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A ‘saint’ of last resort

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Times Staff Writer

In the tough Tepito neighborhood, where poverty, corruption and violence are daily realities, there is a beloved “saint” who understands and forgives the frailties of all human flesh. Her domain is a labyrinth of grimy streets lined with auto body shops and humble mom-and-pop stores. From her perch behind a glass-encased altar adorned with candles, decayed flowers and shot glasses of tequila, she watches scruffy curs pick through garbage while a constant stream of pilgrims lays offerings at her feet.

To Roman Catholic Church officials, the skeletal woman in the long, flowing robes is an evil figure, a grisly embodiment of satanic purposes. But to the desperately poor and overlooked residents of Tepito she is a pop-folk idol and often a last, best hope for answering unanswered prayers.

She is La Santa Muerte, “Saint Death,” or as others call her, “La Santisima Muerte,” “Sacred Death.” Her petitioners are prostitutes, drug dealers and murderers, as well as multitudes of ordinary housewives, taxi drivers and street vendors hoping to cure a sick child or pay the rent or simply make it through another day without getting robbed or kidnapped or shot. Over the past 20 years, her following has grown so large and so rapidly that in some parts of Mexico she is becoming a rival in popular affection to the Virgen de Guadalupe, the manifestation of the Virgin Mary that for nearly half a millennium has been the reigning symbol of Mexican national identity. La Santa Muerte, the queen of secret desires and furtive causes, is the Virgin’s grinning, post-NAFTA counterpart.

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“She is a Virgen de Guadalupe in negative: That which one can’t ask of the Virgen, one can ask of her,” says Homero Aridjis, a poet, novelist and former Mexican diplomat who recently published a short story collection about La Santa Muerte’s mysterious and increasingly firm grip on the Mexican soul.

On a recent morning, as this seething capital subsided from rush-hour insanity into mere pandemonium, the scene was lively at No. 12 Alfareros St. in the heart of Tepito. While La Santa Muerte now commands a national following, and images of her can be found throughout Mexico and other parts of Latin America, the Tepito shrine has drawn particular attention as the Mexican mass media have caught on to the growing phenomenon. Outside the tent-like structure surrounding the life-size statue of the saint, a morning chill still hung in the air. But inside, scores of votive candles gave off an eerie warmth, while orchids, roses and other flowers exuded a sickly-sweet perfume.

One by one, the faithful came trickling in to pay tribute to La Santa Muerte, as they do at practically every hour of the day and night in Tepito. Cars pulled up and men hopped out bearing candles, cash, chocolates, apples, bottles of liquor and armloads of fresh-cut flowers. Mothers held their infant daughters up to La Santa Muerte’s hollow gaze and begged for her blessing. Wrinkled old women and macho young men in spiky hair took turns kneeling on a small wooden prayer chair, murmuring fervent requests. Occasionally one of them would take a puff on a cigarette or cigar and blow smoke at the saint’s face in a ceremonial act of purification.

Though La Santa Muerte is disdained and barely recognized by the Catholic Church, she’s one of a number of unofficial folk “saints” who’ve been taken to heart by the Mexican people in the centuries since the Spanish conquest. Death cults and death worship have deep roots in Mexico’s pre-Columbian past, and in Mexican culture death doesn’t carry the morbid taint that it does in other societies. And while La Santa Muerte embodies a certain fatalism about life’s inevitable end, her all-too-human form makes ordinary Mexicans feel that, in some mysterious way, she is like one of them, that she feels their sufferings right down to her bones.

“I worship her a lot. I love her a lot,” said Jose Luis, a regular supplicant at the saint’s shrine who lifted his shirt and showed off a Santa Muerte tattoo, which he had engraved on his back eight years ago as thanks for favors received. “In my poor house, I have an altar to her,” he continued. “More than anything she has given me tranquillity, health. She’s muy milagrosa” -- very miraculous. Inside a small storefront to the rear of the altar, Enriqueta Romero, 58, who built the shrine about three years ago and now acts as its principal caretaker, tried to explain the source of La Santa Muerte’s soaring popularity. Dona Queta, as she is known, said that her aunt had taught her to admire and worship the folk saint. Today she sells a variety of Santa Muerte-related products, including incense, candles and statues, along with hamburgers and other snacks, and regales visitors with endless anecdotes of the saint’s preternatural powers.

“The only thing that matters is the faith,” Dona Queta insisted, dismissing a reporter’s suggestion that the saint is particularly revered by people living on the wrong side of the law. “It doesn’t matter if they [worshipers] are good or bad, or where they live.”

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It is certainly true that La Santa Muerte is a kind of equal-opportunity icon. It is said that she makes no distinction between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. Whatever your wish or grievance, you need only say a prayer or purchase the appropriate color-coded candle and offer it to La Santa Muerte.

An orange candle is for all-around good luck. Blue is for help with work-related matters. White signifies thanks for a favor granted. Green is for protection against legal authorities. Red is for passion -- to make someone fall in love with you, perhaps, or when you need courage to settle a score. And black is to neutralize “malas vibres,” bad vibes, and to make undesirable persons simply “disappear” -- no questions asked.

“If ... today you are going to sell drugs or you are going to kidnap somebody, you ask her [La Santa Muerte] for help so you can commit crimes safely,” author Aridjis says with a rueful laugh. “You see some very innocent people praying and making offerings, and some very tough people as well.”

Children ask La Santa Muerte for help with their schoolwork. Some mothers pray to the saint to protect their kids from crime, or from the predations of Mexico’s notoriously corrupt police. Other parents plead with the saint to keep their children from joining street gangs.

One devotee visiting the shrine recently said he had asked the saint to save his cancer-stricken mother. A policeman who declined to give his name said he comes to the altar every two weeks to light a black candle to protect him against assaults in the city’s Colonia Roma district, where he works. He wears two Santa Muerte medals. “She is like God, more or less,” he said.

Narcotraficantes, Mexico’s powerful drug lords, may ask La Santa Muerte for aid in destroying their rivals. Aridjis says the cult is particularly extensive among Mexican prison inmates.

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Traditionally, the heaviest visitor turnout in Tepito falls on the first day of each month, when the street around the shrine is closed to traffic and hundreds if not thousands of the faithful bring images, religious medallions and other objects for the saint to bless, while services are performed in front of the altar.

But even on an ordinary weekday the visitor flow is virtually nonstop. Alejandra Cordero Mendez, 25, came to the shrine a few days ago with her two infant daughters, Carla and Irbe. Mendez said she has turned to La Santa Muerte “for many things,” including help during a difficult childbirth. She had vowed to return to the altar if the saint helped her give birth, and was doing so that day, lighting a white candle.

The Tepito neighborhood is a logical place to encounter La Santa Muerte. Bordered by sprawling market stalls where you can buy anything from guns and pirated Viagra to illegal exotic animals and bootleg DVDs of “The Passion of the Christ,” the barrio has a long history of deprivation and neglect. American writer Oscar Lewis based his classic study of Mexican poverty and social pathology, “Los Hijos de Sanchez” (The Children of Sanchez), on a Tepito family who lived less than a block from where the Santa Muerte altar now stands.

Several of the surrounding market stalls and botanicas sell books on the occult and on New Age religions, along with love potions, Tarot cards, little metal figurines to wear on necklaces and larger statues of the Buddha, Jesus, the Virgen de Guadalupe and La Santa Muerte displayed side by side. A 4 1/2-foot-high statue of La Santa Muerte made of alabaster goes for about $100. There’s even a Santa Muerte aerosol spray.

In the new global marketplace of spirituality, some Mexicans mix and match beliefs, customizing their personal faiths. Aridjis says that when he first came to the vast Sonora market five years ago, only two stalls there sold Santa Muerte items. Now one entire corridor is filled with them.

But be careful what offering you make to La Santa Muerte, says one female market vendor. “You don’t want to offer the saint something she doesn’t want, because she’s very jealous.”

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The saint has many aliases: La Nina Blanca, Negrita, Santa Marta, Martita (“Little Martha”), La Flaca (“The Skinny One”) and, among prison inmates, La Madrina (“The Godmother”). She also has many incarnations. In some images she is transformed into an aggressively cartoonish character, a scythe-wielding Goth-rock princess. In others she appears more reserved, dignified, even genteel.

It wasn’t until the mid-1960s, Aridjis says, that La Santa Muerte began emerging with a vengeance in Mexican society, first in the provinces and later in major urban centers. As Mexico City grew into a monster metropolis, crime surged and a hemispheric drug trade flourished, La Santa Muerte’s stock rose swiftly. Aridjis says he first encountered her 10 years ago while attending an all-night party thrown by a highly prominent Mexican businessman, who kept an image of the saint in a chapel in his home. “I began to learn more and more and more,” he says. “It was like an invisible presence in our society.”

And perhaps not just Mexican society anymore. Dona Queta says friends in Tijuana tell her they’ve seen images of La Santa Muerte along the frontera. Some believe that the skeleton queen will soon be en route to Texas, Chicago, Los Angeles -- if she’s not already there. Says Aridjis: “I think this image is going to cross the border very soon.”

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Times researcher Froylan Enciso in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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