The barrio of Tepito, where it's said that everything is for sale except dignity, has been one of Mexico City's roughest neighborhoods since Aztec times. Famous for its black market and its boxing champions, Tepito is a place where residents learn to fight early and fight hard. These days it has also become the epicenter of Mexico's fastest-growing faith: Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, a hybrid religion that merges Catholic symbolism with pre-Hispanic worship of the skeletal Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, Lord and Lady of the Dead.
I recently went there for an outdoor mass at one of Santa Muerte's first public shrines, founded eight years ago by a great-grandmother named Enriqueta Romero. When I visited in November, Romero placed a necklace with skull pendant around my neck as some 5,000 worshippers surged toward the glass-encased skeleton outside her house. Clad in a faded housedress, she told me that Mexico's Catholic churches stand empty while thousands of Holy Death shrines have spread across the country because "the church reprimands," but Santa Muerte never does. "She accepts everyone, with faults and without."
Ex-convicts attest to Santa Muerte's help in springing them from prison, while other devotees beseech her for help with jobs, illnesses, a pregnant daughter, a drug-addicted child. Taxi drivers and prostitutes plead for protection, as do soldiers and police. A gaunt blonde in skintight jeans and pancake makeup places a candle beside Romero's shrine, while a transgender woman clutches her personal altar like a child. Worshippers bring gifts -- candy, cigarettes, tequila, flowers, fake paper money -- to the little temporary shrines that line the sidewalks around Romero's house like a flea market. Some anoint the skeleton with mescal; others hold joints to her bony lips.
The worship of Santa Muerte, first noted among Mexico's poor in the middle of the last century, remained a largely underground practice until the last decade; since then, it has become a full-fledged mainstream cult with 2 million to 5 million followers, practiced in an increasingly public fashion both in Mexico and the United States. Its rise has provoked alarmist rhetoric. A U.S. military report brands Santa Muerte "the death cult of the drug lords," and indeed her shrines are frequently uncovered during police raids on narcos on both sides of the border. In March 2009, the Mexican Army bulldozed some three dozen shrines near the U.S. border as part of a psychological war on "narcoculture."
But the drug war is only tangentially connected to Santa Muerte: "Her primary base is poor people -- those excluded from the formal economy or who have lost faith in the judicial system," says Lois Ann Lorentzen, director of the University of San Francisco's Center for Latino Studies in the Americas. Santa Muerte's popularity, rooted in dangerous urban areas like Tepito and the rural regions that increasingly resemble them, reflects economic and political uncertainty in a country where almost 50 million people live below the poverty line.
The faith's recent growth coincides with developments that have disproportionately affected its already marginalized followers. The world financial crisis hit Mexico harder than most other countries due to its reliance on U.S. trade; the economy shrank 7.3 percent in 2009, its worst year since 1932. Even before that, many border factories producing goods for U.S. companies had relocated to China, and the livelihoods of millions of peasants were undermined by the 2008 elimination of farm tariffs under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The worldwide downturn has affected Mexican migrants as well, with remittances to Mexico dropping 15 percent last year.
At the same time, Mexico's drug war has taken a turn toward ultraviolence, with more than 15,000 killed since President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels following his disputed 2006 election. While the rich armor their cars, hire bodyguards, and implant microchips so they can be traced in a kidnapping, the poor have no such options. "People are asking Santa Muerte for protection," says filmmaker Eva Aridjis, who made a documentary about the cult, "protection against herself really, against death."
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