David O'Shea examines a thriving cult in Mexico City, the cult of Santa Muerte, literally "Saint Death",worshipped by poor people and the criminal underworld.
Sunday, March 15, 2009 - 20:30

David O'Shea examines a thriving cult in Mexico City, the cult of Santa Muerte, literally  "Saint Death",worshipped  by poor people and the criminal underworld.

Shunned by the Catholic church, thousands of  people flock to a small shrine in the city  to pay their respects.

The cult derives  from an age old Aztec tradition that saw death as a key part of life's journey.

Saint Death clearly  has broad appeal ...criminals., prostitutes, gamblers and  and others  leave offerings of tequila, marijuana and cigarettes.

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Keen students of history will know that the conquest of the Aztec empire in Central and South America was a pretty brutal affair, with Cortez, the infamous Spanish conqueror, determined that Christianity would be planted in Mexico's fertile soil. But almost 500 years on there's been an unexpected resurgence in one particular Aztec belief - death worship. David O'Shea reports that Saint Death - you heard right - is these days drawing record crowds in Mexico City, including, it seems, much of that teeming metropolis's criminal underworld.

REPORTER: David O'Shea

On the first day of every month thousands of people flock to this ordinary house in Mexico City to take part in a bizarre ritual. The worshippers come to visit the altar of a saint. But this is no ordinary saint. She is Santa Muerte - Saint Death. Each month, more and more people come.

The day begins slowly as early-bird pilgrims come to leave their offerings. Alongside the candles and fruit, shots of tequila, marijuana and cigarettes.

REPORTER: (Translation): Why did you put a cigarette there?

MAN (Translation): Because she likes cigarettes and cigars too. So you put cigarettes here and make a wish and your wish will come true.

HENRIQUETA ROMERO ROMERO (Translation): people offer whatever they want it is up to them. No one tells you what to put here, you offer whatever you want, an apple, a joint, a candle, flowers. You offer whatever comes you're your heart.

Henriqueta Romero Romero set up this altar at her house seven years ago.

REPORTER: (Translation): And what do you want from her?

HENRIQUETA ROMERO ROMERO (Translation): Nothing, I love her. What can I ask after almost 50 years of loving her? What do I want? Her blessings, her care for all of us, her support. If you have a son in gaol, to get him out of goal, because good or bad he is your son. To help them get jobs, to have children without vices, that is what we ask.

MAN 2 (Translation): She is my protector, she is my protector, she is my Holy Mother. I asked her to help me get ahead in my line of work, to help all the people who work with me.

The cult of Saint Death is spreading quickly amongst Mexico City's criminal underworld.

SYLVIA GUTIERREZ, ANTHROPOLOGIST: It started in jail with prisoners and especially related to drug dealers or to assassins - The kind of people that have lost hope.

REPORTER: Yeah, and the kind of people also that wouldn't have been welcomed by the church?

SYLVIA GUTIERREZ: Yes, of course. That's why she is really the one that takes care of the people that the official Church could never take.

TOMAS (Translation): Criminals, homosexuals, they all come to her, she has no prejudices. Rich and poor, they all go to her- we all face her together. That is not the case with the Catholic Church, which says there are rules and you can't go to heaven. So what can we do? We look for the reality that suits us best.

Like many of these devotees, Tomas believes worshipping Saint Death is a continuation of the ancient Aztec culture.

TOMAS (Translation): We are going back to our former beliefs, to the beliefs our ancestors instilled in us. They worshiped the dead for centuries, we used to make offerings every year and we are doing it every month.

The effigies at Tomas's stall are not for sale - he sets them up here to prove his devotion.

TOMAS (Translation): We are returning to what was ours, to search for what is ours, the natural order not an imagined one. The natural order is life, death, sun, light; all of nature - which we believe in. The whole of nature.

This is what's left of the heart of the Aztec Empire in Mexico City. The Spanish conquistadors flattened the ancient capital and built the cathedral on top of its ruins. Father Ruben Avila Enriquez scoffs at the idea that Saint Death has anything to do with the Aztecs.

FATHER RUBEN AVILA ENRIQUEZ (Translation): They had a death cult, but it was an idiosuncratic part of their culture.

REPORTER: (Translation): And this isn't?

FATHER RUBEN AVILA ENRIQUEZ (Translation): But we are no longer in pre-Hispanic culture, we have discovered the truth and that truth is the evangelical revelation, that, with His resurrection, Jesus Christ conquered death.

While the cult began in the criminal community, now all kinds of people come here, asking for divine intervention. This woman became a believer five years ago, after a run of bad luck.

WOMAN 2 (Translation): I was given an effigy and lost it and things started going badly for me, then I had problems with my pregnancy, I started having faith in her and thanks to her I'm still here.

She now finds herself part of a rapidly growing congregation.

WOMAN 2 (Translation): I can see it at home, I used to be the only one who believed and now my family and many friends are believers too, because my little girl is miraculous. Look, she's with me.

REPORTER: (Translation): A tattoo of her.

WOMAN 2 (Translation): Yes.

This area is called Tepito. It's often referred to as the roughest and most dangerous neighbourhood in Mexico City. It's a thriving black market area where many survive on the proceeds of crime. As the afternoon wears on a colourful set of characters settle in for the evening service.

MAN 3 (Translation): She's done many miracles for me, she gave me freedom from prison. She got me out of prison several times.

And Henriqueta claims she was an early devotee, worshipping Saint Death in private for decades. Then she put the altar in a window of her house and watched it become an important pilgrimage site. But she plays down the spiritual influence she has had on this community.

HENRIQUETA ROMERO ROMERO (Translation): I just put the alter here, that's all. But I am not a leader, I'm nothing.

FATHER RUBEN AVILA ENRIQUEZ (Translation): Many people who go to that place to worship Saint Death are people who don't really know their Christianity, their doctrine, so they confuse things and start creating a doctrine of convenience, seeking particularly some sort of protection. They need protection as their beliefs are linked to magic and esoteric practices.

Father Enriquez is tracking the cult's dramatic growth.

FATHER RUBEN AVILA ENRIQUEZ (Translation): It is growing, particularly among people who are always putting their lives at risk, such as drug traffickers, rapists, prostitutes; people who I'd say are part of the underworld.

Although he is concerned, Father Enriquez is confident they will always eventually return to the Catholic Church.

FATHER RUBEN AVILA ENRIQUEZ (Translation): When they realise it is all a con, it is all a fake, they abandon it. This often happens.

SYLVIA GUTIERREZ: People in Mexico have been experiencing such tremendous change. Change of beliefs and the way their life used to be, and they cannot understand precisely what is going on, so I think it is very, very normal that they go to a different cult to see, to try, as the priest told you, to try, maybe it works.

Back at the altar, there's no sign of anyone wavering in their faith. The amount of money generated here is incredible - the cost of the flowers and candles alone would run into the thousands of dollars. As the donation boxes circulate, it's clear this has become a successful family business for Henriqueta. Her husband takes the money and mans the souvenir stall, and her son acts as high priest.

HIGH PRIEST (Translation): We ask Saint Death to look after all our sick, all our pregnant women and all those people who are in hospital. We ask Saint Death to cover them with her holy cloak so that they get well soon. You can now make your petitions in silence.

The service went on like this for one hour. The final act is to form a human chain linking everyone in the crowd to the altar.

HIGH PRIEST (Translation): Relax and concentrate, visualise saint death in your mind and visualise the problem each of you has, we call on Saint Death to resolve it.

Whether or not the cult continues to grow depends on the way Mexico responds to these uncertain political and economic times.

SYLVIA GUTIERREZ: If Mexico goes into democracy and things go well, we have more employment and more social security, then I am sure this will be over, this will be ended. If not, well, she has got the chance to grow more, but I don't think she will ever get out from Tepito. So Tepito does not include Mexican citizens. They are the people of Tepito, the people of the Bronx, as you said, of the Mexican Bronx









Translations / Subtitling