines, crossing themselves, putting coins into a donation box, some talking to her and touching her veil. On the other side of the street, facing Santa Muerte, I see an altar of Jesus Christ. I can’t help but wonder, with Mexico being one of the world’s most Catholic countries, what does the Roman Catholic Church have to say about this? Finding a priest is not easy, due to the festivities of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I do meet a nice, god-fearing lady, though, secretary to one of the priests, who agrees to talk to me, inside a church, about something she clearly considers blasphemy: “It’s just a sect. Although, you know, many people who consider themselves Catholics leave this church and go to her. They lead this double life.” I learn that the church denounces this “evil” cult because of its demonic overtones. So why is it still so popular amongst the Catholics of Mexico? “Life is very hard,and people seek something to hold on to. They think:’If I ask God and he doesn’t help me, maybe I ask Santa Muerte and she will.’ But as the proverb says:’When God doesn’t want, the saints are not able.’ If you think death is going to help you, you’re wrong.”
I leave the church and follow the market road, seeing people toiling, working hard to make a living. If life works you like a boxer works a punching bag, it is no wonder people turn to Santa Muerte. Maybe the combination of both light and darkness, of life and death forces will get you through another day. You just have to have faith.