Mexico City’s famous”Barrio de Tepito” is located right in the oldest area of the capital. So it’s surprising that in Mexico, it goes by a different name: Barrio Bravo, “the fierce neighborhood.” It gets its nickname from being one of the most dangerous areas in the city. A huge marketplace highlights the center of the neighborhood.
In Tepito, one can find just about any goods or services they’re looking for, from umbrellas and souvenirs, designer’s brand clothing, or flat screen TVs, to illegal drugs, weapons and hit men. You read that correctly. What was once, in colonial times, a small marketplace has turned into the most notorious black market in Mexico and all of Latin America.
During the first 5 days of each month, just a few steps away from Tepito’s marketplace, right in the heart of “Colonia Morelos”, dozens of followers of the country’s cult of “Santa Muerte,” or “Saint Death,” bring offerings to a shrine featuring the grim reaper figure.
People crawl on their knees and leave tequila, rum, beer, cigarettes, cash, flowers and candy; many even pay “Mariachi” groups to serenade the sinister statue that stands in the middle of a shrine, in the street of Alfarería, which is one of the most popular in the city. It was set up 14 years ago by Enriqueta Romero after her son gave her a “Saint Death” figure.
The Catholic Church frowns on the cult, whose origins may be traced back to Aztec and Mayan death-gods or to ancient European traditions, but many devotees call themselves Catholics.
“They should not judge us, speak badly about us,” said Romero. “We are not Satanists. We don’t worship the devil. I am not a witch. I am not evil. But I do have a lot of faith in “La Santa Muerte” as a saint.
Victor Alejandro Paya, a sociology professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), said the cult first emerged in prisons and city slums where rates of violence and crime are very high.
He believes the “Saint Death” cult, which experts say has millions of followers, will continue to spread as sections of society are marginalized by drug violence and poverty.
According to the people who worship Santa Muerte, in order to ask for a favor, followers should pray to her consistently, act with gratitude, and present an offering, such as fruit, flowers, cigars, incense, food or alcohol, in exchange for the request.