In Mexico, there is an offshoot of the Catholic faith that pays homage to a saint that is the manifestation of the ancient Aztec death goddess. The cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death) is a fascinating phenomenon that speaks to the fluidity of faith, the spirituality of the disenfranchised, and the strength of regional culture. Santa Muerte is portrayed as a grim reaper, bearing scales of judgement and her ready scythe, and accompanied by an owl, traditional symbol of occult knowledge. Her role as the inevitable figure at the end of life makes her a comforting figure for people who feel hopeless and rejected by mainstream religion--if Death comes for everyone, then she will not ignore the pleas of even the most destitute, alienated and powerless. In addition to being an unsanctioned saint, a large portion the controversy surrounding Santa Muerte's stems from the fact that her devotees are frequently found among Mexico's underclass: poor people, homosexuals, substance abusers, and criminals.
In her documentary "La Santa Muerte," director Eva Aridjis visits the Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito, a crime- and poverty-stricken barrio where one of the most active Santa Muerte shrines is located. Through interviews with Santa Meurte's worshippers, Aridjis crafts a fuller picture of the reasons why a cult with such deep roots has blossomed over the span of a relatively short span of time and why its adherents believe what they do. Aridjis deftly avoids the kind of simplistic crime/occult narrative that might emerge in a more sensationalistic portrayal of the topic and instead allows her subjects to speak for themselves. The world these people describe is violent, frightening and dangerous--it's easy to see why an alternative to the passivity encouraged by the Catholic church would be appealing.
Depictions of Santa Muerte range from foreboding to frilly. While many images are repurposed drawings and statues of the grim reaper, other effigies are dressed in elaborate gowns reflecting traditional styles (wedding dresses, capes and crowns, cowgirl get-ups, and event Apache dance costumes). In addition to providing spiritual fulfillment to the faithful, the Santa Muerte cult has spawned a thriving cottage business. Statues, candles, paintings, and accessories are demanded by those who seek special boons from the saint. Altars to Santa Muerte are prevalent in Mexican jails, with some estimates indicating that forty percent of inmates participate in worship of the saint.
At the center of the Tepito shrine is the charismatic figure of Enriqueta Romero Romero. She is a no-nonsense woman whose son gave her the Santa Muerte effigy that is the located in a glass case outside her home. Enriqueta welcomes thousands of worshippers a month who pay homage to the saint with gifts of candies, apples, cigarettes, tequila and marijuana. These devotions are similar to those of Hatian Vodou, and while Enriqueta makes no claims as a spiritual figure, her role in bringing the worship of Santa Muerte into the public eye is undeniable. Prior to her establishing the shrine in 2004, worship of Santa Muerte existed in private, and her shrine has served as a locus for the faith.
It's no secret that much of the success of Christianity is that faith's ability to appropriate symbols of indigenous religions. It's interesting to watch these same indigenous cultures repurpose elements of Christianity to better fit the realities of their lives. As the cult grows, so does condemnation of its practices, with no sign of official sanction from the Catholic church on the horizon. In providing a non-judgmental look at a divisive cultural phenomenon, Eva Aridjis' "La Santa Muerte" is a fascinating documentary that raises as many questions as it answers.
UPDATE: "La Santa Muerte" is screening at Observatory in Brooklyn on February 24, 2011 with the director present. Click here for more information.