Pablo Aguinaco

The cult of Santa Muerte, another face of tolerance.

In the last decade, in the heart of one of the neighborhoods with the highest crime rates in Mexico City, an unusual religious cult has developed, bringing together a growing number of proselytes, mostly from the marginalized sectors of the enormous metropolis.

This is the cult of the so-called “Santa Muerte” (Holy Death).

Yes, worship is paid to death, a devotion that evokes reminiscences of ancient Aztec rituals, similar to the cult of the dead observed in the first two days of November each year in homes and cemeteries throughout the country, a distinctive celebration of Mexican culture. During this time, sugar skulls are often given to friends and relatives, with the name of the honored person written on their foreheads.

Currently, given the conditions of chaos and violence that the country is experiencing, the cult of Santa Muerte has gained greater relevance.

For a few years now, on the first day of each month, an “open-air mass” is celebrated on a street, like so many in this immense city, in front of an improvised temple with the grotesque and skeletal figure dressed in extravagant robes of strident colors, encapsulated in a showcase illuminated with candle and neon lights of various colors.

Adorned with an endless array of trinkets, full of offerings and amulets reflecting the Mexican inclination towards idolatry, the figure of death with its scythe summons a large number of people who, in their marginalization, cry out for solace, spiritual help, and in return offer fervent prayers, delirious promises, and desires imbued with fanaticism.

Since the vast majority of these fervent and devoted followers come from the most discriminated layers of society, rejected both by the Catholic Church and civil institutions, among their faithful are a varied range of prostitutes, transvestites, drug addicts, ex-convicts, and drug traffickers, as well as thousands of people abandoned due to illness. All gather carrying fetishes and miniature effigies of Santa Muerte—often crafted by themselves—that they bring to “bless” in this new street church that seems more benevolent and integrative than the rigid religious and civil stereotypes, pillars of society.

This cult, serving to seek protection and comfort as well as to expiate guilt, is, so to speak, another facet of religious tolerance.

In this series of photographs, which has taken me several years to compile (I am currently presenting only photos taken during the year 2009), I have tried to document a social phenomenon that has rapidly grown to unusual proportions, seemingly unnoticed by the church. The church appears to overlook a phenomenon that has already reached dimensions worthy of attention and study.

Pablo Aguinaco
Mexico City, February 2010


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