A brief look into the every-day worship of Santa Muerte.
To live in Mexico is to face a series of profound contradictions. It’s the place with a soil so fertile you can literally grow cacti next to coconuts, yet you can easily see half of the population in a desperate battle to not starve to death; it’s where we revere mothers to almost religious heights yet cities like Juarez kill dozens of women every week to drug cartel/state/drug-cartel-state violence; it’s where every relevant celebration revolves around our native cultures yet the very institutions that claim to preserve them were created to silence them. No wonder we had to find alternatives — to feed ourselves, to protect each other, to make sense of the world, to play a game we were born already losing.
We claim to be a devout Catholic nation. The Spanish colony and its genocides brought us the Roman faith, an alignment with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And even then, we had to do it our own way. Even then, the cult of Men was to be subverted when we gave our most sacred beliefs a female face, a brown face. So strong a symbol it was, we took it with us for Independence and for Revolution. And still, for millions of us, Lady Guadalupe is not enough. Because Mexico is not only about the bright colors and the beautiful visions of life; it has never been. Half of us is struggle, trauma, darkness, death.
Our native forefathers were worshippers of death — they knew, perhaps better than any other groups of people on Earth, that to honor death meant to protect ourselves in life. My own grandmother, a person who to this day, still has an altar to both Jesus and our indigenous deities, used to say: “No, hija, no le temo a la muerte ni a los Muertos. Es a los vivos a los que hay que tenerle miedo.” “No, I don’t fear neither death nor the dead. It’s the living we should fear.” Most Mexicans have lived among the rampant inequality, the unstoppable violence, the cruel repression, the careless destruction of our environment. We know that every evil we face comes from the living. We know Death is dignity. It’s sacred to us, and we call it Santa Muerte.
Santa Muerte — la santísima, la niña, the White Lady — like all deities, has temples, places of communal worship, but most of the actual praying, most of the ritual happens at home. In mine, my mother has built a small shrine, consisting in an image of the Lady, clad in a white satin cloth, a picture of my grandmother (she passed away last year; her inclusion is an homage to the recently deceased), a candle that should be burning all day, every day, and a single red apple. As with most native Mexican rituals, the fire of the candle acts as a portal between dimensions (our limited, physical world, and the eternal realm of the dead), but it’s in the apple where the Lady’s work can be shown.
The apple is an offering — a living thing for her to consume. The fruit captures all of the negative energy, all of the harm and the hostile vibes of the world around us. When Santa Muerte eats it from the inside, it takes the evils away. It’s a healing process in every offering. Our Lady is a benevolent force. She grants us the peace to deal with this reality, one day at the time.
Mainstream Catholics call our faith a cult, in order to delegitimize it. They think we’re satanic, evil, uncivilized and beyond redemption. But that is what makes the Santa Muerte religion so strong; both our church and our state have turned the indigenous, the rural peoples, the sex workers, and the urban poor into pariahs, but these social outcasts are the core of our community. We’re all getting closer together because Santa Muerte accepts everyone. Because Death takes everyone.
(Featured Artwork: ‘Santa Muerte’ by Katrina Pallon)