‘St. Death’ calls to the living in Mexico City

Cult of ‘the skinny girl’ spreads

MEXICO CITY — Swathed in a cloak and equipped with a long scythe, Mexico’s Santa Muerte, or St. Death, is a dead ringer for the Grim Reaper.

But devotees like those in Mexico City’s notorious El Tepito slum insist she is a motherly angel of mercy, and they make sure to attend to her like a queen.

Her larger-than-life statue, kept in a glass box at a street-side sanctuary, is draped in lace-trimmed satin. Her hooded, grinning skull is crowned with a rhinestone tiara, and every bony finger protruding from beneath her cloak boasts a glittering ring.

“She’s not frightening. She’s beautiful,” insisted welder Isiel Alvarado, 27, flipping up his T-shirt to expose a tattoo of St. Death on his tummy. Genuflecting and crossing himself repeatedly before the shrine, Alvarado said he believes in St. Death because she delivered his brother safely from prison.

Stories like Alvarado’s, of prayers answered and miracles performed, are fueling the spread of a Mexican phenomenon: the cult of St. Death, whose worship is said to date back only a generation to rural villages in the mid-1960s.

Prisoners, petty thieves, corrupt cops and powerful drug traffickers are said to be devotees of the so-called saint, who is not recognized by the Catholic Church. But the cult is benefiting, too, from the faith of simple working-class Mexicans who try to abide by the law but daily face the hunger, injustice, corruption and crime of Mexico’s toughest neighborhoods.

Subway janitor Maria Carrillo, 56, has prayed to the so-called saint since her adult daughter Maria Elena walked out the door one day two years ago and never returned. Carrillo has struggled to support her four grandchildren on $50 a week while she searches for her daughter.

“I go from church to church to pray,” she said. “I’ll try anything.”

Marisa Adriana Ruiz, 7, arrived at the same street shrine wearing a grubby tank top and flip-flops twice the size of her tiny feet. She and her cousin, Carla Patricia Reyes, 9, sometimes leave sweets in front of the statue to ask for the release of their fathers from prison.

Gonzalo Urbano, 36, a flower vendor, arrived to pay homage with his wife and 6-month-old son.

Soon after his son’s birth, he worried the baby was blind. “He didn’t blink when a cigarette lighter was flicked open before his face,” he said. Urbano began to pray, and now he’s convinced St. Death restored the baby’s vision.

Before the statue, he and his wife held up necklaces they wear with tiny St. Death replicas. Their baby wears a bracelet with blue beads and a miniature icon around a wrist.

The phenomenon is rooted in Mexico’s pre-Columbian past but also reflects its troubled present, said Homero Aridjis, a Mexican novelist whose latest book is a series of stories called “La Santa Muerte.” Aridjis first stumbled across a shrine to St. Death when he received a mysterious fax inviting him to attend a drug lord’s birthday party. At the event, he wandered among AK-47-wielding bodyguards, beautiful women offering trays of booze and cocaine, and politicians and businessmen bearing exotic gifts. He fictionalized the lavish scene in the first story of his new book.

“It’s a complex cult,” Aridjis said. “On the one hand, it is inoffensive, with ordinary people involved. On the other, it is linked to Satanism and organized crime.”

The growing devotion to St. Death among the humble “shows an enormous disappointment with the establishment and with justice in Mexico. The people know there is no protection for the poor,” Aridjis said. “It also shows alienation with the Catholic Church. People are fed up with going to church and being told what to do: ‘Sit down, kneel, stand up.’ Then they get asked to give money and get nothing back.”

The Catholic Church hasn’t launched a vigorous campaign against St. Death, but it frowns on paying homage to the figure. In its publication From Faith, the church warned last November, “the devil will do anything to win devotees.”

Followers of St. Death, who affectionately call her “the skinny girl,” say they see no contradiction between being good Catholics and praying to the statue.

“I have room in my heart for all the saints,” said Enriqueta Romero, 57, who grabs visitors’ elbows and proudly leads them over to the statue she erected two years ago in front of her home.

Romero and her husband do a brisk business with a souvenir stand selling devotees candles, aerosol cans of “holy spray” and statues. The most expensive figure costs $200. The shrine is one of about 20 that now stand in El Tepito alone.

Romero’s son, a dentist, celebrates a “Mass” once a month, drawing worshippers bearing bouquets of fresh flowers and bottles of tequila to leave for the statue. Sometimes a devotee hires a mariachi band to serenade the statue with love songs.

Images of grinning skeletons are not unusual in Mexico, where the Day of the Dead is one of the biggest celebrations of the year. Pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico revered gods of death, and when the Spanish arrived, Catholic priests often fused some traditions with Christianity.

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