Botanica or iglesia?
For some time, my work commute across the river took me down the stretch of Melrose Ave near Normandie/Western in Central Los Angeles. At first, I seemed to overlook the big red sign proclaiming “Santa Muerte,” I was more aware of the proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries in the area. Eventually though, the Mexican Blackletter font snagged my attention and I began to realize this tiny storefront was more than just a regular neighborhood botanica.
Around the same time, I was reading the awesome book, First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century by David Lida. One of the chapters dealt with the Tepito neighborhood in Mexico DF, a place with the notorious reputation of being one of the most dangerous areas of the city and widely known for it’s black market of ill-gotten goods. It is also in this neighborhood that one can find a shrine to the patron saint of Tepito, La Santa Muerte. Here, her shrine is swaddled in chocolate coins, cigars, shots of rum, barbie dolls and figurines doused in perfume. Like any place in Mexico, ambulantes (street vendors) sprout up around the area on the first of the month, the main day of pilgrimage to the shrine.
One might be able to discern a Santa Muerte follower based on the statues of Santa Muerte itself. Usually, it’s not going to be your pious abuelita who will carry around a statue of the grim reaper. Santa Muerte attracts those who have been forgotten and shunned by society: prostitutes, drug dealers, murderers, thieves and those hoping to be protected from these kinds of activities. However, as her notoriety grows and the news of successful remedies spreads, the veneration of Santa Muerte is spreading rapidly and to people of different backgrounds.
It is commonly believed that Santa Muerte, also known as La Flaca and La Guerita in Mexico, was first spotted in the early 1960s in the infamous witchcraft practicing town of Catemaco, Veracruz. Others believe the origins of Santa Muerte come from pre-Columbian traditions. It is well known that despite colonization and religious conversion to Catholicism, many Mexicans continued to pray to ancient deities. I suppose the Catholic Church might consider this a form of witchcraft. In any case, Mexicans have a special relationship with their saints that is more akin to their Nahuatl fore bearers. This almost pagan style of veneration, with worshipers sometimes demanding favors from their saints, is a perennial thorny issue for the Church.
Here in Los Angeles, the Templo Santa Muerte finally intrigued me enough to stop in and make a small pilgrimage myself. I was a little hesitant and wary at first. Botanicas aren’t known for their friendly and welcoming attitudes. I was pleasantly surprised then to find a young Mexicana (Profesora Sahara, I presume from her card) working there, cleaning up from the previous night’s misa. She also didn’t look like your usual botanica owner, she was dressed all in black, rocking that Mexican heavy metal look, like some vendor in El Chopo (Mexico City’s punk rock swapmeet.) After a glance around the storefront, I realized I wasn’t in a botanica at all but a straight out mini-church. Taking up half the room was the shrine to Santa Muerte, numerous grim reaper style statues filled the space, all covered in candles, chains and offerings. The young chica was nice enough to allow me to take photos and in turn, I made a three dollar offering to Santa Muerte which was also the price of the candle I took home with me.
If your regular religion has got you down and you need some relief from ‘La Crisis’ , it’s possible that La Flaca just might be the saint to answer your prayers. However, this saint is not endorsed by the Catholic Church, you’ve been warned!
The misas are daily at 7pm and from the looks of the crowded storefront as I drive home, they fill up quickly.
Templo Santa Muerte
4902 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90029
Nicely produced Santa Muerte video by Daniel Hernandez can be seen here.