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Friday, June 14, 2024

La Santa Muerte

SMGP 2020 Program by Ricardo Salido

Tired of Begging: Devotion to La Santa Muerte in Mexico City

2020 Student Media Grant Program

Rodrigo Salido is a Doctoral Student in the Department of History (expected graduation 2024) at The University of Texas at Austin.  


Santa Muerte is a Mexican folk saint, “canonized” by no one, but a Saint still. She emerged as a popular figure in Mexico City at the beginning of the twenty-first century and became mainstream during the security crisis in Mexico that started in 2007. Santa Muerte, or “Saint Death,” rapidly became a patron for people living on the edge of life and death in violent contexts—a protector of the dispossessed and marginalized groups: sexual workers, soldiers, policemen, smugglers, drug-traffickers, cancer patients without insurance. In a world where violence and shameless inequality are the norm, Santa Muerte is seen as an equalizer. “It doesn’t matter how rich or powerful you are,” a devotee told me, “she will take us anyway.” Represented as a white female skeleton dressed in fabrics of different colors, her image appears suddenly in many corners of Mexico City: street altars, small figures, tattooed skins, home-made shrines, she appears printed on handguns and candles. But her troubling image and the lifestyles of some infamous believers (such as high-profile drug-traffickers and criminals) contributed to the stigmatization of her devotees: they are all seen as narcos. The Mexican government’s tendency to dehumanize all people involved in drug-trafficking is evident in speeches and announcement decrying victims of the Drug War as traitors, cockroaches, and animals. This national narrative has propelled stigma towards Santa Muerte devotees, instilling fear and discrimination.

In this project, Rodrigo intends to photograph believers of Santa Muerte. He will depict these poorly understood objects and spaces of devotion: the statuettes, the ink on their skins, the public shrines and paintings. Tired of Begging will use Santa Muerte as a common thread to connect a diverse set of stories of conflict, violence, displacement, poverty and urban marginalization. Rather than framing her as merely a narco-saint (as the Mexican and US media and security agencies usually do), these intimate portraits will highlight the wide range of uncertainties, conflicts, and policy outcomes that give Santa Muerte her power and allure.

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