Dropping in on Holy Death

In most of Latin America, and particularly in Mexico, Catholicism is a double helix of institutional dogma intertwined with popular invention and fanaticism. When the hierarchy and encyclicals imported from Europe don’t quite address the spiritual needs of the local folk, some just create their own, often more vivid, embellishments of the traditional Catholic canon.

On each of our trips to San Antonio, Texas—a mind-deadening, twelve-hour driving marathon through mostly barren landscapes—we’d noticed signs pointing the roadside Chapel of the Holy Death and had intended to stop and check it out. It’s hard to miss: a squat, bright-blue mini-church missing only the usual crucifix on top.

C’mon in, you lily-livered non-believers. 

What went on in the chapel? Why would someone pray to or worship Death? Isn’t that against usual human instincts to live? Do Death’s devotees solicit help with their daily vicissitudes? And by the way, is Death a He or a She?

Even though I’ve grown into a grumpy agnostic borderline atheist, I still hesitate to proclaim my skepticism too loudly about either one of the two strands of Catholicism—the formal church or the outlier cults and superstitions like the veneration of Holy Death, quite widespread throughout Mexico, or santería, even more popular in my native Cuba.

Other Latino non-believers often conceal similar doubts and fears with a really lame caveat: “No creo en eso, pero sí le tengo respeto.”  “I don’t believe in all that, but I do respect it.” In other words, you never know.

So each time we went past the shrine to Holy Death, a scuffle broke out in my head between curiosity and fear of whatever went on in the chapel. Fear invariably won. We just kept on driving, weaving through the caravan of semis clogging the highway. Whatever it is, we’d better not mess with it.

Last Saturday, curiosity finally won and it brought to mind some of the mixed-message religious beliefs with which I grew up in Cuba, where staid old-world Catholicism mixes with the feverish, drum-beating African beliefs brought to the island by Nigerian slaves. The result is santería, which thrives despite the scorn of the mainline Catholic church.

Even Fidel, and his deposed predecessor Batista, were said to have their personal santería priests, to help them navigate through the turbulence of Cuban politics. It didn’t work out so well for Batista, though he slipped out of the island and on to a very comfortable retirement in Spain.

At home my mother kept a small but centrally located altar to Santa Barbara, a versatile saint who was a central figure in both the Catholic and santería pantheons. Our statue of Santa Barbara was about eighteen inches tall, decorated with a tiny metal crown and chalice, plus a sword she held on her left hand and could be set to point up or down, I suspect depending on my mother’s spiritual moods or in case of some family emergency.

Santa Barbara supplies available
from a vendor in California. 

Along the traditional Catholic iconography, at the foot of the small altar, my mother occasionally placed bananas, apples or other fruits in compliance with santería traditions. You never know. So you cover all the bases.

Growing up I developed chronic bronchial asthma, a wheezing, relentless malady I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I went to doctors who prescribed inhalers and other medications, in addition to shots of penicillin, the cure-all back in the fifties. All to no avail.

So my parents consulted a santera—a santería priestess or practitioner—who proposed an unorthodox cure. I imagine that by now my parents had given up on the usual Catholic prayers and invocations.

So at sunrise the next Easter morning we went out to the countryside and stood at the foot of a ceiba tree, one of the largest trees in the island. There, the santera, after mumbling what sounded like some Catholic prayer, probably spiced with ñáñigo, a language brought from Africa by the slaves, cut a lock of my hair and solemnly tucked it into a cut she had made on the trunk of the ceiba. She predicted my asthma would be cured when the incision healed.

A giant ceiba tree, similar to the one
that cured my asthma. Maybe. 


It worked.

Or did it? My asthma went away just about the time I came to the U.S. Maybe I was allergic to something in Cuba. Maybe I grew out of it. Or maybe yet, santería might have done the trick. Hence my allegiance to both agnosticism and back-of-the-head respect for religious mumbo-jumbo, even some of the more far-fetched beliefs. You just never know.

The Chapel of the Holy Death, is located about two-thirds of the way home between the exits to the cities of Matahuala and San Luis Potosí in a landscape that is fittingly dismal. The soil is a whitish clay that resembles cracked plaster. Vegetation is sparse except for mesquites and a species of tall cacti tilted in all directions as if they were periscopes peering through the dust for a way out of this unforgiving patch of nature.

Signs of human habitation were equally scarce, mostly a few dingy cafes and restaurants and a vulcanizing and tire repair shop, the typical establishments in parts of Mexico where even bare survival is a daily struggle.

Your choice: Lunch, some freshly vulcanized tires or a live chicken.

We overshot our exit by about a kilometer, where a short and frail woman, carrying a bare-assed two- or three-year-old boy and two other children, promptly approached the car and asked us if we wanted to buy some cacti. Instead of a restaurant or a tire shop she had set up a cactus nursery. Give her credit for ingenuity.

Most of her sere offerings were pathetic but I found a couple of specimens I didn’t have. She asked $150 pesos, a ridiculous sum that I promptly paid, so shaken was I by this family’s misery. As Stew so often says, such are not rational commercial transactions but acts of income redistribution.

Heartened by our generosity, the woman took us to the patio of her ramshackle dwelling and offered to sell us songbirds, pants, socks, shoes and even a three-inch coyote fang she produced from her pocket. It would make a fine necklace, she said. I passed.

OK, how about a coyote fang?

As we turned around and approached the Chapel of the Holy Death, my trepidations ebbed. It was a bright-blue, almost cheery building that someone kept meticulously painted, with a palapa in front under which a young guy was working on a battered 1997 Ford Taurus. He was installing a string of lights over the windshield, surely the last thing that vehicle needed.

Even before we’d exited the highway I had warned Stew not too giggle, point or show any disrespect to anything or anyone in the shrine. I didn’t want to piss off Holy Death, or more immediately, some of his or her followers who might be offended and come after us with a machete.

After a brief and grumpy conversation with the young man working on his car, an attractive bosomy woman carrying a four- or five-month old named Darwin approached us as if to ask about the nature of our business.

I introduced myself and politely, rather obsequiously, asked her if she was a believer in the cult of the Holy Death and could she provide any details. Though she lived next door to the chapel she claimed not to know anything about its function, except that believers came by occasionally to pick up a statue from inside the chapel and take it home for a fiesta.

“Why would you bring a statue of Holy Death to a fiesta?” I asked. She explained that the fiestas were religious celebrations on important religious holidays.

The chapel included a kneeling bench. 

The inside of the chapel was no more than four hundred square feet. The walls were lined with rows of statues, some three or four feet tall, most decorated with lavish costumes that included a hood to cover—you guessed it—a skull. Some of the skulls, life-sized and amber-colored, looked like they once belonged to someone. Bony fingers protruded out of some of the sleeves. The only light came from a skylight and dozens of candles flickering at the foot of this bone-chilling line-up. What looked like a small stone birdbath or baptismal font sat in the middle of the room, and held a handful of wilted red roses.

In addition, one of the walls was filled with framed prayers, testimonials and declarations by people who apparently had been helped by Holy Death. One testimonial was a photo of a tanker-truck driver beseeching Holy Death for his or her protection.

May we help you?

I kept a safe distance from all the testimonials while Stew began checking the backs of the pictures, as if this were a flea market. A passport-size color photo of a handsome thirty-something man fell out from one of the pictures. Was he dead? Or had he been saved from some horrible fate?

Stew was baptized in a small-gauge church in Iowa that unlike Roman Catholicism did not burden him with any sense of religious guilt, fear, hell or damnation. The chapel was no more than a curiosity.  Lucky him.

I respectfully, almost fearfully, put the photo on the shelf—I couldn’t tell which framed testimonial it had come from—and urged Stew to keep his hand off the relics, followed by “let’s get the hell out of here.”

Testimonials or pleas to Holy Death

On the way back to the car I was confronted by a potentially existential dilemma: A spray-painted sign offered votive candles for twenty pesos. Which would it be? Should we risk dissing Holy Death by not buying a candle? Or incur the institutional wrath of the Roman Catholic Church which harrumphs at the cult of Holy Death as sacrilege or worse, and could put me on the wrong side of the Pearly Gates for all eternity?

I paused for a second before my Guardian Angel helpfully whispered in my ear: “Get back in the car and go home, you fools.”



12 thoughts on “Dropping in on Holy Death

  1. On one of my visits to Mexico City I was wandering the streets of the Centro Historico beyond the area where tourists usually go. In the middle of one of the streets I came upon a macabre altar to Santa Muerte. That was when I decided it was time to head back into more familiar territory.


  2. I've ALWAYS wanted to stop at the Capilla between the border and Monterrey right next to the highway in the median, but I always pass by. Now I know……….I'll always pass by. Sheesh, that it the weirdest thing I've ever seen in Mexico. Thanks for the photos. And, about Saint Barbara – did you know they took her sainthood away. It's the story of my life! Bwah ha ha.


  3. Anonymous

    In Guatemala, they have the cult of Machamone, a guy in a zoot suite with a big cigar. He grants dirty deeds done dirt cheap. The guy is hauled from house to house every quarter or so to spread the bounty around. I went to a ceremony once held on a destroyed Maya temple platform. Congregants were getting purified. You gave the priest a bottle of cane liquor, some flowers and some herbs that he spit on you, beat you with and dusted you off with for the cost of 10 or 20 Q. Good to go, trust me. The dirty deeds part is not a public thing was my understanding.


  4. Aloha Stew~ What a fantastic, fun entry — muchas gracias for it and all your entertaining entries. Guess it's time to plan another trip to SMA and visit a small-kid-time amiga who lives there. Have a wonderful day and please keep on writing, Di


  5. A great story! I was raised in a very strict Dutch Reformed household and am as a consequence as agnostic as it gets. But I love chuches and cathedrals for their archetecture and grandeur. The little chapel is pretty creepy though…


  6. I saw the Machamone at a coffee finca outside Antigua, Guatemala. A Guatemalan man said they do take the statue from village to village all year. It is an honor to have it reside with the family. They do the same with saint statues in Mexico – I find it interesting how different cultures have different things to honor!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s