For months I had anticipated the 15th anniversary celebration of Enriqueta Romero’s famous Santa Muerte shrine in the notorious Mexico City barrio of Tepito. Doña Queta, as she’s affectionately known, unintentionally launched the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas by setting her life-size statue of the Bony Lady out on the sidewalk in front of her home on Halloween of 2001.
Prior to the outing of the skeleton saint, Santa Muerte was venerated clandestinely to avoid rebuke and possible persecution from Catholics and Protestants. So unknown was the Mexican folk saint of death that my 86-year-old parents-in-law, who have lived in the western state of Michoacan their entire lives, only found out about Santa Muerte through my research.
I first met Doña Queta in the summer of 2009 when I was just beginning my research on the Bony Lady. Having done most of my prior research in Brazil, I wasn’t sure how I’d be received as an American researcher in Mexico City’s most notorious barrio, infamous for gang warfare and contraband.
However, my concern melted away when Doña Queta welcomed me so graciously to her shrine and home, granting me full access to devotees who arrive at all hours of the day and night. I ended up doing much of my research, especially interviews with Santa Muertistas, at her historic shrine.
To make it to age 72 in Tepito is quite a feat, even more so when cancer strikes. The Santa Muerte godmother recently beat throat cancer, which she credits to the healing powers of both the Virgin and Santa Muerte.
However, it was the Grim Reapress coming for her beloved husband of many years, Rey, that led her to cancel a formal 15th anniversary celebration on October 31, 2016. In June of this year Rey and Doña Queta’s brother were victims of an early-morning assassination attempt by sicarios on a motorcycle.
Both men were struck by the hitman’s bullets with Rey succumbing to his wounds and his brother-in-law surviving. I wrote about the tragic incident here.
Though a formal anniversary celebration wasn’t held, scores of devotees came to pay their respects to the Santa Muerte pioneer on Halloween and the 1st of November. My collaborators on “La Flaca” (watch the trailer here), a feature-length film on the Bony Lady in New York City, co-directors Thiago Zanato and Adriana Barbosa, were in Tepito this past Halloween, along with photographer Marco Antonio Ferreira and local guide, Mario Puga. Thiago describes what they saw...
We arrived in Tepito the day before Enriqueta Romero was supposed to lead her monthly rosary service, which coincided with the Day of the Dead. We heard lots of people were expected to come to her shrine that day. It was our first time in Tepito, and we didn’t know if Enriqueta would speak to us.
Tepito is supposed to be one of the toughest neighborhoods in Mexico City so we hired a guide, Mario. We were repeatedly told she wouldn't be there because of the tragic murder of her husband several months before, but we decided to try anyway.
After roaming the streets of Tepito for a little while following Mario, we arrived at Enriqueta's house, and much to our surprise, she was there by herself. She received us with open arms, and we talked for a couple hours. We were struck by how open and warm she was, especially after the violent death of her husband.
We talked about religion, Santeria, death, the film we are making about NYC devotional pioneer Arely Vazquez, Santa Muerte, Andrew Chesnut’s research, and about how she had no plans to be there the next day when lots of people would come to her doorstep.
Then people started to arrive, and Marco Antonio and I started taking pictures. Food was shared freely and most people loved posing for pictures with their Santa Muerte images. Our guide kept reminding us of how dangerous it was there and how we should keep moving, just to be safe.
We felt good and welcomed by Enriqueta, and the devotees kept arriving. A few hours later it was starting to get packed, and she went outside to tell people to hurry up in front of the altar since there was a long line forming in front of her house.
Then she grabbed us and took us inside her home, to her personal altar and showed it to us while we were talking. She told us to take as many pictures as we wanted but not to show them to anyone - ever! We were touched by her and the things she said.
We realized there is something profound going on there, in the middle of a really dangerous barrio, because of both her and her fellow devotees. We left Tepito feeling grateful and inspired to finish our film.