Santa Muerte in L.A.: A gentler vision of 'Holy Death'

The prayer in Spanish sounded like one from an ordinary Catholic Mass. But the man who led it wore a coyote-skin headdress and called himself the last of 13 generations of brujos -- witch doctors -- in his family.


FOR THE RECORD:
Santa Muerte: An article in Monday's Section A about followers of the sect of Santa Muerte misspelled the last name of Rick Nahmias, a photographer who has documented the movement, as Nahmais. —



The name the worshipers invoked was not that of the Virgin Mary but of Santa Muerte, or "Holy Death," a Mexican folk saint linked to narcotics trafficking, a kind of female grim reaper with a skull for a face.

About two dozen devotees recited a rosary and stood and sat on cue to offer praise to this unconventional icon one Sunday at a storefront shrine near MacArthur Park.

"Angel created by faith," they chanted, "allow the power in me to be released."

Santa Muerte is not a Catholic saint, and in recent decades her popularity in Mexico, especially among the poor and criminal classes, has led to clashes with church officials and government authorities. Her first adherents included Mexican prisoners, drug dealers and prostitutes, and those in legitimate but dangerous nighttime work, such as security guards and taxi drivers.

"It's sort of like the Virgin for people on the edge," said Patrick A. Polk, a folklorist and curator at UCLA's Fowler Museum.

But in and around Los Angeles, where Santa Muerte services are held in at least three storefront shrines, a dash of pop theology and Southern California sunshine seems to have given the movement a mild New Age flavor.

Followers, many of whom call themselves Catholics, talk less about death than about cleansing the spirit and developing inner strength.

"Everything depends on oneself," said Miguel Velasco, a former administrator and a "spiritual guide" at the 3-year-old Sanctuario Universal de la Santa Muerte on Alvarado Street. "You can believe in God, or a saint, or even a tree. But what really matters is the faith you have. Faith can move mountains."

Leaders here characterize the practice as benign, and devotees appear to draw from a broad cross section of people in immigrant neighborhoods -- manual laborers, public employees, couples with children, laid-off factory workers.

Despite the startling imagery, these worshipers say, their cult is centered on love and virtue and is becoming accepted.

"Years ago, they used this for witchcraft, to get certain things: money, revenge," said Santiago Guadalupe, who dons piles of wooden beads in addition to the headdress to give the weekly sermon at Sanctuario Universal. "Now it is more religion. It is about health, prayer."

Guadalupe wears a ponytail and possesses classic Aztec features: beaked nose, prominent brow, a wisp of a beard. He is from Catemaco, a town in Veracruz state where a Mexican subculture of alternative religion thrives. He said he began his training in the shamanistic arts as a child.

He helps run the sect from a pink office in the back of a tiny botanica up the street from the shrine. The walls are decorated with a sentimental painting of an Indian shaman in wolf skin, a sunset calendar and shelves containing incense and a bottle of Tapatio hot sauce.

From here, Guadalupe, who cited spiritual reasons in declining to give his age, works three phones at once, taking calls from clients all over the region seeking blessings or help with love affairs -- part of the all-inclusive spectrum of Santa Muerte devotion. There are also those requesting the more basic Shamanistic services: healing herbs, potions and readings of tarot cards and foreheads.

One recent afternoon, Guadalupe barked into one phone while reading the screen on a second, periodically cupping his hand over the mouthpiece to call out to customers in the botanica.

The customers wanted their fortunes told, and Guadalupe asked them to wait as he turned back to his phones, impatiently tapping a pen on the desk.

A large stack of tarot cards sat on the desk near him. Behind him, a large, glossy statue of the Virgin Mary caught the glare from the single lightbulb.

"People come for their jobs, for good luck at the casinos or for problems with a husband or wife," Guadalupe said.

"In Mexico, more came because they were having problems in their family. Here, they come because they feel alone."

Santa Muerte "accepts them no matter their age, creed or color. She is accepting of all religions," he said.

At the weekly Santa Muerte Mass, Guadalupe takes turns with several other spiritual guides to lead a long and somber service that resembles traditional Catholic Masses in Mexico and includes the recitation of a special rosary that incorporates the traditional Lord's Prayer and appeals to Santa Muerte in place of Mary.

Sneakers and cowboy boots thump on the laminate floor as the crowd stands for long stretches, then kneels for blessings. They inhale incense smoke, and raise their arms to the figure of Santa Muerte wearing a security guard's badge. Paper notes are safety-pinned to the skirt of her white satin gown -- petitions from devotees seeking favors.

Offerings are piled at her feet: orange carnations, white chrysanthemums, pink roses, a goblet of Snickers bars and peanut butter cups, beer, tequila and baskets of bananas, grapes and loaves of bread. Signs in felt pen urge visitors to be quiet.

Guadalupe offers prayer for those in jail or in trouble with the law -- a nod to Santa Muerte's origins among the marginal. But mainstream preoccupations rule. His sermon stresses the importance of family, the evils of envy and gossip.

"People miss their families and traditions," Velasco explained. "In the U.S., they face a lot of changes. The youth seem very lost. This society is very advanced with technology and security, but in human principles it remains low."

A similar scene plays out three times a week at the Templo Santa Muerte on Melrose Avenue, where about 20 people gather for services. "Blessed and glorious mother, Angel of Death," they pray. "We ask you to protect us."

The services are run by a Mexican wrestler turned missionary who calls himself Sisyphus, who set up the shrine three years ago. Their tone is more improvised and folksy than at the shrine on Alvarado Street, and there are personal testaments and singing.

"We search for spiritual evolution," Sisyphus said. He said he sees himself more as a counselor than a priest.

At both locations, devotees talk of Santa Muerte's power to perform miracles. They share stories of unexpected blessings -- an airline ticket procured, a baby's lung infection cleared. Santa Muerte is said to have particular powers over love.

But guides don't make guarantees. Their mission is to help people only with their faith, Guadalupe said, adding: "I don't like problems."

Marta Mendes, a Salvadoran grandmother who calls herself a devout Catholic, said she has attended the Melrose Masses for more than a year. She credits Santa Muerte with helping her vision, which had begun to fail because of diabetes.

"I am always a Catholic," Mendes said. "But my faith is here."

Catholic church officials in Los Angeles have made no official statements on the sect, said an archdiocese spokeswoman.

Local devotees say they feel more accepted than they used to.

"At first, people would attack us. They saw this," Velasco said, fingering a Santa Muerte pendant he wears around his neck, "and they would start yelling. But now, there is more tolerance."

Still, among enthusiasts, there is a sense that acceptance of Santa Muerte remains fragile.

They are quick to dissociate themselves from rumors of black magic and Satanism that circulate south of the border, and they dispute connections to drug traffickers. Allegations of such a connection have fueled bitter debate in violence-torn Mexico, where earlier this year a military campaign against narcotics culture was reportedly behind the destruction of several Santa Muerte shrines.

The sect's emergence here may not be especially surprising.

Los Angeles has been an incubator for all manner of fringe religions since the 19th century, a tradition fanned equally by rich Hollywood seekers and storefront-church disciples.

Mexico, too, has an enthusiastic tradition of tarot card reading and other forms of divination and also of healing herbs and potions.

Rick Nahmais, a photographer who has documented immigrants' Santa Muerte worship, said the practice fills serious needs among the marginalized, citing a group of transgender prostitutes he photographed in San Francisco. They sought Santa Muerte's protection from AIDS and even conducted marriages in her name, he said.

Southern California's version of the practice may contain "a little shtick," as is typical of L.A.'s New Age dabblings, he said. But the creed's striking imagery sets it apart. Nahmais called it genuine spiritual questing by people trapped in highly dangerous lives whose poverty, need or underworld occupations leave them feeling exiled from conventional faith.

"What I love about Santa Muerte worship is that it deals with the shadow very openly -- the Jungian shadow, the archetype of darkness in all of us," he said. "It embraces that."

jill.leovy@latimes.com

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