Tuesday, May 04, 2010
Stuff: Praying to death.
National Geographic has a great online article on the rise of the Cult of Saint Death, a homegrown saint that Mexico's faithful have developed as a defense against the increasingly mad times they live in. A sort of female Grim Reaper figure, she's the "guardian of the most defenseless and worst of sinners."
Unknown to most Mexicans until recently, this death figure resembles medieval representations of the grim reaper but is fundamentally different from the playful skeletons displayed on Day of the Dead—the day when Mexicans' departed loved ones return to share with the living a few hours of feasting and remembrance. Her altars can now be found all over Mexico, on street corners and in the homes of the poor. Women and men alike are her followers. In the heart of Mexico City, in a neighborhood that has always been raucous and defiant, Enriqueta Romero leads a prayer session in honor of the skeleton every first of the month. Simultaneously flinty, foulmouthed, and motherly, Romero was among the first and the most effective propagandizers of a cult that some believe got its start in towns along the Gulf of Mexico but now covers a wide territory up and down the country. In California and Central America as well, young people light candles in La Santa Muerte's honor and tattoo her image on their skin in sizes small to extra large. A few years ago the Interior Ministry revoked its registration of La Santa Muerte as a legitimate religion, to no effect. Newsstands sell instructional videos showing how to pray to the saint, and even chic intellectuals are beginning to say that the cult is muy auténtico.
The article goes on to say that she's one of several new or reinvigorated saint-cults. Drug dealers worship Jesús Malverde, known as El Rey Guei de Sinaloa, a narco-trafficker who died in the first decade of the 20th century and has since become a folk hero and unholy saint. For the more traditionally minded, the cult of St. Jude Thaddeus, Catholic saint of desperate causes, is experiencing a vigorous revival.
The phenom of narco-saints is not just a Mexican thing. The article points out that members of the infamous Medellín cartel in Colombia are "famously devoted to St. Jude."