Sat, May 15, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Saint Death offers Mexicans solace

REUTERS , MEXICO CITY

Eduardo Ruben Villegas shows off his amulets outside the shrine to Santa Muerte in Tepito district, Mexico City, on March 15.

PHOTO: REUTERS

In Mexico, the world's second-biggest Catholic country, an unofficial cult of death is winning followers, from influential politicians and police officers to drug pushers and violent criminals.

On a sidewalk in Mexico City's lawless Tepito district, gangsters and ordinary housewives rub shoulders as they pay homage before a shrine to Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, leaving offerings of colored candles, cigarettes and alcohol.

A statue of the unorthodox saint cuts a ghoulish figure as a life-size skeleton in a glittering robe, a tiara atop her long-haired wig and bony fingers laden with gold rings and money offerings in many currencies.

"I ask her to look after me in my businesses and to rid me of my envious thoughts," said Roberto Gutierrez, a tough-looking street hawker in sunshades. Gutierrez stops by the shrine every day and carries a prayer to Santa Muerte in his wallet.

Like many Santa Muerte wor-shippers, Gutierrez asks God's permission to pray to Death, unconcerned by the contradiction between practicing Christianity and a growing pagan cult, which is experiencing a revival after lying dormant until the 1960s.

"First for me comes God and then Santa Muerte," he said.

Before her glass casing, followers deposit apples and eggplants to symbolize abundance, flowers, glasses of tequila and half-smoked cigarettes. Some blow cigar smoke over her image in a cleansing rite.

"She likes it when we do that. She likes the smell of tobacco," said Enriqueta Romero, who tends the shrine.

A funeral cortege of gangsters sporting shades and gold chains passed by in gleaming cars, music blaring, saluting the shrine as they went.

"People ask her: `Protect me tonight because I am going to kidnap or assault somebody,'" said Mexican writer and poet Homero Aridjis, who documented this thriving cult in a book of fictional stories called "Santa Muerte."

The title story is based on a debauched birthday party Aridjis attended of a powerful politician with links to drug traffickers.

At the host's lavish ranch, where former beauty queens plied guests with alcohol and cocaine, Aridjis says he witnessed members of Mexico's political and business elite worship at a secret altar to Santa Muerte -- his first encounter with the phenomenon.

PAGAN DEVOTION

Mexicans have long had a complex relationship with death. Ancient indigenous cultures worshipped a god of death called Mictlantecuhtli, and the Aztecs believed mass human sacrifice was vital to feed the gods and keep the life cycle going.

Even after the Spanish conquest brought Catholicism to the region, Mexicans retained a strong pagan devotion to death, as seen by their celebration every November of the Day of the Dead when they erect altars to the dead in their homes and prepare elaborate meals for the departed souls. It is akin to Roman Catholics' observation on Nov. 2 of All Souls' Day, when they pray for the souls of the faithful departed.

"The cult to Santa Muerte is a syncretism between the Catholic Church and pre-Colombian worship of death," Aridjis said.

Halloween, originally a Celtic pagan feast of the dead to mark the end of the harvest and start of winter, is celebrated in the US and parts of Europe, mainly as a commercial holiday.

The cult of Santa Muerte has seen a revival in the past decade, a revival which Aridjis attributes to disillusionment with "the system."

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