Mexico's dangers give cult new life

MEXICO CITY -- As Mexicans await the visit of Pope John Paul II, it is not only to the Virgin of Guadalupe that some of them are making their daily appeals for divine help.

Outside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Miguel Angel Escobar, 18, sells statues and portraits of the Virgin Mary and Juan Diego, the peasant whom the pope will elevate into sainthood next week. But asked whether he believes that the Virgin appeared before the peasant in 1531, Escobar pulls from his pocket a tarot-like card with the image of a skeleton wearing a black robe and holding a long scythe in its hand.

"For me, this is the good one," Escobar says. "In my family, we put out a candle for her once a month."

The image is of the Santa Muerte, or Saint of Death, a devilish but popular cult figure who has emerged from Mexico's mix of traditional beliefs to become a modern object of solace for the inhabitants of this challenging city who believe they most need protection from the threat of death and danger.

The cult has a following among criminals and jail inmates, but also some police officers, prosecutors, mini-bus drivers and destitute street kids. Many of them offer sweets, coins, flowers or even a shot of tequila to the saint's image, asking in return for a favor or protection, not unlike the way many of Mexico's Roman Catholics appeal to the Virgin.

Boarding one city bus along Zaragoza Boulevard on the east side, passengers have been startled to see a mini-altar to the Santa Muerte next to the stick shift, complete with statuettes of the skeletal figure. Many of the riders quickly cross themselves when they see the shrine.

Santa Muerte "is a belief among people with dangerous jobs, but also among the street kids," said Ricardo Camacho Sanciprian, executive director of Casa Alianza, a charity that helps homeless children, and a former juvenile court counselor. "Because the children are so desperate, and often so close to death, they identify with it, because it helps them deal with their bitterness and their sadness."

Out of the shadows

Santa Muerte is mostly worshiped in the shadows of the city, and for youths, it may be part of a look-tough fad. But some say the "folk saint" is a reflection of Mexico's rich, multifaceted spirituality, and that despite its satanic undertones, many adherents do not feel a conflict with their Christian beliefs.

"This isn't a parallel faith, it's an additional faith," said Rev. Enrique Maza, a Jesuit priest and journalist who has written about religion, death and the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, it is unorthodox strains of belief such as this that the pope and other church officials have in mind when they speak about the need for a "new evangelization" to strengthen faith and the church's standing in Mexico, where believers have always faced a barrage of spiritual influences.

The nation is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, second in number only to Brazil. But the church has long fought a battle against competing divinities among indigenous people here and across Latin America, and more recently against the loss of worshipers to Protestant and Evangelical churches.

Jose de Jesus Castro Lopez, coordinator of pastoral services at Casa Alianza, said he believes that the Santa Muerte cult is growing in Mexico City as the population expands and the media spread information about it to impressionable youths.

He believes the church needs to work harder to help people so they don't look outside the church for spiritual solutions to their problems.

"The church is very much bothered by these departures," he said, describing himself as a layman who does the work of a priest in the streets. "It doesn't allow this and will not allow this because it is against the law of God, but it is the work of the church to give answers to these people."

Mexicans long have had a unique and respectful approach to death, most visibly in their "Day of the Dead" celebrations--festive family reunions among the graves of their ancestors, to whom they offer food. It is an ancient tradition among Indians but is now held on All Saints' Day.

Elio Masferrer, a Mexican anthropologist and president of the Latin American Association for the Study of Religion, said the concept of Santa Muerte emanates not only from indigenous traditions but also from the European folk notion of seeking a "good death" to ensure passage into heaven.

A response to urban strife

Other anthropologists believe the modern Santa Muerte is more of a contemporary response to the hardships and dangers of Mexican city life among less rooted people with little money, little education and a desire to seek "magical cures."

"This seems to have more of an urban, pagan element," said James Winslow Dow, an anthropologist at Michigan's Oakland University and an expert in shaman beliefs in rural Mexico.

"Religion in Mexico is pretty free-flowing. But although with traditional Indian shamans, there was a belief in a series of evil, malevolent beings, this is more of an image that gangsters use when they have given up morality and taken up a Satanist view of the world," he said.

Many seeking out the Santa Muerte come to the Sonora market in the center of Mexico City, where her image sits among religious paraphernalia. Some vendors say that up to half of their clients ask for Santa Muerte figures.

Bus driver Fernando Bravo, 35, wears a tattoo of the Santa Muerte on his right shoulder. He said he first prayed to it when he was in jail after an accident in which he was blamed for injuring several people. Sentenced to 8 years, his faith was confirmed when he was released after only 8 months.

"She keeps me calm. My work is dangerous, and although we don't have guns or drugs or big problems, we could find death around every corner," said the father of two, who says he also believes in Jesus.

Ten years ago, Bravo passed along his belief to his friend and fellow bus driver, Miguel Rosales Munoz, 36. Since then, Rosales has become an even bigger believer, and it was he who built the shrine in the bus that startles east-side passengers.

A boastfully fast driver who wears a wooden cross and a locket-size portrait of the Virgin around his neck, Rosales said he prays to the death saint every morning. In addition, he has appealed to Santa Muerte in several emergency situations.

Asked how he could appeal for good deeds from such a frightening image, he replied: "Well, she's for bad too. I don't play with her."

The cult also is strong in the city's juvenile detention centers and alleys where street kids are found. There, it's common to see Santa Muerte pendants around necks, although some admit the pendants were gifts that they are afraid to remove in case it brought bad luck.

"Her dark image reminds me of the street and the solitude in which we live," said Guillermo Isidro, 19, a street dweller who was being treated in Casa Alianza's drug-addiction center. "If you don't believe in her, you will not understand."