Big Jim: La Santa Muerte

2014-04-01T00:00:00Z 2014-04-03T16:24:50Z Big Jim: La Santa MuerteJim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Let’s pretend we have our passports in order and have crossed the border at Nogales. After we pass a big intersection and move down off the mesa, we see a cluster of some fifteen small chapels and nichos to our right. These are worthy of a short stop and a word of explanation.

They are all dedicated to a supernatural personage called la Santa Muerte -“Holy Death,” sometimes translated into English as “Saint Death.” This cult gets no approval from the Catholic Church, even though it exists within the patterns of the Mexican Catholic culture.

La Santa Muerte is a powerful figure, usually shown as a skeleton dressed in a long robe and holding the world, or a scythe, or both. The color of her robe varies to reflect the specific the kind of favor she is being asked for. She doesn’t ask questions or demand virtuous behavior of the petitioner and because of this has found a growing popularity among the poor. La Santa Muerte is an “outsider” to formally established religion, she appeals to other outsiders, especially to those who live beyond society’s safety nets and laws.

 The first chapel to have been erected is an expensive, domed, gated building. The rest are of simpler construction, and vary in size from triple phone booths to small doghouses. Many are empty, and apparently not finished. Most of the occupied capillas contain a statue of la Santa Muerte, although three have murals of her instead. These murals are rare in my experience, and were done by a very competent artist in tones of black, gray, and brown.

This is the largest Santa Muerte chapel cluster I have seen in Sonora. However, I have documented elaborate chapels to her just south of the border in the southbound lane of every major highway in Sonora. The larger chapels often have offerings: fruit, money, candles, and liquor, among other things.

Although I don’t doubt that la Santa Muerte has found her way onto many private altars in Arizona, the only public representation of her that I have seen here is on the wall of a botanica on west Ajo Way.

Once we pass the Santa Muerte chapels, our trip south is made more interesting by a number of death markers, shrines, and chapels. Some twenty miles south of the border is the village of Cíbuta, where Father Kino established a cattle ranch and near which Pancho Villa fought a battle.     

This is famous cheese country, and I always stop w here I see signs for queso, either queso cocido, for making quesadillas, and queso ranchero, for everything else. Good stuff, all of it. Next stop, Ímuris.

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About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at tucson.com/wildcatgear.

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail bigjimgriffith@gmail.com

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