Kurt Hollander's new autobiography, Several Ways to Die in Mexico City, from which this text has been adapted, has just been published by Feral House.
In Tepito, a Mexico City neighborhood with a strong sense of community and a history that stretches back to pre-Hispanic times, located in the historic center of the city just a few blocks from the Metropolitan Cathedral, there are almost no churches. This doesn't mean, however, that tepiteños are not religious. Instead, people in Tepito have devoted serious amounts of time, money and imagination to creating their own altars on almost every street corner or in the patios of their housing projects, many as large as small houses and lit up by intense neon lights at night.
Although most of these altars in Tepito contain Catholic figures and saints, there is one saint, feared and despised by the Catholic Church, that holds an even more prominent place within the religious activity of the neighborhood and boasts the most elaborate altar of all. Given the fact that Tepito is one of the centers of criminal activity and the largest market for pirated goods within Mexico City almost no one there pays taxes, and thus there is only one sure thing for tepiteños and that is death. Death, not surprisingly, is exactly what is most worshipped within the neighborhood, in the form of La Santa Muerte (Holy or Saint Death).
No one knows exactly where or when La Santa Muerte was born, although she is without doubt the newest homegrown saint. La Santa Muerte didn't appear on the streets of Mexico City until the 1990s but since then she has taken the place of traditional Catholic saints as the one to turn to in times of need, offering not just spiritual but also economic and even sexual healing. In part due to her name, in part due to her representation as a skeleton carrying a scythe, in part because of all the criminal types who so faithfully follow her, La Santa Muerte is often accused of inflicting suffering and death upon people. Yet harming or killing other people, though, can be a way in which to liberate oneself from the evil inflicted by others, and La Santa Muerte is in fact very good at warding off the evil eye and other malevolent invocations.
The most elaborate of all the altars in Tepito is without doubt the altar dedicated to La Santa Muerte. For the first Monday of every month, just before mass is held, the life-sized Santa Muerte figure in a giant glass display altar set into the wall of a residential building is elaborately clothed, often in a white wedding dress with a veil partially covering her face, silver chains and crosses dangling down from her neck and from her boney fingers. Dozens of other smaller Santa Muerte figures, as well as tiny toy-like figures of death, also change colors and outfits each month. A fenced in area where people light candles gives the altar a funereal, flickering feel.
Although every first of the month her followers come to pay their respects, La Santa Muerte holds her birthday celebration on midnight October 31st, at which time she is serenaded by Mariachis and receives birthday cakes and other gifts. For this midnight mass, followers bring their Santa Muerte figures, some so large they must be carried by four strong men, and freely exchange among each other beaded necklaces, flowers, candies, magic sprays, tequila and marijuana. Unlike the identical, mass-produced figures of the Virgen de Guadalupe or San Judas imported from China, Santa Muerte figures tend to be homemade and one-of-a-kind, reflecting the personality of the owner and the non-official, non-commercial status of the cult.
La Santa Muerte reigns supreme in the city jails, within the criminal class and in the informal work force, as well as defining the aesthetic of the Mexico City death metal and gothic music scenes, all of which are strongly represented within this neighborhood. Yet, although Tepito has a reputation for crime and violence, as does La Santa Muerte, this celebration is one of the most respectful, supportive community gatherings to be seen in Mexico City, a totally non-profit, non-exclusive, non-denominational, non-violent event that shows how Mexicans, in these times of intense globalization, are still capable of creating their own culture.