Friday, March 4, 2005

MEXICO CITY — Followers of Mexico’s fast-growing Santa Muerte death cult, dressed in white and clutching statuettes of their beloved skeleton saint, marched across the capital yesterday to demand recognition of their faith.

Angered by the Roman Catholic Church’s disapproval of their ghoulish sect and a government bid to strip their main shrine of its license, housewives marched alongside petty criminals chanting: “Listen, government, the Saint is fighting.”

“We are being persecuted,” said Catholic Bishop David Romo, who has become the black sheep of Mexico’s Catholic Church for leading services to the bejeweled, scythe-wielding Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, in the rough Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito.

Santa Muerte, a centuries-old pagan cult, which has sprung back up in recent years to claim about 2 million faithful in Mexico, the second-biggest Catholic country, has followers that range from elite politicians to kidnappers and gangsters.

Followers do not see a contradiction between their veneration of death and being Catholics. In Mexico, it is not uncommon for Catholic churches in indigenous villages to practice unorthodox rituals and venerate their own saints.

Worshippers, many of whom spring from Mexico City’s grimiest, most lawless suburbs, say their offerings of fruit, dollar bills, tequila and cigarettes bring them protection.

“She helps me when I’m ill or in danger. She’s saved my life several times. I’ve been shot at and assaulted but I’m still here,” said prostitute Sandra Cadena, 22, of the macabre figure she goes to venerate on the first day of each month.

As she spoke, marchers carried life-sized Santa Muerte statues in white robes, looking like gaudy versions of the grim reaper.

“She’s my life. She’s everything. Underneath we are all like her,” said Alberto Avalos, 40, holding a large picture of the saint. “If I went to a Catholic church with my shaved head and tattoos, they’d say I was a thief. Here nobody judges you.”

Yet a perceived tolerance for criminals, who visit Santa Muerte shrines to pray for protection from their enemies, is exactly what concerns the authorities.

The government is threatening to revoke a license granted to Bishop Romo’s church in 2003 on the grounds the cult goes against Mexican rules on religion.

Catholic priests complain that criminals use Santa Muerte to justify and glamorize their actions.

Bishop Romo said Santa Muerte was being wrongly portrayed as a haven for criminals and said he would take legal action if necessary to protect the sect.

“We are feeling the black hand of the church. They want to take away our license because they say we are unofficial, that we are an underground faith with an illegal nature,” he said.

“The allegation that we are all criminals is completely false. The reason for all this commotion by the clergy is the growth in our faith.”

The spurt in interest suggests many Mexicans today relate better to the cult’s colorful, unorthodox practices than to the austere Catholic faith, which in Mexico has always been spiced up with pagan elements from preconquest religions.

At the Tepito shrine, the starting point of yesterday’s protest, pop song odes to Santa Muerte blared from a speaker and candles flickered, different colors representing health, prosperity, justice and love. Some were marked: “Death to my enemies.”

A man glanced up as a Santa Muerte statue swept by outfitted in a black lace dress and purple veil, her vacant eye sockets peeping coquettishly past a black feather fan.

“How beautiful she is,” he said.

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