The Shadow World of Santa Muerte

Words by Addison O’Dea | Photos by Sye Williams

Mexico has a distinct, if not a romanticised, relationship with death.

Arguably their most dramatic and impactful tether to Death herself is Santa Muerte—a  cult that pays homage to Death without forsaking Christ. When I asked Enriqueta Romero, the custodian of the main shrine, what the difference was, she told me “God performs miracles, but Death grants favours.” And therein lies the juice.

The epicenter of the revival of Santa Muerte is in one of Mexico’s most feared neighbourhoods, Tepito. In order to gain access, we had to get permission for safe passage from one of the “Seven Motherfuckers of the Barrio”. Her name is Lourdes Garcia and she ensured that local gang leaders left us alone, if not protected us in a passive sense. Although a different strain of empowerment, the underlying power here leans distinctly female.

Enriqueta Romero (left) – the custodian of the main shrine, and Lourdes Garcia (right) – one of the “Seven Motherfuckers of the Barrio”.

Passing into Tepito was akin to leaving Mexico City and entering a city unto itself. With each step closer to the beating heart of the neighbourhood, a micro-civilization revealed itself that operates with completely different boundaries. There was no doubt that leadership, values, and consequences are all measured differently here. And thus, they gave birth to an icon that befits them—without denying some of the basic truths of a Mexican Catholic life. On a spectrum of faith, this is the widest I have ever encountered.

From the doorstep of Enriqueta’s house, this spectrum has spread to hundreds of decrepit neighbourhoods throughout the major cities of Mexico, dozens of prisons within Central America, as far north as the drug infested border towns with the United States, and even into the United States.

It is easy to assume that the adherents of Santa Muerte are largely criminal. But, it would also be false. The refuge that Santa Muerte provides is not for those who reject Christ, but for those who accept Christ while embracing life choices that, to put it politely, are in contradiction to some of his teachings. A remarkable congregation of narcos; members of the LGBTQ community; sicarios; and mothers and their crippled children (who believe that they have been punished by God) has manifested as a result. Woven in are those who simply believe that praying for favors, as well as miracles, is doubling their chances for a better life.

The monthly ceremony that occurs here has some hallmarks of the ultra-Orthodox Opus Dei strain of Catholicism including self-flagellation. And, much like the pilgrims of Santiago de Compostela, people arrive on their knees with Santa Muerte idols raised above their heads. Rather than the smoke of incense, or even the cigar smoke I saw at a voodoo ceremony in Togo, the faithful here blow the smoke of giant blunts which leaves the ceremony in a partial haze of pot. Once it begins, the service is akin to a rosary custom designed for its audience rather than an audience writhing in guilt while trying to design themselves for a rosary written in a bygone era.

Controversy is no stranger to Enriqueta nor the flock she tends to. Though none of them want to court controversy any more than they do either. The followers of Santa Muerte are choosing their own path and the destiny that comes with it. Which is emblematic of the soul of its inhabitants who live in a world where danger and risk are commonplace.

Writer Addison O’Dea is an explorer who creates compelling shows about the human side of our planet. Most recently, he wrote and directed the epic 38 episode virtual reality series “Discovery TRVLR” from Discovery VR and Here Be Dragons. Discovery TRVLR is now available at: 

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