Features May 5, 2009 By John Dickie

     Today it’s called Tepito. El Barrio Bravo (”The Tough Neighborhood”). Only sixteen street blocks, but its name resonates throughout Mexico. Head north from the old town and the buildings gradually change from tall and colonial to low and concrete, until you step into the maze of alleys that is Tepito (don’t go alone), where you can hardly even see the buildings for all the people and stalls and tarps and, especially, the piles of boxes. Infamous for being the contraband central of the Americas and a repository for illegal drugs, this inner-city Medina is considered the rightful home of La Santa Muerte — “The Saint of Death”.
     Arriving at Tepito metro station, a friend took me into the market and introduced me to Don Beto, a Tepito native in his late forties. A former boxer (Tepito has produced several champions, including Marco Antonio Barrera) with beefy hands and a Santa Muerte chain hanging around his thick neck consisting of a silver skull wrapped in a white hood, Beto had agreed to show us around his home patch and talk to us about La Santa.
     To get to his house, we turned down an alley, clambered up a narrow metal staircase, crossed several balconies and arrived at a few rooms on a rooftop terrace. Carboard boxes were strewn everywhere: not just here in Beto’s house, but in every alley and on every balcony and behind every window I dared peek through. It turned out that the boxes at Beto’s house all contained cheap Chinese television sets. His son was busy repainting them and glueing on plastic Sony name plates.
     Beto’s family all believe in La Santa Muerte and regularly pay homage to her at a nearby shrine on Alfarería street, considered the most important shrine in Tepito. Beto accompanied us down there. Set inside a small chapel, she stands tall, like a female grim reaper, dressed in white, with all manner of offerings at her feet: coins, candles, cigarettes, shots of tequila, photographs. “We ask her for protection, and she gives it to us,” says Beto. “This is like our church.”
     La Santísima (“The Most Saintly”), as she is often called, is like a kind of Street God; a grassroots icon of religious refuge for those living on the edge of society. Not only criminals but also those marginalized by the system and by a Mexican state considered corrupt and undependable whose institutional spiritual pillar is a Catholic church in decay. “La Santísima watches over everybody,” continues Beto, “she does not discriminate; she accepts everyone.”

1 2 3