Page 17

DESERT EXPOSURE

NOVEMBER 2018 • 17

SOUTH OF THE BORDER • MORGAN SMITH

La Santa Muerte

A saint of death shines positive light on believers

I

f you drive south from Palomas toward El Entronque you will see a small painted building on your left about a mile south of the military encampment. It is a shrine to La Santa Muerte or the Saint of Death. Four miles farther south there is another shrine, although much smaller and apparently abandoned. Three miles later there is a third perched on a small knoll, also on the left. What is this Santa Muerte? What does it mean? La Santa Muerte is a skeletal figure usually wearing a long robe and holding a scythe. Its background is unclear, but it is thought to come from a combination of indigenous Mesoamerican culture and Spanish Catholic beliefs, although it is not sanctioned by the Catholic church. It is particularly popular along the border and associated with healing and protection. Some say that also means protecting drug traffickers from arrest and prosecution. I first read about La Santa Muerte in a 2008 New Yorker article, “Days of the Dead, the New Narcocultura,” by the wellknown writer, Alma Guillermoprieto. She said, “The cult is known for the drug traffickers’ devotion to it ...” If La Santa Muerte is a protector of drug dealers – if criminals and drug dealers come to believe that this saint gives them some special immunity or protection from arrest or prosecution – this is very troubling. For that reason, I began to look for these shrines several years ago in the hope of interviewing those who came there to worship. My first visit was the sanctuary in Mexico City described by Guillermoprieto. I persuaded a taxi driver to take me and a nervous friend into the Tepito district of Mexico City. “I may be big,” my friend, Jorge, said, “but I am very scared.” We found the sanctuary and were greeted by a very pleasant man named Raimundo who was the caretaker. He assured us that La Santa Muerte was really to help people in need, not to protect criminals. Subsequently I have visited

both the sanctuary and the nearby church several times and have never seen any evidence of a drug culture or felt no sense of danger either during the early morning or the evening visits. Since those early visits, I’ve seen La Santa Muerte in Juárez, in a series of little capillas south of Nogales, along the highway west of Naco and in a “santuario” in Tijuana managed by a very dedicated woman named Lorena Mendoza. “I’m a Catholic,” Mendoza said, “but the Church always wants money. You even have to pay for the final Mass.” So she turned to La Santa Muerte and maintains it for the whole neighborhood. While remodeling this lower floor, she moved it temporarily to another location. Her nephew, Humberto, 15, took me to see it. “I have always believed in La Santa Muerte,” he said. The only truly frightening moment occurred south of Nogales where there were about a dozen little shrines or capillas next to the highway. As I was taking photographs, a battered pickup truck came thundering off the highway and headed toward us through a cloud of dust. The cab driver who had brought me jumped in his cab and locked the doors. Two young guys leapt out of their truck, ran to one of the shrines, lit marijuana cigarettes and began to pray. They turned out to be very friendly. One of them, Ariano, said the Santa Muerte is for people who have “real problems.” She doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with drugs, he added. As for Palomas, what is odd about the shrines along the highway is that, on one hand, they were built openly with the north-south traffic passing by yet now it seems impossible to see anyone there actually worshipping or taking care of the shrines. (There are always freshly lit candles in the closer one.) And so far, I have been unable to find anyone in Palomas who will admit to knowing anything about them. On the other hand, there is a church in Juárez right along the

Isidro, also known as Chili, is a caretaker at the Juárez El Santuario de la Niña Blanca.

busy Avenida Oscar Flores called El Santuario de la Niña Blanca. I spotted it on July 1, the day of Mexico’s national elections, spoke to Isidra (nicknamed Chili) the woman in charge and she invited us to come to a Sunday noon mass. Before going on Sunday, Sept. 23, I was warned several times it could be dangerous and therefore took two “bodyguards”

SAINT

continued on page 19

1950 HWY 180 EAST SILVER CITY, NM

Josefina Ramirez, the priest, blesses a souvenir. (Photos by Morgan Smith)

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