Santa Muerte: Patron Saint of the Drug War

Need help killing someone? Or cementing a drug deal? This may be the saint for you.

Santa Muerte is also often portrayed clutching the scales of justice. Maria told Vasquez that it represents the equilibrium of good and evil in your life. "You decide or you start to think what weighs more, the right or the left. What should you do to balance your life in what you want to do?"

Many Santa Muertes are portrayed either holding or standing atop a globe. "She holds the world in her hands because she is protector of it," Maria explains.

"The Most Holy Death is of the whole world. She has been here since God gave us the shame of having to die. In the Bible it says we were going to be eternal, but since our ancestors sinned, God obligated death to all. Men, women, plants and animals. Since then, death exists. Many say that she has been known only since the 20th century, but for me she exists since God gave us that punishment."
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Santa Muerte is all over Houston, if you know where to look. She's on the shelves at most Fiesta stores, ruling over her very own dedicated botánicas, and vying for your attention alongside the Pope, Jesus and a drunken deer at an Airline Drive flea market.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Santa Muerte is all over Houston, if you know where to look. She's on the shelves at most Fiesta stores, ruling over her very own dedicated botánicas, and vying for your attention alongside the Pope, Jesus and a drunken deer at an Airline Drive flea market.
Maria stands beside her public Santa Muerte altar inside her Sharpstown botánica. The Veracruz-born Santa Muerte priestess keeps another altar in her office and a truly awe-inspiring one in her back room. She won't allow that one to be photographed. "It's my religion," she says. Click here to see a video interview with Maria.
Daniel Kramer
Maria stands beside her public Santa Muerte altar inside her Sharpstown botánica. The Veracruz-born Santa Muerte priestess keeps another altar in her office and a truly awe-inspiring one in her back room. She won't allow that one to be photographed. "It's my religion," she says. Click here to see a video interview with Maria.

"People used to celebrate death once a year. Now it's become a way of life all year round," says Gustavo Arellano, explaining the difference between the celebration of the Day of the Dead and Santa Muerte veneration. One is 24 hours of festively commemorating dead relatives with tasty treats and sweet memories; the other is total immersion in the concept of death, 365 days a year.

Like Maria, Arellano was brought up a Catholic and has walked away from the Church in frustration. Unlike Maria, Arellano has not walked into the embrace of La Flaka, but he understands why so many of his fellow Mexican-Americans and Mexicans have.

Centuries ago, mestizos and Mexican Indians felt the Church was not meeting their needs, and a miracle arrived, just in time: Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here was a representation of the Virgin Mary that looked like them, not like the wife or daughter of a Madrid grandee. She has since become the patroness of Mexico and, until quite recently, the undisputed queen of the poor.

And now here comes La Flaka. In today's Mexico, death has more power than life. To have hope within all this despair, you must implore death herself to give you what you want.

While Arellano sees the juxtaposition of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Santa Muerte as a magnificent aesthetic duality — "Our Lady with all her colors and those stark representations of Santa Muerte" — as a symptom of what ails Mexico and Mexican-Americans, the White Lady's growing cult saddens him.

Just as the Catholic Church's response to her rise angers him. Arellano believes that Catholicism's great savior and occasional downfall is its ability to absorb and fuse native traditions with ancient traditions and doctrines from Rome. "And then they get up and say, 'These saints are right and these saints are wrong,'" he fumes.

It's long been a hallmark of Mexican Catholicism: While they have traditionally been among the world's most devout adherents to the faith, they also have one of the world's strongest anticlerical bents. They love the ritual and pageantry and are annoyed and occasionally even enraged by the hierarchy, most often when it is perceived as siding with power and money.

To Arellano, that paradox is very much at play with Santa Muerte. While many of her adherents remain loyal churchgoers and communicants, the Mexican Catholic hierarchy has branded Santa Muerte veneration as something very much like a Satanic cult, and encourages the government in its bulldozing of roadside Santa Muerte shrines.

While neither the Catholic Church in the United States nor any individual bishops have taken an official position on Santa Muerte (and three local barrio churches declined to return messages for this article), there's a parish-level drive to stamp her out. Arellano says that in the Greater Los Angeles area, priests frequently hector their flocks from the pulpit and in the weekly bulletins, warning them that Santa Muerte is a false prophet and even holding out the dread prospect of excommunication.

Santa Muerte has positively feasted on the despair of the last decade of Mexican life — the abominable slaughters of the drug trade, the vanishing of tourist pesos in many parts of the country, and the global economic downturn, all coming on top of the eternal economic inequality that has been a hallmark of the country since the time of Cortés. As Arellano says: "People are looking for a new savior."

john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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13 comments
WEL1965
WEL1965

@secondbacchus Santa Muerta comments are hilarious .darknight guy is wrong... Mr lomas got it right,just not traditional .

darkknight775871
darkknight775871

Mr. Lomax,

First of all – great article although I’d say you went a bit on the rated G side…

 

Santeria has Cuban/African influence more so than Spanish and Mexican. It evolved from Caribbean/Cuba/Africa/Puerto Rico in the 1500’s during Spain’s Slave trade .

Santeria has been in the movies and TV for years - See 1988's "The Serpent and the Rainbow".

 

Of your list of Patron Saints of the Mexican's Drug Underworld  (http://www.policemag.com/videos/channel/gangs/2010/06/patron-saints-of-the-mexican-drug-underworld-trailer.aspx ) and the Simpletons worship, you cannot leave off:

 

Saint Toribio Romo González - Patron Saint of Immigrants and Border Crossers(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toribio_Romo_Gonz%C3%A1lez).

 

Tweety Bird – which is for good luck

 

San Simon aka Maximon – patrol Saint of the Under World http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxim%C3%B3n 

 

Saint Ramon Nonat (aka Raymond Nonnatus) -  patron saint of childbirth, midwives, children, pregnant women, and priests who want to protect the secrecy of confession (wears a padlock though his lips).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Nonnatus

 

A major  thing you neglected to mention is the Darker Side of Santeria – yes it gets darker…this is known as Palo mayombe  which originated from the African Congo and is said to be the world's most powerful and feared form of black magic. 

http://www.palomayombe.net/About_Us.html

 

Additional Resources:

Studying the saints that narcos pray to Law officers get lesson on which icons mean what.

http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/article/Studying-the-saintsthat-narcos-pray-to-885365.php

Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld (Part 1 of 2)

http://www.policemag.com/blog/gangs/story/2010/06/patron-saints-of-the-mexican-drugs-underworld-part-one.aspx

Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld (Part 2 of 2)

http://www.policemag.com/blog/gangs/story/2010/06/patron-saints-of-the-mexican-drug-underworld-part-ii.aspx

Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld

http://blogs.uww.edu/introtolatinamerica/2009/11/01/patron-saints-of-the-mexican-drug-underworld/

 

Matt_Ozug
Matt_Ozug

@AndrewChesnut1 Thanks for the link! We've got a new piece coming, from the aug 11 Santa Muerte celebracion in NYC. be sure to share w/ you

geronimolomax
geronimolomax

@AlexLuster @houstonpress Thanks for the RT, Primo!

gordonjones6
gordonjones6

very cool!  can't wait to go & find treasures for the alters i make!

KinKade
KinKade

Wow.  This story was awesome.  I always wanted to know more about the day of the dead in relation to Santa Muerta.  Great story.

secondbacchus
secondbacchus

@WEL1965 I didn't read the comments but will take a look post-haste.

jnovalomax
jnovalomax

 @darkknight775871 Thanks for your feedback and the additional info. Didn't have room to go much into Santeria, and I did give San Ramon Nonato an entry. I didn't want to mention Tweety Bird because I felt he fell short of folk saint status. He's more like a rabbit's foot.

 
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