The cult of Santa Muerte is one of Mexicoâ€™s most controversial religious practices. Though Mexicoâ€™s relationship with death is straightforward and stretches back to ancient times, the specific rituals associated with this pagan deity are recent. They are linked to the growth of drug trafficking and to marginalized peoples, more broadly, and because of this are rejected by the majority of the population, to the point that the government itself believes that Santa Muerte represents an illegitimate cult. In Nuestra Mirada, we decided to document this belief through the factual and fascinating images coming out of Monda Photo, one of the most respected photo collectives in Latin America. The group, made up of Lizeth Arauz, Carlos Aranda, JerĂłnimo Arteaga-Silva, Alfredo Pelcastre, and Ernesto RamĂrez, was formed in 2006 as a space for development of collaborative projects as well as a support structure for solo work. Here we present their record of a pagan religion in Mexico City. Accompanying the photographs is a beautiful and rigorous text by writer Laura Emilia Pacheco from her book, The Last World, in which she chronicles her pilgrimage into Tepito, the fiercest barrio in a fascinating city.
Santa Muerte, the Razor’s Edge
Photos by Monda Photo, text by Laura Emilia Pacheco
Translated from the Spanish by Ted O’Callahan
Tepito: Here you can find everything, sell everything, lose everything. Such is the reputation of this place that even the police think twice before entering the labyrinth of streets, aware of the possibility of being caught in deadly traps. Itâ€™s a huge market for second-hand items, clothing, weapons, drugs, sex, anything that involves an exchange of cash. Tepito is one of the most fierce and fascinating neighborhoods in Mexico City. Itâ€™s also the home of Santa Muerte, or Holy Death.
The neighborhoodâ€™s name is a shortening of the pre-Hispanic TeocultepitĂłn, which means “little temple” or “chapelâ€ť in Nahuatl. Itâ€™s where the canal connected the Great Temple with Tlatelolco. In the Temple of the Immaculate Conception there is a plaque: “Tequipeuhcan (Place of Slavery). Here the emperor CuauhtĂ©moc was taken prisoner on the afternoon of August 13, 1521.” Today, Tepito is bustling, full of activity, both legal and illegal. The unusual and the wonderful are juxtaposed with the mundane, the fantastic abuts unspeakable squalor, and honest work coexists with drug cartels and armed gangs.
The first day of each month is special in Tepito. A mass for Santa Muerte is celebrated in the streets. In the more dangerous parts of the Mexico City Valley there are more than fifty altars dedicated to her. Twenty are in Tepito.
The first altar was set up on Potters Street, some twenty years ago. At dusk, there is a flow of people arriving from all parts of the city, along with pilgrims from all over the country, yet the air doesnâ€™t carry any sense of fear, tension, or violence. Today is a day of truce.
“Death, dear to my heart, do not forsake me your protection” implores Trinidad, an indigenous woman from Guerrero, with a zeal only comparable to that seen on December 12th, the day of the Virgin de Guadalupe. However, the words of this woman, who is practically wearing rags, whose skin is on the verge of cracking from exposure to the elements, are not for the “patron saint of Mexicoâ€ť as Guadalupe is known, but for Santa Muerte, a figure that gains believers with each passing minute, despite warnings from the Catholic Church threatening to excommunicate her followers.
For those who have never seen Santa Muerte, the first encounter with the “White Girl”, as she is called, leaves an indelible impression, a start that instills fear, reverence, and respect. With a majestic purple velvet robe embroidered in gold, she could pass for one of the virgins venerated in countless half-empty Catholic churches that dot the city.
Her altar, nearly two meters high, is so packed with offerings and giftsâ€”flowers, coins, bottles of tequila and mescal, whips, jewelry, candy, candles, incenseâ€”that she can be lost in the visual confusion, until suddenly itâ€™s obvious that her hands do not have skin. She is a skeleton holding scales and a globe. In Tenochtitlan the skull was a common evocation of the idea that there is no life without death.
The gaps in the finger bones hold hundreds of bills rolled up tight so they look like marijuana cigarettes, which inevitably suggests the links she is judged to have with the worlds of drug trafficking and crime, as well as with those who stay and those who risk crossing the border in search of El Doradoâ€”the United States.
Seeing her devotees, it seems that they have let go of all hope in institutions. Fed up with political promises that are never kept, without faith in law or any authority, tired of the discourse on a social justice that never comes, at least Santa Muerte promises the security of a peaceful end, something invaluable when life is lived on a razor’s edge.
The imperturbable resident of this bright nicheâ€”in contrast to the grayness of the street, afternoon, buildings, and realityâ€”Santa Muerte has long, natural hair and jaws held slightly open, as if about to utter some apocalyptic statement. The empty eye sockets seem to stare with the intensity of a young body worn away by some interior exhaustion.
One pilgrim, on the brink of collapse, having walked halfway across the country from the jungle of Chiapas to take part in the celebration, kneels, murmuring words wet with tears, “Miraculous and majestic Death: I pray that with your infinite power you might return to meâ€¦” The rest of the prayer is lost in the noise of the crowdâ€”it has suddenly become a crowd, though ebbing and flowing in perfect sync. With a respect bordering on the martial, people cross themselves at the altar.
The clouds of incense entwine with steam coming off of the large pots of the hot corn drink atole. At the end of the Mass, those in charge will carefully distribute the atole among the attendees. Amid the smoke of thousands of candles and a thick haze of cannabis, Santa Muerte welcomes the faithful. Nothing is hidden, and there is no hiding.
Shows of kindness and gestures of solidarity among strangers go from being a rarity to the strictest etiquette: all in attendance give and receive something, however insignificant, even if itâ€™s nothing more than a candy.
The absence of great promise is a common denominator among those present. So are tattoos, chains and medals with her likeness, chocolates that look like gold coins, incense, and copies of the Novena. A well-dressed woman pleads: “Blessed Protector and Death: By the virtue God gave you, I ask you to give me luck, health, happiness, and money. And that you protect me from enemies and make sure Armando stays with me, humble, asking for forgiveness, humble as a lamb, and faithful to his promises, always loving and submissive.”
Armando betrayed her a year ago, and she hasnâ€™t heard from him since.
God and men. “La Santa is good but very jealous. I donâ€™t have anything, nothing that I can offer. But, she knows that Iâ€™m faithful, that she is the only owner of my heart,â€ť says Gilbert. At fourteen years old, he has been a believer for three years and talks as if he had the experience of an eighty year old.
He is tattooed from head to toe, with hair trimmed almost to the scalp. Along with his friends, he spreads a towel on the pavement to place his statue of Santa Muerte. About a foot tall, white, surrounded by small offerings, this is one of the three figurines Gilberto has. Each is a different color, because each represents a different prayer. Today he wants to buy another in hopes it will help him find a job.
These makeshift altars are repeated in every form and every material imaginable. They are made with pieces of wood, plastic, amaranth, human hair, with the remnants of a hard life, and above all, with a hope that never dies.
By nightfall, the street is impassable. At one end is a huge Mercury Grand Marquis painted with the image of Santa Muerte on one side and the words “Latin Kings” on the other, and at the far end is a niche with the silent presence of a three-foot-tall statue of the Virgin de Guadalupe,.
A man credits Santa Muerte with a miracle, saving his leg from amputation. He says, “The Virgin de Guadalupe and Santa Muerte are creations of God Almighty. In contrast, the saints are a creation of man. Therefore, we cannot trust in them.â€ť
To stave off hunger, a young couple devours sauce-covered boiled chicken feet out of a plastic bag. The sound of cracking cartilage is covered by the first notes of mariachi, a sign that the Mass is about to begin.
The crowd stands amid a confusion of hundreds of images of Santa Muerte, thousands of colored bead bracelets (which resemble those of Santeria), and countless altars made from seeds (which are the living presence of the pre-Hispanic past). All around is the smell of fresh sweat and the fragments of the difficult lives of these victims of a harsh reality.
“Let us pray that we do not lack money. Let us pray for our loved ones who are in prisons and hospitals. Let us prayâ€¦,â€ť continues the priest. Men, women, and hundreds children repeat his words.
And in the middle of the night, the Queen of Darkness, La NiĂ±a Blanca, Santa Muerte feels the scales tip in her favor and watches her legions grow in this world of misery and helplessness.