Sunny Flea Market on Airline Drive is as full of raw life as any place in the state of Texas, especially on this hot Sunday afternoon in August. Fifty thousand weekly visitors stroll its long rows of covered market stalls, where more than 1,000 vendors offer a cradle-to-grave bonanza of blue-collar Mexican-American life.
There's birth, childhood and school: Parents can find used car-seats, cribs and blankets for their infants, while their older brothers and sisters can be fitted for school uniforms or beg for secondhand video games, or ride live ponies, or frolic on carousels and a merry-go-round — all the while listening to the hypnotic high-hat hiss of cumbias to beery oompah banda sounds to romantic ranchero ballads.
One stall is piled high with wire cages in which fuzzy Chihuahua pups tremble and with their limpid brown eyes implore children for a forever home, while parrots, macaws and parakeets squawk and iguanas flick their tongues in others nearby. A vendor allows a ring-tailed lemur to clamber up his arm and down his back, its piercing stare encapsulating a journey to a primordial Madagascar jungle.
And if you know where to look, everywhere there is death — more specifically, the Grim Reaper-like visage of Santa Muerte ("Saint Death" or "Holy Death"). The increasingly popular, scythe-wielding folk saint, miracle worker and unofficial patron of many of Mexico's narcos, prostitutes, prisoners, poor, gays, transvestites and others on the margins of Mexico's Drug War-ravaged, poverty-stricken society is all around. She is found on clothing: A twentysomething man sports her on a T-shirt, on which rests the head of his sleeping infant, nestled in a front-slung harness. Another man honors the veiled skeleton with a chunky gold pendant around his bull-neck.
And then there's the jackpot: an entire stall given over to Santa Muerte devotion. Here, devotees of (as she is variously known) "La Madrina" ("the Godmother"), "La Flaka" (a slang spelling for "the Skinny Woman") or "La Niña Blanca" ("the White Lady") can buy candles, statues, posters and amulets for her veneration.
The stallholders — Jonathan Mejia and Eduardo Mora, two men who look no older than 20 — say she grants many wishes, in many different areas of life. All you have to do is ask, light the right color of candle to her and then make a sacrifice. (You also need to make sure Santa Muerte is wearing a matching-color robe, though adherents say this is less important than the correct color of candle.)
"I don't know all the colors, but red is for love. You give her wine, money, food," says Mora. "Gold is for money, green is for health."
Asked about the supposedly death-dealing black candle, the one that can be used to wreak vengeance and downfall on your enemies, Mora shrugs. "I don't know about that. We do run out of them fast." (Police say that black candles are found far more often in the private shrines of drug dealers and assassins than they are at Santa Muerte's increasingly common public altars.)
And it's not just enemies from whom Santa Muerte can extract a heavy toll, even the ultimate price.
"There's a downside," Mejia says. "When you ask her for something, you have to promise her something. If you don't make that promise, um...many people say she takes away one of your loved ones."
In the last ten years, this harshest of all mistresses has come gliding inexorably from the shadows of Mexican folk religion, far from what scholars believe was her birthplace on or near Mexico's central Gulf Coast. As recently as 12 years ago, most Mexicans had never heard of her, but now her cult is spreading beyond the borders of that country, both south to Central America and north to the United States, where one expert tells us that some of her adherents today are white and black Anglos.
In spite of official rejection by the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, Santa Muerte's followers only increase in number and devotion, carrying her all the way onto the fringes of the American pop-culture mainstream. She made a cameo on Breaking Bad — Tuco's terrifying cousins light candles to her, petitioning her for success on the way to Albuquerque on their mission of murderous revenge.
The faithful adore her publicly at shrines all over Mexico. People pray to her on her Facebook page, and there are drives afoot in several cities, Houston included, to raise funds to build permanent public chapels in her honor. Houstonians can buy her votive candles not just at barrio yerberías and botánicas, but also at their friendly neighborhood Fiesta supermarket or Dollar Tree store.
Mexican bishops have said her veneration is akin to Satanism, and Mexican prosecutors claim that Santa Muerte has been linked to cartel-related human sacrifices.
Others say her scythe is not just a weapon but also a shield: They see her as a bringer of comfort in dark times, a beacon of peace in dark times.
One thing is for sure: Santa Muerte is here to stay. Some concerned Catholics even believe that she is at war with Our Lady of Guadalupe herself for status as unofficial queen of Mexican souls.
While many proud Mexicans assert that Santa Muerte is a thinly veiled reincarnation of Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec queen of the dead, and true devotees believe she is as old as Original Sin and Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut thinks that Santa Muerte's appearance is primarily of medieval Spanish origin. (A former history professor at the University of Houston, today Chesnut is the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.)
"The Spanish had a female Grim Reaper figure called 'La Parca,' or 'the parched one,'" he says over the phone from his home in Richmond, Virginia. Mexican patriots have a cultural disposition to downplay their Spanish heritage, he continues. "Mexican nationalism posits that Aztec and Mayan culture is good and Spanish is bad," he says.
Still, Spanish origins aside, Chesnut believes Santa Muerte is a purely Mexican creation, a fusion of medieval Spanish and traditions native to the New World. In Spain, La Parca was solely an object of dread and fear.
"The Grim Reaper would never fly in Mexico," says Gustavo Arellano, author of the syndicated "Ask a Mexican" column and editor of Houston Press sister paper OC Weekly. "Death is celebrated there as a part of life."
Once in Mexico, La Parca morphed over centuries from the mere harvester of souls of European lore to Santa Muerte, a powerful miracle-worker, equal to or even more potent in the minds of her faithful than any canonized saint. Some even equate her powers to those of God himself.
"You see bumper stickers that say, 'God guides me, Santa Muerte protects me,'" marvels Arellano. (Others bear the same slogan and substitute Our Lady of Guadalupe for God.)
Santa Muerte's powers have grown not just in effectiveness but also in scope. She's not just about death today. She's also about all aspects of life. Chesnut calls her "a complex multitasker."
"She's a love magician, an employment broker, a healer; she can help you find things that are lost," he says. "Even today, her most important task is love magic," Chesnut points out. "Stopping cheating and that kind of thing. For that you light a red candle."
Indeed, much of Santa Muerte's earliest media and scholarly attention came through her role as a defender of marital sanctity. Suspicious wives would invoke her fearsome powers to stop their men from straying, and if their men failed to heed Santa Muerte's commands, well, let's just say that scythe would be put to use, dramatically.
"Middle-aged women address her the same way as Our Lady of Guadalupe, but they might take petitions to Santa Muerte that they wouldn't take to Our Lady," Chesnut says.
That's a huge part of her appeal. You can ask the Bony One for favors other saints would not even consider. For example, gay men and lesbians can petition her for luck in love, whereas more traditional saints might only tell them to change their sinning ways or remain forever celibate.
Chesnut says that Santa Muerte's believers swear by her speed and potency in granting miracles. One long-jobless adherent told him that he had long been desperately praying to Saint Jude, patron of lost causes. After three years he turned to Santa Muerte, and got a job in three days.
While she is very popular among the poor in Mexico, to say that her veneration is theirs exclusively is an oversimplification, Chesnut says. "Most people in Mexico don't have anything more than a seventh-grade education. Half of Mexico is poor anyway."
Chesnut believes that it's more accurate to say that she has special appeal to Mexicans (and, increasingly, Central Americans and Mexican-Americans) who feel that death might be imminent: street prostitutes and cabbies out late at night and alone on mean streets; people who live in cartel war zones; even, on occasion, police officers and politicians, whose lives are often threatened by drug lords. (Cops and politicos tend to keep their veneration a secret.)
"I always dreamed about her," says Maria, a Houston Santa Muerte priestess. (After my visit to her botánica was frustrated by the language barrier, Press intern Norma Vasquez interviewed Maria and furnished us with the following translation.) "I used to be a person who feared death, who feared night," Maria continued. "Once night would arrive, I would start panicking. Scared knowing that I was going to die, and every day I would say I was going to die. One day [Santa Muerte] appeared and said that God wasn't picking me up yet, [and] I still had a lot to do on this earth and I had to continue striving. Since then, that idea and fear of death left me as well as the fear of night coming and me saying that I was going to die."
"Who better to ask for a few extra weeks or months of life than death herself?" Chesnut asks.
Maria is from Veracruz and said that she had been venerating Santa Muerte for ten years.
Though she believes in God and closes her botánica on Sundays, she has left the Church, frustrated by its scandals and what she sees as its seeming unconcern for the poor and downtrodden. It's become just another powerful institution to her, another power for grassroots Mexicans to fight, like their former colonial overlords, and then later the big landowners, and now the corporations and maquiladora operators.
"You hear this again and again from people who venerate her: 'I love her because she does not discriminate,'" Chesnut explains. Why fear her? The White Lady will eventually press us all to her cold bosom, from billionaire Carlos Slim to the lowliest Matamoros chicle peddler, from the most virtuous goody-two-shoes to the most dissolute hellraiser, the priests and the nuns, the whores and the hired guns in the drug trade, all of us equally.
"Her scythe takes all heads," says Chesnut.
Santa Muerte will consider the darkest petitions, such as the death of your enemies, success in a kidnapping or pickpocketing venture, or a windfall in the drug trade.
"St. Peter is not going to protect your next shipment of cocaine," Arellano says, but Santa Muerte might, if the price is right.
Thus her near-universal adoration in the drug trade, through which she has garnered most of her infamy. She serves many purposes in that arena: protector of life in a business that has claimed 35,000 souls since 2008, with the number rising every year. She can also be deployed as a destroyer of life, and a guarantor of success in shipping, so even within the confines of the narco world, she remains a complex multitasker.
In 2008, police found 11 charred heads near a Santa Muerte shrine in the Yucatán tended by the Zetas drug cartel. Earlier this year, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Chris Diaz testified that during a wiretapping operation, he heard a Zeta heavy boast of sacrificing two teenaged rivals to Santa Muerte by slicing open their bellies and offering the blood of one as a toast to La Flaka. Also this year, on the side of a highway not far from Monterrey, police found the handless, footless and headless torsos of 49 men and women, many of which bore Santa Muerte tattoos.
In fact, Chesnut says that one of her first mentions in the mainstream media predates the modern era of Mexico's Drug War, to what is still one of the most infamous bloodlettings the borderlands have ever known. That was when police found a Santa Muerte altar at the Tamaulipas ranch of Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo, the psychotic, sadistic Cuban-American drug lord who, before his death in a shootout with Mexican police in 1989, ritually sacrificed at least 16 men, women and children, including University of Texas premed student Mark Kilroy, who was kidnapped in Matamoros while on spring break. Constanzo's dark faith fused a twisted version of Cuban Santeria with Mexican traditions, and he believed that the slaughter and mutilation of innocents would protect his business from police.
His on-off girlfriend and constant consort, the six-foot-one former Brownsville nursing student Sara Maria Aldrete, was known as "La Madrina," or "the Godmother," and so shared one of Santa Muerte's many nicknames. After her arrest, she told police that their religion was growing and could not be stamped out by authorities. She pointed out that a Santa Muerte shrine, one shorn of Constanzo's Santeria trappings and totally unrelated to theirs, had already sprung up in Monterrey.
Aldrete was right. Santa Muerte veneration continued bubbling under the surface of Mexican life, primarily in northern and eastern Mexico, until Santa Muerte made her dramatic public debut in the notorious Mexico City slum of Tepito in 2001, where the first public altar was built. Ever since, at the stroke of midnight on All Saints' Day (November 1), to the strains of marimba bands and mariachi orchestras, thousands of faithful turn out to venerate her and offer gold, apples, tequila, cigarettes and money. And water, lots of water: She is still "the Parched One" to some degree. "She's a skeleton," says Chesnut. "She's always thirsty."
Nodding to the drug trade, marijuana smoke is used in lieu of incense at this rite. At another public shrine in the capital, Jesús Malverde, a legendary Robin Hood-like figure and folk saint who long served as La Flaka's predecessor as protector of drug smugglers, is also honored.
"Malverde was at least straightforward and honest," says Arellano. If someone venerated him, you pretty much knew they were a narco. Now it's not so clear-cut. "Good people pray to Santa Muerte," Arellano says. (See "Know Your Narco Saints.")
Officer "J.G." Garza has served in the Houston Police Department for 35 years, the last 20 in the Narcotics Division. He says he has seen a lot of Santa Muerte over the last ten years.
"It's really changed back from the '80s when we had a lot of Colombian nationals with the dope coming directly from Colombia and South America," he says. "You did see other kinds of altars with them, but when the Mexican cartels started taking over, you did see a transition into Saint Death."
Garza says now that he sees some representation of Santa Muerte "just about every time" he arrests a suspect. Some sport her tattoos, others wear her on gold necklaces, while more discreet devotees might tuck a Santa Muerte prayer card in their wallet or dashboard. He says the sight of her raises his antenna on traffic stops.
"You start seeing little red flags: a Santa Muerte emblem on the back of his car," he says. "And then he has a bunch of these prayer cards or maybe a Santa Muerte bobblehead or whatever. And then you go back and check this guy and he has a prior for narcotics and a bad criminal history. And then you talk to him and he's extremely nervous and it's a simple traffic stop. You start using that to get you where you need to go, be it a consent or calling the dog out there."
Garza finds more elaborate displays at stash houses, where the skeletal figurines are surrounded by Santa Muerte votive candles, often with a plate of sacrificial offerings nearby. "Food, water, money, cigarettes...I don't know how she got such a big nicotine problem, but she has one. She's always got a cigarette somewhere nearby," Garza chuckles. "But yeah, we see big temples. Some of them are six feet high, or it could be just a small tabletop or simply a picture on the wall."
Garza says the traffickers he's arrested never talk about these altars to him. "They just kinda pretend they aren't there," he says. "But it's my opinion that these people all believe in some kind of some superior being — God or something else. They're not atheist by any means. I think they know that God would not approve of what they are doing, so they have to find somebody that they'll listen to."
Santa Muerte devotee Maria's shop is in a strip mall, directly across Gessner from Strake Jesuit, my high school alma mater. While most typical Mexican spiritualist shops sport images of traditional saints, her shop is named Santísima Muerte ("Most Holy Death"), and its robed namesake is spray-painted on the window.
Inside, on a glass counter near votive candles, figurines of saints, and bins of medicinal and magical herbs, Maria has placed her public Santa Muerte shrine, where devotees have laid ofertas of apples, candles of many colors, money, cigarettes and rum at the White Lady's bony feet. Maria tells us that we can photograph this altar to our heart's content, and tells us that people ask it to grant them jobs or heal them.
"I have another in the back," she says in broken English. "I'll show you. But no pictures. It's my religion."
She takes Houston Press Art Director Monica Fuentes and me back to her office, and there's another shrine in the corner, this one a little bigger than the first, a little more impressive, but hardly awe-inspiring. Somewhere an unseen dog is barking in the shop; Maria's daughter is helping us translate, and a toddler lies on a swivel chair watching a telenovela.
Maria beckons us out of the office and toward a door marked "Absolutely No Admittance" in English. She opens the door and we step over and around a black-and-red throw rug marked with a pentagram and into an unholy of unholies, an ornate chapel of death, a folk-baroque masterpiece of the darker side of Mexican folk religiosity.
Under purple fluorescent tubes, on a cement floor, there's a small table and two metal chairs placed in front of a sort of stage. Front and center is a five-foot representation of grinning, veiled and robed Santa Muerte, surrounded by candles of red, green, white and black.
Her purple robe is festooned with offerings of two-dollar bills — never ones, never fives, tens or twenties. An owl is nearby. "The owl represents protection over the night, to see all the enemies that come at night to hurt you, human as well as spiritual," Maria would later tell intern Norma Vasquez.
Santa Muerte's scythe of vengeance and protection looks sharp. Maria calls it "a protection to free us from all enemies. A spade where you can cut out all bad and everything that can damage your character. That's why a lot of us use the sickle to protect ourselves."
Around Santa Muerte's feet are the same sorts of offerings we saw out front, only more of them — a pack of filterless Delicados cigarettes, a handle-bottle of Cuervo gold, whole baskets of fruit, bouquets of lilies and roses.
Santa Muerte is not alone on this altar. A gorgeous talavera statue of La Catrina, the laughing lady skeleton with the parasol and sun hat long known to celebrants of Day of the Dead, is up there, too, in a supporting role. (La Catrina and Santa Muerte are occasionally confused. La Catrina is a secular figure of fun who was created by a graphic artist, and is not petitioned for miracles.)
Winged Saint Michael the Archangel guards them both from dark forces with his sword. "San Miguel Archangel is the master of demons," Maria says. "He can always defeat them."
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."
"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."