Santisima Muerte comes to Victoria
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Her altar can be made of anything - a statue of marble in a temple or a carving of soap in a jail cell.
She doesn't favor the rich over the poor or even the righteous over the depraved.
But her followers must understand and respect her, said Jesus Castillo, the tarot card reader at the Velas y Mas herbaria in Victoria.
The Santisima Muerte - Saint Death - does not show mercy.
"If you don't give the correct offering, if you don't do what you promise, there could be a very high price to pay to Santisima Muerte. ... She is very jealous," he said.
Castillo said he has seen people come through the little herb shop on Navarro Street who have lost everything - jobs, family, money - after failing to keep promises to the holy death saint.
But that doesn't stop a growing number of people in Victoria from praying to her, says Debra Woods, owner of Velas y Mas.
"The church frowns upon it, and I don't push it. But most of the people who come in here know exactly what they are dealing with in that saint," she said.
Santa Muerte probably evolved from a blend of ancient Aztec beliefs and Spanish Catholicism, said U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte, of the Western Texas District.
Almonte, considered one of the foremost authorities in narcotics, has been studying narco saints, or saints patronized by the criminal element, such as Santa Muerte, for about 10 years.
Almonte believes Santa Muerte can be traced to the Aztecs' goddess of death, who was traditionally represented as a human skeleton, as Santa Muerte is today.
The first reference to Santa Muerte in historical record, however, is not until the 1700s in Mexico, according to the World Religions and Spirituality Project by Virginia Common Wealth University.
"The Santisima Muerte has been around for millennia," Castillo said. "Since Mayan times, Aztec times, even before then. It evolves in name, and people have different ways of praying, different rituals, but it has always been there."
Her popularity started to boom in Mexico in the 1960s, Almonte said, especially with the poor and uneducated, culminating in 2003 with the official recognition of self-declared "Archbishop" David Romo's temple, the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, by the Mexican government.
The temple, not sanctioned by the Catholic Church and stripped of its official recognition in 2005 because of Romo's ties to kidnapping, includes Santa Muerte in its rituals, according to the university's research.
Even though Santa Muerte is not condoned by the Catholic Church, her estimated 5 million worshipers in Mexico look to her for guidance in love, finances and healing.
She has existed for hundreds of years in Mexico, but her presence in the United States is fairly new, Almonte said.
"Over the last couple of years, it has really taken off. I would describe it like wildfire throughout the country," Almonte said about Santa Muerte in the U.S.
And her prevalence is growing in Victoria as well, agreed Castillo and Lt. Chris Garcia, gang expert with the Victoria County Sheriff's Office.
"There is no social class," Castillo said. "In each category, there are people who will be praying to the Santisima Muerte. There are policemen who pray to her, workers, doctors, professionals, criminals. It is all what they believe in."
Garcia said though law enforcement's sightings of Santa Muerte have increased, there is no way to be sure of her overall popularity in Victoria, because most people are secretive about their worship.
Woods said people come into her shop every week, many in confidence, looking for Santisima Muerte products like candles, incense, soap and statues for their personal altars.
The Rev. Stan DeBoe, of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Victoria, said he has not seen members of his parish incorporating Santa Muerte into their belief system.
Other churches across the country, however, have not only seen the belief of Santa Muerte within their congregations, but some also have formed their own religion.
The Templo Santa Muerte in Los Angeles, for example, not connected to the Catholic Church, offers sacraments like weddings, rosaries and baptisms.
"There are some things that develop through a mixture of spiritual forms and non-Christian sources that work their way into Christianity - not officially, but people incorporate them," DeBoe said.
Though Woods said Santa Muerte is not an evil spirit, many of her followers are criminals because of her connection to the "dark side" and other narco saints.
"Sometimes those are used to hurt others, (unlike) other saints that are supposed to be protecting you and helping," Woods said. "But the people who believe in that, it helps them to achieve what they want."
She said Santa Muerte is especially appealing to those searching for love or money, because the spirit is expected to respond quickly to prayer.
Though she sells the Santa Muerte items, Woods said she does not feel comfortable praying to Santa Muerte.
"A lot of my customers get their results a lot quicker, but I don't need to have my results quicker. To me, I feel God will give them to me when he feels it is best for me to have them," she said.
But Woods said she would never judge or try to change the mind of her customers.
"Even though you don't believe it, that is fine. You don't have to. But it exists ... Even before our time it has been here," Woods said.
HER CRIMINAL FAITHFUL
"The significance is that we are seeing a tremendous increase in the use of Santa Muerte by the criminal element, not just along the Southwest border, but throughout the U.S. The criminals include drug traffickers, gang members and human traffickers," Almonte said.
Many of the gangs in Victoria have contacts across the border, Garcia said. Those connections and the increased border traffic have brought Santa Muerte and other narco saints to the Crossroads.
Garcia said they even find Santa Muerte altars in the Victoria County Jail, made by inmates from soap or paper.
"It is clothed behind religion, and these narco traffickers use that and anything else they can to help them bless a load to get it to the final outcome. ... It is a corrupted way of believing to get safe passage," Garcia said.
Garcia said law enforcement officers are trained to recognize the signs of the narco saints to better identify potential traffickers or gang members.
He also said criminals' devotion to the narco saints can make situations more dangerous for law enforcement.
"If I (as a criminal) think that believing in something like that is going to help me, certainly it is going to make me feel more confident and stronger, make me take more risks to accomplish my goal because I believe the divine is going to guide me," Garcia explained.
Castillo said making sacrifices and prayers to Santa Muerte gives confidence to both criminals and law-abiding residents.
"For traffickers, people who are into illegal things, stuff like that, they pray to her for protection, for stealth," Castillo said.
That confidence, Woods said, comes from something found in most religions - faith.
"You still have to have faith. Faith is going to make it happen, whether you pray to Santa Muerte, Saint Michael, Jesus or any of the saints," she said.