(Published March 29, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)
Cecilia Varela, a follower of the Catholic cult of la Santa Muerte, wore red and black, thick eyeliner, and a small animal claw pendant around her neck. She carried with her a white mantle meant to be draped over the daunting female skeleton guarding a corner of the altar, with scythe, flowers and rosary in hand.
The altar devoted to la Santa Muerte, the personification of death called an "angel of god" and "la Nina Blanca" by her followers, is the first established in Jalisco. It is located on a dusty corner of Juan de la Barrera in Tlaquepaque next to a railroad crossing. Devotee Jose Sam and his "brother," who prefers the title "el General," founded the improvised chapel on August 22, 2007. The Catholic Church refuses to recognize worship of la Santa Muerte as a valid form of Catholicism, as it deviates from the doctrine of holy trinity.
When asked about the Santa Muerte mass, held on the 22nd of every month at the Tlaquepaque altar, Ms. Varela said she wishes people would come to the service instead of asking about it (refering to recent attention in the press), and insisted there are no distinctions between their and a traditional Catholic mass.
"Our lord God is the only god," Varela said. "He is the only one. Our father blesses you, and she [la Santa Muerte] protects you."
Followers of la Santisima treat her with a distinct, personal affection, and believe that, just as humans were brought into this life by God, they will one day be taken by death, thus la Muerte is owed equal respect.
"In the end, who will I remain with? It's better to get close to death now," Varela said.
Varela, for instance, brought the mantle not only out of respect, but to complete her end of a bargain with la Santa Muerte. She had asked la Santa to bring to her the "love of her life," a favor the angel did not fulfill. Varela said she realized she asked for too much, but even so, she promised to look after la Santa's effigy, and now feels at peace.
Members of the Catholic sect have often neared death themselves. Along the dangerous crossing between the United States and Mexico border, vendors sell candles and medallions of la Santisima. And in Mexico City's rougher neighborhoods, la Santa Muerte has gained popularity within marginalized communities -- delinquents, drug-traffickers and prostitutes, among others.
The local temple's co-founder Jose Sam led such a life at one time, and it was "el General" who saved him. They refer to each other as brothers, although by blood they qualify only as good friends.
"He showed me what it was to be a Catholic," Jose Sam reflected. "I took my vows 13 years ago. Before that there wasn't a bigger drug addict than me. I barely had any veins left. I walked around with no shoes and I didn't have any conscience."
Jose Sam and his "brother" now lead a wholly sober life. They made a pact together promising to live by "honor, loyalty, and discipline."
Because la Santisima is so sharply criticized and often believed to be a form of Satanism, the "brothers" refrain from judging others, and consider harmony to be the most important principle they have learned from la Santa Muerte. A prayer air-brushed on the altar's wall reads, "I pray for my friends and my enemies, for world peace…Let harmony and understanding flourish."
Devotion to la Santa Muerte's image is also essential; both men are quick to pull their t-shirts over their heads, revealing tattoos of religious script and the morbid figure herself.
What would surprise most people, said Jose Sam, is that on each day of mass, the little room is so packed that devotees spill out into the street. "A lot of people criticize us, but you wouldn't believe how many people come."
People of all backgrounds attend, he said, including neatly dressed children with their grandmothers -- not the expected image. A priest from Puebla leads the congregation every month, and as a video clip on Varela's cell phone showed, the proceedings appear quite ordinary.
What the "brothers" believe this indicates is that there are many more Santa Muerte followers that practice the alternative religion in closed quarters for fear of condemnation. Since the establishment of the altar, people in their community have been supportive, and there is no fear of the church.
Jose Sam and "el General" welcome anyone curious to attend the mass, which begins at 5 p.m. The Santa Muerte community will celebrate the one-year anniversary of the establishment in August, complete with a bounty of food and a mariachi band.