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Santa Muerte, Patron Saint of... Roads?

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An article published recently in news.com.au describes how Satan-worshipping is growing by leaps and bounds among the Mexican drug cartels through the veneration of la Santa Muerte “Saint Death,” and this phenomenon is becoming manifest in public displays along highways and border towns as far north as Arizona.

ON November 1 each year thousands of people descend on the rough and gritty neighborhood of Tepito in Mexico City. Some walk on their knees for blocks, tightly but carefully clutching small skeletal figures, as they slowly near a shrine depicting a life-size image of their female deity. Others proudly carry babies to be presented. Some arrive with only prayers.

The goddess they approach is a skeleton, dressed as a bride and wearing hundreds of pieces of glittering gold jewelry that have already been offered up by her devoted followers.

A carnival atmosphere pervades the throng around her. Food is served, bands play and candles are lit. Flowers, fruits, sweets and money are readied as gifts. Color abounds. Senses are in overload.

But there is no incense lit. In a clue to the dark nature of their idol, the faithful blow marijuana smoke for her to inhale instead.

For while this may look like and carry many of the trappings of a traditional religious gathering, it is something no church official would take part in. This is the cult of Santa Muerte’s most important ceremony of the year and images of death are everywhere.

I lived in Mexico for the first half of my life, and I normally did not come across any skeletons, except for those at tianguis during Día de los Muertos celebrations. But I did enter a store in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago some years back, and saw many small idols to “Santa” Muerte for sale. She was dressed in different outfits, to appeal to many people. She was in black, or wearing a cute pink dress, the creativity was endless. It actually creeped me out, as I had never seen this before, and the amount of figurines for sale struck me.

Apparently, “references to Saint Death date back as far as the colonial Spanish period, but her following exploded at the beginning of this century when she began to be identified in the media as the patroness of Mexican drug mafias,” according to a recent NPR story.

Andrew Chesnut, Bishop Sullivan Chair of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. He has studied her "meteoric" popularity in the past dozen years.

"One of the main reasons for the growth and popularity of Saint Death is that she has a reputation as a speedy and efficacious miracle worker in health, wealth and love," says Chesnut. "Some devotees approach her like a Christian saint. Others use her like an amoral folk saint, and that would be true for the narcos who ask her to protect their shipments of meth from Michoacan to Houston."

"Santa Muerte is sacred for people who mostly are involved in illicit business, like smuggling drugs and people," says Juarez market shopkeeper Abel Ramirez.

There is a strong connection between Saint Death and highways. For example, every major highway in Sonora has a chapel in her honor along southbound lanes.

Chesnut points out that the bony lady has grown so big in Mexico that a top Vatican official, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has denounced her mushrooming cult on four separate occasions.

Ravasi called her "sinister and infernal" and said to worship her "is the celebration of devastation and of hell."

Border mayors periodically order the destruction of public shrines to Saint Death that appear on the edges of poor colonias. The latest cleanup campaign is in Matamoros. City Manager Jorge Villareal chooses his words carefully, so as not to offend the murderous Gulf Cartel members in his city who venerate Saint Death.

"In Mexico, anyone can believe in whatever religion they want," he says. "But they have to do so in temples and inside their homes, not in the public roads."

People appeal to her to save them from crashes and tragedy on the roads, even though the Catholic Church already has a recognized heavenly patron saint of safe travels, Saint Christopher, known for safely transporting the baby Jesus across rivers and streams.

“It’s not religion just because it’s dressed up like religion; it’s a blasphemy against religion,” he said late last year. “Everyone is needed to put the brakes on this phenomenon, including families, churches and society in its totality,” states Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

And just in case people didn’t get the message, he declared that devotion to Santa Muerte “is the celebration of devastation and of hell.”

Saint Christopher, pray for us!

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