In this fourth instalment of my Mexico City travel blog I share the extraordinary experience of being invited into the very heart of the annual ritual offerings to the sub-cultural icon Santa Muerte.
Episode 4: Experiencing the ritual of ‘Santa Muerte’ – Saint Death. This blog entry is very hard to write in a way that captures the uniqueness of the experience it describes. A small outline of context may help a bit, so here goes: In Mexico City there are approximately 20 million inhabitants, and the socio-economic structure of this enormous ‘megalopolis’ is quite clear to a European perception. There are extremely wealthy, well-dressed people, and cars, shops and amenities exclusive to this group. There are at the other end of the scale people living on the streets, in the sewers beneath the streets, or in tarpaulin and scrap-wood structures by the sides of the street – whole families, lone children, old people – with no support, in filthy, ragged clothes, and whose situation is desperate. More average Chilangos (Mexico City inhabitants) live in numerous areas with distinct characters, from the boho-trendy Coyoacán, to the Soho of Mexico City – the Zona Rosa, and from the crowded Iztapalapa in the East to the more affluent and cultured Polanco West of the centre. There are areas in the city where distinct cultures have developed, grown from interdependence in adverse conditions. Some places are seen as dangerous for outsiders to go to, with a reputation of crime and violence, and with dense housing ensuring people need to develop strategies for cohesive daily survival.
When I told my academic contacts here that I had been invited to attend the Santa Muerte ritual in the Tepito district, some looked alarmed… Tepito is a neighbourhood with a dark reputation, saturated with sub-cultural norms, a place where people create their own rules of survival, many of them illegal. The community is one where many people rejected by or at odds with mainstream culture cluster, a community of marginality. From within this place, surrounding a single matriarchal community leader with a very large family and a fearsome charisma, the cult religion dedicated to Santa Muerte (Saint Death), believed disappeared until the year 2000, re-emerged into public awareness. Santa Muerte is a fascinating phenomenon, which has been attracting attention – in as far as access to it allows – and efforts to make sense of its traits and its significance. I can’t do that here, but what I can do is describe the experience of being at the very heart of the ritual, on the night of the ‘devotion’ to the sacred icon ‘Santisima Muerte’, the ‘White Sister’, the ‘Great Lady of Light’.
My guide here Vlady indicated that we could go to the Santa Muerte ritual, and then spent some time finding out exactly which day it was due to take place. He has been before, and has interviewed the matriarchal leader, Doña Queta, which has gained him her trust. It was under this cloak of protection that I was able to make the trip.
We arrive by metro, accompanied by a growing number of devotees clutching their Santa Muerte icons and images, mostly discreetly under coats or in bulging rucksacks. The Santa Muerte religion is deeply frowned on by the Catholic Church, and associated with dark forces by many Chilangos, and people were not ready to reveal their faith until in Tepito itself. To reach the street where the event would take place we make our way amongst closing markets, asking for directions through the labyrinthine pathways of stalls, until we arrive amidst a throng of people, all ages, families, many young men, either moving slowly towards a flower festooned gazebo attached to a house in the street, or else staking out a space on the ground with their altars and offerings (icons, gifts of sweets, bracelets, alcohol, flowers and momentos of every kind).
People are very excited and friendly, stopping to exchange gifts of sweets, beads, bread, flowers – acts of reciprocity which form part of the ritual. Others stop to blow smoke (of vaious kinds) or incense onto each others’icons, or spray them with ‘holy water’, from a can.
As we get close to the gazebo, some people are crawling on their bare knees, carrying their icons clasped to their chests, demonstrating their deep devotion (‘the more blood, the better… it’s a brutual display of devotion’ says Vlady). People begin to unzip their rucksacks to reveal intricate statues: skeleton figures clad in glamorous dresses or sinister cloaks, carrying a scythe and a globe. Some icons are almost too big to carry, life-sized and made of wood. It was this style of icon that began the re-emergence of the cult, when in 2000 Doña Queta’s son made an icon that was too big for the house. So she put it outside the house in the street overnight, and in the morning found that under cover of darkness it had been dressed by other anonymous devotees with flowers and gifts. This acknowledgement that others were also followers of the saint led Doña Queta to begin open celebrations to Santa Muerte in the same spot outside her house, and this has grown over the past 11 years to the current mass pilgrimage.
In the gazebo, the focal point of the crowd of thousands, is an array of white icons and posters, white flowers and bunting, and a shrine in a glass case set into the wall, containing the Santa Muerte figure, from whose skull face and head flows thick black hair, striking and somehow sinister against her extravagant white dress and hat. She is surrounded by miniature white icons, portriats of herself in numerous poses, and treasure such as glassware and pearls. Three musicians are playing next to the shrine, as people, carrying Santa Muerte cake handed to them as they pass, queue to climb up with their own icons, approach the shrine, pray, and finally stroke the glass and retreat.
Amazed and entranced by the strange scenes and the calm atmosphere around us I initially don’t notice as Vlady slips off to greet a woman, who embraces him with extreme delight extravagant affection. He waves me over, and introduces me – this is the matriarchal Doña Queta. She is a woman half my height, but with an immense charisma and a powerful embrace, perhaps in her late 50s, with a complex face showing warmth and strength, and lined with survival. She is wearing a t-shirt and dark trousers, covered by a blue and white checked house apron ( – unlikely clothes for a sacred ritual, I think!). Suddenly she grasps us both to her in a spontaneous, passionate embrace, kissing our heads, which is startling and quite overwhelming. I am bemused. Because she has shown us such affection, the crowds literally part before us, and she takes us up onto the gazebo, to the heart of the ritual. She tells us we are safer up here with the musicians, as there are some people behaving badly around the edges of the crowd.
However, Vlady and I feel very exposed and inappropriately prominent, centre stage, and negotiate our way back into the crowd, to see people’s altars and icons. The air is heavy with sweet smells, both pungent incense, and marajuana. Darkness is approaching and people are lighting candles. There are numerous altars laid out on the ground, with more photos, poems, food, tobacco, taquila, and objects relating to events in people’s lives – presumably ackowledging moments in which Santa Muerte has proved powerful for them.
The main themes of Santisima Muerte devotion seem to be the belief that she is inclusive and wholly non-judgemental, that she can change luck or turn around dangerous situations for her devotees (for example give protection, end money troubles, affect a court decision), and that if their prayers are answered people devote themselves more. For example many people tattoo themselves in recognition of an answered prayer. (picture) The community of followers includes many marginal groups including prostitutes, lesbian, gay and transexual people, drug users and ex convicts. This is a community of the forgotten and the fallen, and those who find themselves judged badly by society. However despite worshipping death itself, it doesn’t appear to have the sinister edge that some of the cults relating to the drug cartels (‘narcos’) or specifically to convicts bear. The link with death is fascinating – perhaps this kind of embracing of the worst outcome from the troubles of living (death) can release followers from its power over them.
As Vlady and I move through the crowds people are warm and friendly to us – addressing us ‘guerita y guerito’ (blondies – though Vlady isn’t blond). People want to shake hands, and ask me to take photos, proud of their offerings and altars. I am concerned at first, fearing I carry an invader’s voyeuristic gaze, but people are heady and open (perhaps the result of the dope, incense, and glue-sniffing which is apparently a trend in the proceedings). Anyway they seem amused to see a white face in their midst, and I’m obviously no threat.
Doña Queta addresses the crowds through a crackling P.A. system, telling them that they must go home peacefully after the ritual, and not drink and smoke, or cause trouble. After some reiteration of this she finally relents and announces that people may stay, but stay peacefully. It’s obvious that she feels a burden of responsibility for people’s safety in this anarchic, unregulated happening. She then spots us and waves us back up to the gazebo, where we then stay until the ritual itself is over.
The dedication is led by an unassuming man, who calls to the crowd over a microphone, and they echo back in their thouasands, in a format very close to Catholic liturgies. The effect is powerful, intoxicating. Some people are emotional and passionate, and cross themselves. It is impossible not to be moved by the force of such a mass of devotion, from people with tough lives, momentarily transformed, and demonstrating vulnerability and trust. I am standing within two metres of the caller, and his body language and vocal manner are also striking. He conveys the impression of a servant, not a leader. Meanwhile Doña Queta is at the shrine, a few metres away, in private communion with her icon, tears running down her face. Occasionally she disappears into a side ‘chamber’ (a corrugated iron lean-to) which is packed with hundreds of candles. I later go in here, to see that the metal walls are charred with years of soot and fire hazard.
The dedication lasts for 45 minutes, building and building, and eventually culminates in everyone holding aloft their icons in silence, in a climactic moment of collective veneration (this must be the epitome of ‘communitas’) and finally errupting into and energetic vocal release, just short of a collective cry of joy. Then the musicians appear again under the gazebo (by my elbow), and people begin again to file up to the shrine to have their moment, pooring out private anguish to their Santa Muerte.
In the crowd people are chatting, drinking, smoking, laughing, it feels like a party. Tremendous bangs from huge fire crackers crack the atmosphere every few minutes – these are being let off in the middle of the crowd, with devastating disregard for safety. I’m told that fireworks are traditional, a means of distracting the gods, so that they won’t notice the contact this saint is having with mere mortals.
When we decide it’s time to leave, Doña Queta makes affectionate farewells, and organizes two body guards for us, to accompany us safely to the metro. These, surprisingly, are two women: one her daughter, and the other a tough-looking but very friendly, four-square woman, built for action. This community is certainly matriarchal.
Being welcomed in such a way into the centre of what is a closed community ritual in this way has been a rare and exceptional opportunity to gain an understanding of a set of beliefs and customs, which are developing and being created in the here and now. People’s creative presentations of their offerings which we saw were so varied, and it was very clear that this cult, which may have ancient roots (some say it has) is a living, present phenomenon with real value for its followers.
In my next blog I will reflect on the various Day of the Dead experiences I have been able to witness.