Why some Mexicans are drawn to Saint Death

Laura Roush, an anthropology professor at Mexico's Colegio de Michoacán, has extensively studied the Santa Muerte devotion in Mexico. The views expressed are her own.

Mexico City (CNN)For fifteen years, Doña Queta Romero held a monthly prayer service in front of her house in Tepito, a tough but legendary neighborhood in Mexico City.

Neighbors were troubled: her altar didn't contain a normal Catholic saint but a skeleton in a dress -- Saint Death, or Santa Muerte.
Nevertheless, the service attracted hundreds of strangers. Thousands of people visit Tepito every day to go shopping, and Queta's house is near the subway.
As Mexico City's central market for illegal merchandise, Tepito offers miracles of consumerism, afternoons of respite from the grind of economic exclusion.
    For the same reasons, it is well trodden by crime reporters, whose reporting on the oddity at Queta's house helped the crowd grow to thousands.
    When you see this crowd in pictures, everyone carrying skeletons in colorful robes, it might look weird or menacing.
    Santa Muerte devotees in the Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito
    Even some Mexico City residents can find it all too exotic, and their view is usually colored by a rumor that Santa Muerte is a "narco saint."
    Yet the prayers the devotees come to hear are as old as Christianity, familiar and reassuring to those raised Catholic -- even if clergy members abhor the added details.
    From across this city of 20-some million, the subway brings Santa Muerte fans into Tepito, and they in turn bring ideas and gestures as diverse as Mexico's regions, with certain commonalities.
    They arrive carrying statues from home, and sometimes sacks full of presents -- apples, cigarettes, party favors. Some distribute scrolls of paper tied with ribbons, bearing photocopied prayers and testimonials written in longhand. In the hour before the rosary, passing out presents is the main event, a carryover from ordinary parish festivals.
    There are differences, though. This exchange of gifts can tell us something about who the devotees are and what they value, if we look at the rosary and its prayers first.
    What do they pray for? Like at any church, there's an array of personal problems, including the ones people would rather not specify.
    But the formal service, pieced together by Queta in the early years, crystallized around five themes she kept overhearing: unemployment, imprisonment, medical crisis, addiction, and being "mixed up with the wrong crowd."
    Doña Queta Romero touches a Santa Muerte statue outside her home.
    Her service molds the themes into the five sorrowful mysteries of the Catholic rosary, which retrace the five trials suffered by Christ on the path to crucifixion. For example, she uses the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, which traditionally teaches reflection on one's sins, to set aside time for the prisoners. Every mystery avoids judging the person who is prayed for -- a welcome relief if their burden is stigmatized in everyday life.
    Prayers for the prisoners directly acknowledge that worldly judgment is defective: "We pray for those who justly or unjustly groan behind bars; please help the rightly convicted find you, and show the falsely convicted a way out; put a fair judge in their path."
    Between repetitions of the Lord's Prayer, the constant refrain here is also the most common citywide, appearing on T-shirts and medals: "Santa Muerte, please don't take away your protection (no me desampares de tu protección)."
    Concern with protection, and with losing it, unifies the devotion, and suggests a way of looking back at the flow of gifts.
    The little scrolls recount people's experiences finding themselves without "protections."
    A few are pleas for information, circulated by families of loved ones who have gone missing. They hope for tips, since the authorities have found nothing.
    Others thank her for resolving some bureaucratic impasse.
    The majority tell of patients turned away from public hospitals, or who were victims of malpractice, and who would have died, if not for the Santa Muerte.
    All add depth to the theme of "dis-protection," or desamparo. There are failures of the justice system, the health system, the official church, even failures of old-fashioned protection rackets.
    Into the breach walks Death herself. And who could be better qualified? Of all the known authorities, she has the only decent record of impartiality: she comes for us all, rich or poor.
    Along with objects meant to be placed on the recipient's home altar, small services are also given freely. The gathering is attended by babalaos, priests representing Santería, an African diaspora tradition that comes via the Caribbean.
    Santa Muerte devotees pray at the shrine in Tepito.
    Dressed in white, they offer special purifications of people's statuettes using cigar smoke. Others, with little money to spend, get in on the joy of giving by splashing tequila on random passing statuettes, or spraying them with a scented spray. The attitude is warmth toward strangers.
    The widest net of inclusion involves artwork made by prisoners, who can help support their families by making tiny carvings of Santa Muerte of leftover bones from stew. People value the pieces for the suffering they contain, and gladly commission them, no questions asked.
    Gift-giving like this happens at parish festivals, but members of a parish usually know each other. Here, by some tacit rule, anonymity is maintained. This is partly because of the rumor that devotees are violent. The average Santa Muerte devotee is, in fact, not violent, though many have witnessed violence.
    But the average devotee also can't rule out the possibility that other people in the crowd harbor bad intentions. These hours of inclusion and generosity require a suspension of mistrust.
    The gospels describe how Christ fed a multitude with almost nothing. One interpretation of the miracle of the fishes and the loaves leans toward sociology: the real miracle was that he got strangers to trust each other and stop hoarding. For many centuries, a wide array of Christian gatherings have gently reminded believers of that lesson.
    At the Tepito rosary, people stop fearing each other long enough to be kind: to transsexuals maligned by the church, sex workers abused by the law, absent prisoners, even individuals they suspect would be dangerous on any other day.
    Their recognition is granted, oddly enough, by way of anonymity. Outlaws and the excommunicated are recognized as children of God and Santa Muerte through a common experience of "dis-protection."
    Confessed Catholics participate -- fully aware that the Catholic leaders condemn Santa Muerte.
    According to the official doctrine, Christ overcame Death -- and these people appear to worship Death.
    But there is an alternative reading, one that Mexico City Catholics are often willing to consider.
    In a way, the gathering expresses Catholic values, consciously or unconsciously, by honoring a fellowship of the "dis-protected."
    Standing in the crowd during the gift-giving, you could even ask yourself whether it's a revival of old-fashioned reasons for sharing with strangers.