NOGALES, Sonora – Not everyone fears the reaper.
Vendors here sell a gruesome skeletal figure, dressed in a robe, holding the world in one hand and a scythe in the other.
She is known as Santa Muerte – Saint Death or Holy Death – and her following is growing in Mexico, where chapels have sprung up over the last four years to honor her.
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Believers, including some Roman Catholics, also pray to her at altars in their homes.
Some say she saves lives.
Others claim she is the Grim Reaper, and they pray she will bring death to their enemies.
Still others ask her for protection “even as they do harm to others,” according to Mexican novelist and poet Homero Aridjis, who has written a book about the movement. He counts narcotraffickers, corrupt cops and politicians among Santa Muerte’s followers.
In time, Santa Muerte will become more known in the United States because of immigrants, predicts the Rev. Juan Carlos Aguirre of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson.
One woman in Tucson recently brought Aguirre a Santa Muerte statue, wondering what it was. He told her to destroy it.
The Roman Catholic Church sees Santa Muerte as “satanic,” he said, because it is attributing powers to something that doesn’t have power. “It is idolatry,” he said.
Devotion to death is rooted in prehistoric indigenous cultures. The Aztecs had a death goddess named Mictlantecuhtli, and practiced human sacrifices to feed the gods.
“It is difficult to know when exactly the Santa Muerte cult began,” said Aguirre, because the sect could have remained underground for decades.
Devotion to Santa Muerte first took hold in rough, poor urban neighborhoods where violence and death are facts of daily life.
“In 2001, it surfaced in Colonia Morelos in Mexico City. It began with one chapel, and now there are 20 in Colonia Morelos and (Colonia) Tepito,” Aguirre said.
“There are followers who have broken away from the Roman Catholic Church,” he said. “Then, there are the followers who are Catholics who do not have a solid foundation in their faith. Out of ignorance, they go to the extremes. This leads to superstition. It is harmful because it turns religion into magic.”
In Sonora, housewives, businessmen, construction workers and vendors are among Santa Muerte’s followers.
In a domed chapel near a shade tree about 10 miles south of the border off the main highway in Nogales, Sonora, people gather to pray to Santa Muerte.
The chapel, built about two years ago, has windows riddled with bullet holes.
The bullet holes do not stop believers. They light candles and offer oranges, flowers and half-smoked cigarettes. Offerings may also include cigars, water and shot glasses filled with tequila or wine.
A picture of Jesus Christ and an image of the risen Lord on a crucifix are displayed in the chapel, which also holds an altar with a dozen figures of Santa Muerte in robes of white, gold and black.
Black stands for a death wish or for bringing harm to an enemy. White is for protection, and gold is for money. Red, another color associated with Santa Muerte, represents passion.
Follower Gloria Lopez, 35, of Nogales credits Santa Muerte with saving her grandson. The toddler was near death last December in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora.
“He underwent lung surgery and was given 24 to 48 hours to live. I prayed to San Francisco and nothing happened; he was getting worse. Then I prayed to her and in half an hour the baby was better,” she said.
“He remained in the hospital for one month. When he was fine, I walked to the chapel carrying him in my arms to give thanks. I believe in the miracle she did,” said Lopez, who does not attend church.
She holds a prayer card to Santa Muerte, which in part reads: “en Dios creo y en ti confi’o” – “in God I believe, and in you I confide.”
She said people pray to Santa Muerte for jobs, good fortune and money, as well as for safety.
“On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, this area fills up with people who come day and night to the capilla,” the chapel. “They bring mariachis and bandas to serenade Santa Muerte,” she said.
On the first day of each month, special recognition is given to her, said Margarita Garci’a, 27, who began praying four years ago to Santa Muerte.
She said she read a magazine article about the figure and a friend gave her a silver medal of the image that she wore on a chain around her neck. “I prayed for her to help me with my job,” said the vendor.
In return, Garci’a promised to build an altar in her honor at her home and have an image of her made on a gold medal.
She bought books and learned more about Santa Muerte. “I hear she can do bad things, too, such as bring about death. I don’t pray to her in that way. I just know her as good,” said Garci’a, who shared her beliefs with her parents, Guadalupe and Rafael Garci’a.
“I believe in God above all,” said Guadalupe Garci’a, 50, an ex-devotee of Santa Muerte. “I must admit that I prayed to Santa Muerte, but I became scared when a friend told me that in return for a favor, Santa Muerte can also take from you the person who you love the most.”
Santa Muerte does not scare Rafael Garci’a, 52. “I love her and you cannot escape her. She takes everyone, rich or poor,” said Garci’a, an employee at The Cavern Creations, a shop near the border.
He picked up and caressed a $300 sculpture of Santa Muerte that sits on a shelf in the shop.
“I think la flaquita (the skinny little one) is beautiful,” he said of the image, hand-painted by artist Leticia Sanabria.
Shop owner Audi Gonzales began selling Santa Muerte sculptures about seven years ago. He orders pieces from artisans in Michoacan, Guadalajara and Guanajuato.
He said the pieces become popular each November during the celebration of All Souls and All Saints. But Father Aguirre said bringing Santa Muerte into that occasion perverts the celebration, which honors family members who have died.
At times, Gonzales said, Santa Muerte sells “like hot cakes.”
“I tell my buyers that it will keep the bad spirits away,” said Gonzales, a smile forming.