National Geographic : 2010 May
• into miracle workers, like a mythical bandit from northern Mexico called Jesús Malverde. ere are even saints from the New Testament repurposed for achieving not salvation but suc- cess. In this expanding spiritual universe, the worship of a skeleton dressed in long robes and carrying a scythe---La Santa Muerte---is pos- sibly the fastest growing and, at rst glance at least, the most extravagant of the new cults. "If you look at it from the point of view of a country that over the last ten years has become dangerously familiar with death," González says, "you can see that this skeleton is a very concrete and clear symbolic reference to the current situation." Unknown to most Mexicans until recently, this death gure resembles medieval represen- tations of the grim reaper but is fundamentally di erent from the playful skeletons displayed on Day of the Dead---the day when Mexicans' departed loved ones return to share with the liv- ing a few hours of feasting and remembrance. Her altars can now be found all over Mexico, on street corners and in the homes of the poor. Women and men alike are her followers. In the heart of Mexico City, in a neighborhood that has always been raucous and de ant, Enriqueta Romero leads a prayer session in honor of the skeleton every rst of the month. Simultaneously inty, foulmouthed, and motherly, Romero was among the rst and the most e ective propagan- dizers of a cult that some believe got its start in towns along the Gulf of Mexico but now covers a wide territory up and down the country. In California and Central America as well, young people light candles in La Santa Muerte's honor and tattoo her image on their skin in sizes small to extra large. A few years ago the Interior Min- istry revoked its registration of La Santa Muerte as a legitimate religion, to no e ect. Newsstands sell instructional videos showing how to pray to the saint, and even chic intellectuals are begin- ning to say that the cult is muy auténtico. IT'S NOT ONLY THE CRISIS but also the types of prob- lems people face these days that have fueled the expansion of the cults. Let's say, for example, that you live in one of the cities along the border taken over by the drug trade and that the crackle of machine-gun re bursts out every night, lling you with terror of stray bullets. Is it not under- standable to pray for protection to someone like the outlaw narco-saint Jesús Malverde, whom drug tra ckers revere? Mexicans who retain a strong connection to the Roman Catholic faith might turn instead to St. Jude addeus. At a time when no-win situations abound, he is experiencing a rise in popularity comparable only to that of La Santa Muerte, perhaps because he is known in the Catholic Church as the patron saint of desperate causes. Fifteen years ago a sun-weathered man named Daniel Bucio first prayed to St. Jude, and six years ago, he says, the saint answered his prayers and granted his mother release from a long and painful illness. Now Bucio comes every month to a listing colonial church called San Hipólito just behind the main tourist corridor in downtown Mexico City to give thanks to a miraculous statue of St. Jude that was donated to the church some 30 years ago. (Historians of the drug trade might be struck by a coinci- dence: It was about 30 years ago that tra ckers from Medellín, Colombia, who are famously devoted to St. Jude, rst established trade rela- tions with their Mexican counterparts.) St. Jude's o cial feast day is October 28, and thousands of his followers feel inspired to come and pray to him on that day every month. Sixteen Masses are celebrated in the parish from dawn to eve- ning, and worshippers crawl to the statue of the saint on their knees, praying for help, protec- tion, and survival. e crowds are so large that police have to cordon o several tra c lanes outside the church. Daniel Bucio loves these romerías, or reli- gious fiestas, what with the jostling crowds and the street food and the endless parade of statues of St. Jude---some as large as a man can carry, some small but fantastically decorated, like his own, which in obedience to the an- cient religious traditions of his hometown is dressed in a glittering ankle-length robe and the feathered headdress of the Aztec emper- ors. In recent years, though, Bucio's pleasure in the monthly pilgrimage has been spoiled by growing throngs of unsmiling young men and women with tattoos and chains who arrive in groups and push their way through the crowd, o en exchanging what look like small, wrapped Alma Guillermoprieto is a frequent contributor who lives in Mexico City. Shaul Schwarz is based in New York City. is is his rst story for the magazine.