While in Mexico recently for a book tour, I visited a market in Guadalajara where I encountered a skeletal figure, robed, with long black hair holding a scythe and globe standing in a shop window. A Grim Reapress of sorts, standing shoulder to shoulder with statues of Jesus, St. Jude and The Virgin of Guadalupe. I'd been doing research into the lives of the saints and martyrs for my new young adult book trilogy, "The Blessed," but here was one I'd never come across. Many revered as saints and martyrs were regarded as misfits and people that actively sought death, however, none actually embodied death as far as I'd ever heard.
She goes, I was told, by many names: Lady Of Shadows. Holy Girl. Lady of the Night. The Skinny Lady. Santa Sebastiana, the female equivalent of St. Sebastian, known also for symbolizing a holy death. Frowned upon by the Church and the upper classes, worshiped secretly for centuries by the working classes, Santa Muerte had become the patron saint of "outcasts" and the downtrodden, invoked privately by many living alternative lifestyles: gay, transgender, bi-sexual and even criminal ones -- drug traffickers, pickpockets and prostitutes among others -- on the fringe of mainstream society, who seek her favor and protection.
In current times, her devotional cult had come up from the underground, mainly as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations held widely in Mexico. If the Day Of Dead had a Queen, she would be it. Altars are erected in her honor, festooned with cigarettes, flowers, traditional sugar skulls, coins and candles. She even has her own rosary.
The more research I did, the more questions I asked, the more apprehensive I found people were about answering my questions or even discussing the topic. Which only made me more curious. Saint Death seemed to be shrouded in mystery, suspicion and warnings. One person who was willing to talk told me a story of a bus driver "sacrificing" his passengers to Saint Death by making them exit the vehicle and running them over. Another person warned me NEVER look a spiritual leader's wife in the eyes.
At my request, my publishing team in Mexico generously arranged for me to visit to a market in Guadalajara and an altar in Mexico City. I was cautioned that these places could be dangerous and were far outside the usual tourist stops. I was told not to take my purse, wear jewelry or go at night.
Our first stop was the Mercado de San Juan, or as the locals call it, Taiwan de Dios, market in Guadalajara, where clumps of herbs hung low from the ceiling, and bare light bulbs dangled over statues of Santa Muerte effigies. Special oils, incense and candles promising romance, money, health, erections and everything in between were offered for sale.
As we shopped around, the older woman selling various Santa Muerte items to us had to interrupt our transaction to take an important call. Someone was crying on the other end of the line, begging for the old lady to urgently tell her what to do to stop her husband from cheating. The merchant gave her an exact list of what to do -- what candle to light, what incense to burn, and what oil to use. She diagnosed the situation as a doctor would and prescribed the cure with exact precision. It was a reminder that Santa Muerte was more than just tourist trade. Much more.
Next, we were taken to the town of Tepito, outside of Mexico City, the center or Santa Muerte worship in Mexico, by Martin George, a self-professed spiritual leader of Santa Muerte, who explained to us that Santa Muerte is a mixture of Aztec beliefs (including men symbolizing life and women symbolizing death) and traditional Catholicism that the Spanish brought over during the Conquest. He led us to a life-size statue of Santa Muerte built by a local hair dresser, erected on an altar behind glass and steel bars and explained that she stood at an equal distance between the ancient Aztec Cathedral and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, pretty much encapsulating the mixture of ancient indigenous and European culture that is Santa Muerte. He went on to explain that followers also celebrate traditional Catholic saint days, but they celebrate the day of their death, and not the day they were born. For them, Santa Muerte is "The Way," which is what the triangle hand sign (bottom image) means, in life and in death and she is the one that comes to carry you home to heaven making her, in some ways, the most important saint of all.
The second and final altar was an unplanned surprise. We found it driving through Colonia Doctores. Right there for all to see on the side of the busy highway -- a statue of Jesús Malverde "narco-saint" or "angel of the poor" in a tuxedo standing next to a seated Santa Muerte in a wedding dress, encased in glass. Behind the monument was another building with a huge painting of Jesús Malverde surrounded by painted machine guns and Santa Muerte effigies. A small winding ladder lead up to another floor, which housed a Santa Muerte prayer chapel where an effigy of Santa Muerte stood, adorned by flowers and candles, with walls lined with plastic funeral arrangements. This was the chapel where the rosary is said by 5,000 of the faithful on the first Monday of each month, and a major celebration in honor of Santa Muerte takes place on Nov. 1, when the statue is dressed as a bride and decorated with hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry brought as gifts by those whom she has favored in the past year.
When one stepped outside to get the full view, they could see both floors -- Jesús (life) on the bottom and Santa Muerte (death) on the top. "The Way" below and "Heaven" above.
I am not going to pretend that I understand the inner workings of Santa Muerte from a single visit to a market, a shrine and a chapel, but the image of the Lady Of Shadows and those who believe in her have stayed with the outcast in me.
Special thanks to all who made this adventure possible including Elizabeth, Estella, Cecilia, Atu, Tracy, Michael, Joanna, Martin and Arnoldo.
Follow Tonya Hurley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tonyahurley