While the media in the U.S., Mexico and beyond often focuses on an inflated image of Santa Muerte as a so-called ‘narco-saint,’ her devotees come from a broad spectrum of those who have stepped beyond, or been pushed outside of, the status quo.
She stands as a loving matron for those who accept lives lived in the liminal areas of social identity. As violence, economic disparity and often haphazard social engineering tear apart traditional boundaries, those left unattended by official support and recognition must seek solidarity within spiritual spaces that provide for their needs. In the Americas, Santa Muerte has come forward as a powerful patroness of those whose devotion occurs in the borderlands of social upheaval and her presence has become one of the most potent images of the drastic changes occurring in contemporary culture.
When we take a closer look at her position within the narco-culture we find that she does not appear here due to some preference for cartels or drug gangs, but rather because she does not judge those who come to her for help.
At Dona Queta’s shrine in Tepito, a neighborhood that the media has branded as one of Mexico DF’s most notoriously violent, petitions are more often heard for health and well being than the media’s reports of ill repute would have us believe. Despite the image of Santa Muerte as a criminal saint, Dona Queta is often seen aggressively pushing away “fucking thieves” and those who seek to petition the Bony Lady for what she feels are untoward ends.
Introducing Tepito for a recent article, Judith Matloff, a Columbia University professor writing for Al Jazerra America, highlights how establishment media frames the social margins that Santa Muerte oversees:
“Even for many city residents, the neighborhood of Tepito is a no-go zone, 72 blocks of Latin America’s biggest black market, a labyrinth of stalls that serve as refuge and home for outcasts: drug dealers, pickpockets, transvestites, thieves and sellers of contraband.”
Here we have a strange incongruity, amid a list of those active in illegal activities Matloff includes transgender individuals, whose only ‘crime’ would be not fitting within a naive status quo vision of gender and sexuality. In creating this false association, however, the article gives us a key as to why Santa Muerte has become one of the fastest growing devotional traditions in the Americas. S
he vividly represents the growing disparity that exists not only on an economic level, but also on the level of social understanding between those who exist within the official comfort of privilege and those that exist outside of protection of mainstream institutions.
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