SANTA MARIA CUAUTEPEC, Mexico — Practically overnight, this has gone from a forgotten small town to a religious mecca where pilgrims travel hundreds of miles to seek answers to their prayers.
Their fervor is freaking people out.
While a similar shrine to a Catholic saint would likely be a source of pride, many residents are appalled at a 75-foot-tall statue of a skeleton shrouded in black, Santa Muerte (Saint Death). Although the Santa Muerte icon has existed for decades in working-class Mexican neighborhoods, never has it towered so ominously.
Town officials say they want to respect freedom of religion but are facing pressure from constituents who say their new neighbor is literally giving them nightmares. The town has ordered the statue demolished for zoning violations but has taken no further action.
In a small chapel on the grounds, devotees place tequila, cigarettes and bowls of fruit at the feet of smaller Santa Muerte statues. Some burn special incense sticks that promise better health or a new job. Hundreds of worshipers come for Sunday prayers, many traveling long distances to this town about an hour north of Mexico City.
The temple’s leader, a young man with a goatee and piercing eyes who is known as Godfather Endoque, has warned that worshipers might respond violently if the temple is shut down. Endoque said he wants peaceful coexistence, adding that town officials should realize that many of their own citizens are closeted Santa Muerte devotees.
“This isn’t a figure or an image, it’s a form of faith and love,” Endoque said. “Let’s respect each other. You can have your saints. We will have ours.”
Attracting the curious
The statue is visible from blocks away on a gritty strip that features taquerias, auto repair shops and strip clubs.
The temple itself holds an air of mystery, the land donated by an anonymous follower who credits Santa Muerte with curing his pancreatic cancer. Before entering the compound, a reporter is asked whether he is bringing a hidden camera.
But by building the massive statue with her outstretched arms, the temple’s followers have taken the faith aboveground and welcomed newcomers.
That prominence has drawn the curious, including bricklayer Fernando Flores. The 52-year-old Mexico City man had driven past the statue once, and on a friend’s suggestion, had returned to seek guidance on boosting his slumping business.
The Catholic Church in Mexico has denounced Santa Muerte, saying she is linked to Satanism. Flores says he remains Roman Catholic and disagrees with priests who tell him that worshiping the Santa Muerte is not compatible with his faith.
“I’m not changing religions,” Flores said as he studied smaller Santa Muerte shrines behind glass along the temple’s outer walls. “But I think it is possible to have the Santa Muerte in your house and other saints as well.”
Many here do not agree. Residents say they circulated petitions in church against the Santa Muerte statue. Parents say the children at the day-care center next door started crying when they first saw it.
Braulia Navarro, who has lived in the town all of her 58 years, said her grandchildren have had nightmares about the statue. In a sign of the panic that has spread in some quarters, she even reports that family dogs have started howling mysteriously at night.
“The Scripture says not to worship false idols. I tell my grandchildren to believe in God, the Blessed Virgin and that is enough,” said Navarro, a homemaker. “Didn’t God defeat death? How can death be a saint? To me, that is no saint.”
Endoque, who speaks in hushed tones, said he does not mind the backlash from Catholic residents, although he seems to relish jabbing the church back. He says Santa Muerte’s popularity is proof that the Catholic Church has failed its followers.
“There will be some people who beat their chests and say they don’t agree. But imagine if we had to agree with the ideology of every person in this world,” Endoque said.
“People are tired of looking for religion; people are tired of the priests who make off with the donations. What do they ask for now? Faith, which costs nothing more than love.”
A development issue
The flap has been tricky for town officials because Mexican law protects freedom of religion, said Jose Salvador Castaneda, the municipal director of urban development. But he acknowledges that the town is applying its regulations more strictly because Santa Muerte is unpopular in some quarters.
Town officials say the temple never completed an impact study nor applied for a building permit before building the statue. Santa Muerte followers also ignored requests to appear at administrative hearings. That led the town to file an order of demolition in February.
“Being a Catholic in this office doesn’t allow me to promote those beliefs because I would be going beyond the legal framework,” Castaneda said. “But this town’s origins, from the time of the Conquest, has been with the Catholic Church. The people here aren’t used to his worship of the Santa Muerte. That is where the social unrest comes from.”
Endoque acknowledges flouting protocol and said that the temple probably would not file the paperwork until town officials showed more respect.
Castaneda said he thinks the statue would be acceptable if it were about half its current height so it did not alter the character of the surrounding neighborhood so dramatically. He also said the temple must provide parking to accommodate the crush of visitors.
Complicating his job, Castaneda said, many bureaucrats are spooked by the statue, and several co-workers refuse to deliver notices to the temple because they fear that Santa Muerte will smite them.
Fears of an ‘explosion’
The standoff seems unlikely to be resolved soon, Castaneda said, because town officials fear a violent confrontation if they try to topple the statue. Santa Muerte has a reputation for attracting the criminal element among its followers. Indeed, one of the incense sticks for sale in the temple here provides “protection for drug traffickers.”
Endoque says his core group is peaceful but warned that he could not guarantee that devotees from Mexico City’s roughest neighborhoods would stand idly by if the town tried to take down the statue.
“It will be a response of an entire people. They will say, ‘Never. Never. Never touch. Never interfere with our faith,’ ” he said. “There could be a very strong explosion.”
Despite the warning, Endoque made a conciliatory plea to the town fathers.
“Please, handle this with caution,” he said. “Don’t steal the only thing these people have in the world: their beliefs.”