Santa Muerte, aka La Flaca


Since death is a hot topic at the Rumpus lately, let me share some more quotes from David Lida’s fantastic book about Mexico City, these about Mexico’s newest saint: Saint Death, affectionately known as La Flaca (The Skinny Lady).

It’s hardly surprising that the most important shrine to her in the capital is in the barrio of Tepito, a place tourists should probably avoid:

In a glass-encased altar stands a life-size skeleton in a purple velvet robe. Its skull, ornamented with a pageboy wig, gazes eyelessly. Each finger of its hands is adorned with rings, its neck with gold chains. Surrounding its figure are skeleton statuettes and bills and coins of various currencies. Outside, at its feet, the skeleton’s worshippers have left a miscellany of offerings: cognac glasses filled with tequila, flowers, candles, bottles of soda, packs of cigarettes, lollipops, plates full of eggplant. The offerings are meant to cure illness, attract abundance, improve sales in business, or bring back a straying lover.

Who worships this figure? They

are said to include prostitutes hoping for protection against disease, children praying their fathers will be released from jail, and all manner of miscreants angling to escape arrest or eager for the death of their enemies. Cops on the take are also said to be regulars here.

She is officially disdained by the Roman Catholic Church as pagan, but she has been taken up by “thousands, if not millions, since the beginning of the millenium.”

“As the devotion to Santa Muerte indicates,” Lida continues, Mexican Catholicism is

a sui generis, syncretic form of Catholicism — the imperfect melding of indigenous rite with Catholic ritual that began in the 1520s when the Spaniards toppled the Aztec temples and built their churches over the ruins.

Some refer to this form of the religion as the Aztec Catholic Church, to recognize it as a unique expression of Catholicism, apart from the Roman.

Some of the congregants cultivate a rough look. Numerous young men have adopted the appearance of Los Angeles gang-bangers, openly smoke marijuana, display hairstyles dyed and pointy with gel, and wear T-shirts with the sleeves removed, the better to show off their skeleton tattoos. … But most of the faithful — including a teenage girl who hobbled along Calle Alfarería on her knees — appeared to be among the ordinary hard-luck hordes of Mexico City, without any of the evident flash of criminals.

One follower to whom he spoke reflected:

“It’s part of life. To venerate death means that you adore life, because death is the only thing that can take life away from you.”

Also see the Wikipedia article about Santa Muerte.

It may also interest you to know that Mexico City’s unofficial patron saint since the mid-1970s has been San Judas Tadeo — the patron saint of lost causes.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →