(New York Times) MEXICO CITY ? Santa Muerte does not look like some vision from heaven. In fact, she looks like hell: a scythe-wielding skeleton with a blood-curdling grin. So perhaps it is fitting that most of her followers come from places that feel like hell on earth, places like Tepito, a crime-ravaged slum in the heart of this capital city.
At a small chapel in Tepito, one of Mexico City’s most notorious neighborhoods, adults and children ask the help of Santa Muerte.
It is a maze of littered streets, bustling with drug traffickers and street vendors offering everything from stolen television sets to rare and endangered birds.
But on the first day of every month, lawlessness gives way to impassioned displays of faith, as hundreds of men, women and children pack the streets to pray for miracles from Santa Muerte, or “Saint Death,” a ghoul they have named an angel.
Petty thieves and carjackers, their necks draped with heavy gold chains, mingle with old ladies in aprons, towing grandsons they want desperately to save from lives of crime. Drug traffickers and street vendors who sell smuggled goods stand with little girls, who talk about how much they miss fathers serving time in jail.
Carmen Gonz?lez Hern?ndez, 50, came this month to ask for help raising her six grandchildren. Their father was thrown in jail last year for stealing cars, she said. Her husband died last month from a heart attack. At her age, she doubted she would be able to find a decent job. She worried she would have to send the grandchildren to work.
The tiny grandmother in a sky blue apron offered a candle to Santa Muerte, and prayed for the miracle of money for food.
“To me she is beautiful,” Ms. Gonz?lez said. “Whenever things become desperate, I ask her for help, and she helps me.”
People like Ms. Gonz?lez describe Santa Muerte as an angel of last resort for outlaws and outcasts, people who feel abandoned by their government and disparaged by the church. They live on the fringes of a society besieged as much by renegade cops and corrupt politicians as by crime. Their numbers are growing.
“Death remains a great mystery,” said Jurek P?ramo, who leads the monthly prayer service in Tepito, “and there is power in that mystery. People pray to that power for protection.”
Prayer sheets read, “Victorious Jesus Christ, who on the cross was defeated, now defeat my enemy who is vanquished with me, in the name of our Lord.”
The Catholic Church has condemned Santa Muerte services as devil worship, and law enforcement authorities have linked the cult to violence committed by drug traffickers and child prostitution rings. In a spate of killings in the northern state of Sinaloa this year that left more than 50 people dead, authorities reported finding tattoos, rings and pendants bearing the image of the Santa Muerte on the bodies of many of the victims.
Homero Aridjis, a novelist and poet, recently issued a novel based on the growing appeal of Santa Muerte. He said that most of the followers seek protection from the evil that lurks in their lives. Others, he said, seek darker blessings no other saint would approve.
“Some ask her for protection from harm,” said Mr. Aridjis. “But others ask for protection from harm even as they do harm to others.
“She is their accomplice.”
Still, the real power behind the cult comes from Mexico’s impoverished and neglected masses. Shrines to Santa Muerte have been erected in public spaces from Tijuana to the southern tip of Mexico. Merchants at the open-air Sonora Market, long known for selling amulets and healing potions, do a brisk business selling images of Santa Muerte in all sizes, wearing tunics of all colors.
The monthly ceremony in Tepito draws hundreds of people from across the capital. They form long lines and wait for their chance to stand before a life-sized statue of the grim reaper of a saint to offer flowers and candles and ask for blessings.
Those who attended this month said they were devout Catholics, but they said they adored Santa Muerte because she was their creation and because she had been created in their image.
According to her followers, Santa Muerte is not above pleasures of the flesh, even though she has no flesh. She prefers feathered boas and sequined gowns to celestial blue robes illuminated by the sun. She likes chocolates and flaunts rows of rings on each finger. She chain-smokes, and drinks her whiskey straight.
She likes mariachi music during worship services, and she is most comfortable with people who have fallen off the straight and narrow.
Hayde Sol?s C?rdenas, 65, offered typical testimony. She sells smuggled tennis shoes for a living. A year ago, she said, her son Eliazar stole the family’s savings, which she had kept hidden under the bed, and ran away with a married woman. He left his 9-year-old son behind.
Meanwhile, Ms. Sol?s has struggled to re-establish her business, accepting money from loan sharks and smugglers.
She said the Virgin of Guadalupe Mexico’s patron saint, would not sympathize with a life like hers, tending rather to well-off people with college degrees and nice clothes. Santa Muerte, she said, hears prayers from dark places.
“She was sent to rescue the lost, society’s rejects,” Ms. Sol?s said.
“She understands us, because she is a cabrona like us,” the street merchant added, using a Mexican expletive. “We are hard people and we live hard lives. But she accepts us all, when we do good and bad.”
Story lead via Twelveoaks, Ace Reporter for Cafe Arcane.