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“Primeramente Dios y mi Santa, y mañana me voy a pescar”.
First God and my Santa Muerte and tomorrow I will go fish” (local fisherman).
Just inland from the coast of Oaxaca lies a large chapel to Santa Muerte, known as the Chapel of Santa Muerte’s Seven Powers. Thousands flock to light candles and pray to the folk saint of death every month, chief among them fishermen, their mothers, sisters and wives who constantly worry for their loved one’s lives. The shrine is intimately tied to the sea and the fates of those who earn their living from it and risk their lives upon it, daily and nightly, amid sharks, poisonous snakes, venomous sea snails, sting rays, killer whales and at the mercy of unpredictable currents and violent storms . Here it is Santa Muerte of the Sea whose scythe moves through the salt water that suffuses everyone’s lives. It is the sea that can change someone’s fortunes overnight, with a cornucopia of a catch that earns a fisherman enough money to feed their family for weeks or conversely with a killer wave that drowns everyone aboard the flimsy fishing boat leaving the fisherman’s family in penury.
Today, the Chapel of “Vida y Muerte”, whose story stems from the ocean currents, is run and owned by a sabia (wise woman of Santa Muerte), her son and more recently her daughter. An Indigenous woman, Doña Elena grew up with very little, in material terms, but as the daughter of a renowned curandero she was born with the gift of healing, by her mere lineage. Raised in a Zapotec-speaking household, she never learnt to read nor write. Thrown out at age 8, when her mother died and her father remarried, she left the sierra (mountains) for the city to find work and taught herself how to speak Spanish. She told me “I would wash clothes and clean people’s houses to get a taco to eat”. At 18 years old she met a husband, had two children but at 22 years old, he left her with a 4 year old and a 2 month old. She went to Oaxaca City to find work but later missing her “tierra” (her land), she left for the coast, settling close to where the shrine lies.
She raised her family under a hut made of palm leaves and also took care of a nephew, left with her by his parents and later raised many grandchildren, given to her by parents unwilling or unable to look after them. Known for her big heart and nurturing spirit, till this day people leave stray dogs at her shrine where despite her meager resources she feeds and cares for them. The shrine is not only for devotion to death but functions as an informal dog rescue center. While today still Doña Elena has little, the little she has, she shares with her pups.
Her grandson, Niza, whom I met visiting her at the shrine, told me how more than a grandmother, she has been a mother to him. Left with her at age five by his mother who had a new husband that did not want her former husband’s children, Niza recounted how some days they dwelled on the knife’s edge of life and death. After hurricanes ripped the palm leaf hut to shreds, he recalled that they had no lodgings and only one tortilla to share between them and an old frying pan. His grandmother made a fire of twigs and sticks, fried the tortilla in some fat she found amid the hurricane debris and split it between the children, depriving herself to feed them. “If it had not been for her self-sacrifice for us, we would not be alive today”, Niza, his eyes full of love, recalled.
Antonio, Doña Elena’s son, and Niza’s uncle, is a fisherman like Niza. Both have spent as much time on sea as on land. But sick for many years from witchcraft and not advancing in his life, Antonio asked his mother to help him. Turning to the old ways, since her father was a curandero, she took him to a healer who worked with Santa Muerte. He did not believe, he stated, “in shamans and all of that”. But everything changed dramatically after Death breathed new life into his path. Antonio told me: “I was sick from witchcraft and no matter how hard I worked with my friends on our fishing boat, we could never catch anything, we could never make any money. Our entire family was living in total poverty with little to eat and no proper home. The day I dedicated myself to Death, all that changed.” Santa Muerte not only healed him, he said, but also his mother, of 12 years of sickness and when they began praying regularly to Santa Muerte to change their fate, she listened, granting the family many miracles.
In particular, Holy Death brought luck to Antonio’s fishing allowing the family to earn some money and giving them the means to slowly build a home made of more than palm leaves and slats of wood. Sometimes Antonio doubted his devotion to Death, after all so many spoke ill of la Santa, and tormented he stopped praying. He recalls that his luck left him, he caught no fish, he felt the witchcraft seeping into his body, senseless and even mad he plummeted into depression. A friend said to him “look at you, holes in your clothes and only a few pesos in your pocket, what’s wrong with you?”. Antonio knew he must accept Death as his spiritual mother in life. Upon doing so, his luck returned.
With money from plentiful fish caught, he bought a statue of Santa Muerte for his mother and one for the curandero and thus commenced the shrine. A little while after Antonio bought the statue, a hurricane hit the coast, yet the Holy Lady of Death stood unscathed amidst the debris. While the nearby church stood in tatters with no one willing to help repair it, the community came together around Santa Muerte to build a concrete structure to protect her from future cyclones, earthquakes and tempests. While Antonio and the community may have played a key role in the establishment of the shrine, as his sister told me, it was their mother, Doña Elena who “built it with her heart.” To this day, every day she can be seen tending to the many effigies within the chapel, clearing out old candles and offerings, refreshing the water in flower vases and even relighting candles whose flames have gone out, so as to ensure that the petitions of the desperate are heard. Every day she can be seen kneeling in prayer before Santa Muerte or holding her hand in a gesture of love.
While businesses in the area have closed due to COVID conditions, the chapel has only grown larger, as more than ever, locals need the miracles of Holy Death to survive and also as the sabia and her son wish to thank Santa Muerte for keeping them alive and with food to eat and a roof over their head during these hard times. Antonio told me “yes, we are poor but we have enough to eat, we are alive and for that I am grateful to dearest Death.” Today the sabia‘s daughter, as her brother explained “who carries my mother’s powerful, spiritual Indigenous blood and the gift of curanderismo” works as a bruja (witch) offering the magical services of Santa Muerte to the local community and beyond, some come as far away as Tijuana and Veracruz to see her and her mother, guided by dreams to these Daughters of Death.
As well as Santa Muerte oils and powders, she uses local herbal and animal elements such as mezcal, copal, black rooster blood, coyote amulets, snake skin and local herbs for healing trabajos (works), brujeria (witchcraft) for love, luck and money as well as the primordial power of prayer. She tells me she also works with a portal by the sea, where she will take me. And of course the moon’s mighty power. Nightly, she and her mother recite novenas to Santa Muerte for people whom they heal, bring luck and love to. Women are the principal clients, many victims of violence come for spiritual cleansing to let go of the deep wounds inflicted upon their bodies and minds, but men come too, some seeking fortune and safe passage to the US, for border crossings are haunted, so it is said, by the souls of those who were killed along the way, and bandits, law enforcement and myriad other threats lurk in the shadows of the borderlands, dangers that only Death herself can defeat.
The bruja working with cigars
The chapel is the family’s gift in perpetuum mobile, ever expanding, as is their love for their Mortiferous Mother. It is a love letter to Santa Muerte not only from them but from all the devotees in the area who provide oblations in the form of money, gifts, and materials to enlarge the shrine in thanks for her generosity and wonders. Indeed, to honour Santa Muerte of the sea, since I last came in 2020, the family and local devotees have raised funds to make the shrine even more beautiful. Among the additions, a balustrade featuring seahorses and a fishing boat that symbolises all those who ride its tides, and a balcony whose ceiling is adorned with the stars and moon that Santa Muerte is associated with, and which guide the fishermen like a compass when they go night-fishing.
Indeed, as I observe every time I visit, right below the shrine, on the other side from where the road is, everyday Antonio and his team, all devotees of death prepare their tackle to go fishing: hooks, lines, nets, tanks of gasoline and myriad accoutrements, which I do not even know the use of, are cleaned, untangled and readied right below the chapel before Death’s eyes. I notice around their necks they all wear amulets and pendants, such as one that features the figure of Santa Muerte in silver atop the canine of a coyote, for protection and luck. On their boats they carry statues of Santa Muerte.
Many devotees of death along the coastline live from the bounty that the ocean provides. While during times of COVID, their sometimes plentiful catches have allowed them to cope with ever increasing inflation, bringing to the fortunate fisherman the means to feed their families, fishermen are also subject to the sea’s perils, sometimes the waters are empty despite a fishing expedition of 48 hours with no sleep nor proper food and money spent on expensive gasoline. Sometimes the ocean turns on them, with its unpredictable moods, rip tides, winds and wild creatures who can spell death.
Not only the brown sea snake, whose deadly bite spells instant death but tiger sharks, bull sharks and worst of all, killer whales lurk below the surface, not to mention an innocent-looking but violent, violet snail. It floats upon the sea’s surface in its own mucus-bubble raft. Should you touch it accidentally, it delivers an excruciatingly painful venomous spike into the body and parasites that travel through the body to the heart causing it to stop instantly with no known cure. Many fish at night when in the obscurity dangers can come from the depths of darkness. But when I asked Antonio who the most dangerous sea creature is, he said “it is us, humans, who destroy, overfish and pollute the seas.”
Fishing is a way of life here, a father passes his techniques on to his son, who passes it on to his sons, teaching them how to read the waves, the wind, the stars. Girls learn how to descale and prepare fish from the mothers and go with them to the markets where they sell their husband’s catches, perhaps raw as whole fish, smoked and dried, or cooked fresh for clients on a griddle and served in a taco.
Men fish in small boats with nets and hooks in teams of 3 or 4. They catch red snapper (huachinango), mahi mahi (dorado), marlin (pez vela) and once fished for yellow fin tuna, however to their ire, large commercial boats came from elsewhere and decimated the tuna population. In revenge the men of local villages came together to set some of the commercial boats alight but it was too late, the tuna were annihilated. While no money is made anymore from tuna, there is now the the prize of prizes for which Chinese buyers will pay a small fortune, sharks – the most dangerous of all fish to catch.
The men must often go out for 48 hours into deep waters on the high seas and all carry knives for fish with large teeth, especially since sharks can inflict terrible wounds. While many here will tell you sharks are beautiful respected creatures and indeed acknowledge there are quotas of how many can be killed, nevertheless a 700 gram catch of sharks will earn them eight times more than the same of marlin. If rent is due and there’s been no catch for the last two weeks and the children have not been fed their tortillas then some men are willing, but not all, to brave the high seas for sharks. They do not fin them but rather catch them whole, selling the flesh for the price of regular fish but the fins for much more.
Fishermen head out alone at night to fish for bait, small fish, in the local bays which are safe and free of strong currents, sharks or killer whales. Once they have bait the next day or evening, they set out in groups of three or four upon the high seas in their small boats but many dangers lie ahead. A woman whose husband dies on the seas will soon fall into penury thus both husbands and wives, even children, pray to Santa Muerte of the sea for life.
Over a dinner of fish, with a couple of local friends, one of whom is a fisherman I hear many tales of life on the sea. For Rodrigo, orcas, killer whales, are the most feared fish of all. Aggressive during mating season, when they have calves, or if you venture into their hunting territory they will intentionally bite at a boat’s motor and seek to sink it. “The only defense we have”, Rodrigo (as I will call him) “is to pour gasoline in the water, they do not like the taste nor smell. If we don’t they will tip over the boat and eat us all. I have had my boat tipped over and I was stranded for five days on the sea. My team, all devotees of death prayed to Santa Muerte, for days we had to drink our own urine, and eat raw fish, one day upon praying to her fervently she sent us a miracle. Floating in the water we found an unopened bottle of Coca Cola and shared it thirstily.
The next day our prayers were heard and a large ship rescued us. All of us gave Santa Muerte generous offerings at the shrine in thanks for her miracle, all except for one, Jose. He did not come through on his promise. But Santa Muerte never forgets. A few weeks later, while fishing in the bay, which is calm and safe and where no one ever drowns, Jose’s cousin and brother disappeared without a trace into the sea. I knew it was Santa Muerte who had come to take what she was owed. She controls the seas and life and death upon it, if you do not pay for the life she gave you, she will grab it with her bony hand.”
Many local fishermen and their wives have incredible tales to tell of shipwrecks and sadly even of deaths, but they tell me that Santa Muerte will warn one of impending danger. Indeed the oldest statue in the shrine walks out of it at night, it is said, visiting those who have family who may die, warning them. The sabia’s grandson, who in keeping with the family tradition fishes, told me how one day he set off to sea with his team of men, all devotees of death. Arriving at their boat they realised that no one had a statue of la Santa Muerte so they turned back to get one.
Upon returning out again in their van where they keep the catch after fishing, they had a bad accident with a taxi but determined to fish, they exchanged numbers with the driver and went on. Arriving at their boat, they started the motor but it kept spluttering, “we should have realised all these mishaps were signs from Santa Muerte for us not to go on this fishing trip but we did not listen. A tarot reader who works with la Santa Muerte had even seen me leaving where the sun rises but arriving where the sunsets. I should have known the journey was ill-fated, instead we swapped out the motor and set off.”
Far out into the seas, the boat was suddenly seized by a strong current as a storm brewed overhead, “try as we might, our boat could not fight it and eventually we ran out of gas as the current of El Niño took our boat far off its course. For one month we were lost at sea, surviving on meagre supplies we had on board, and turtle flesh. We prayed every day to our Santa Muerte statue but she did not hear us. Finally one day we asked her for forgiveness, for not having listened to all the signs she had given us. At that moment, she gave us a sign, her statue fell and we knew that she who rules the high seas would grant us permission to go home.
At that very moment, we finally got a signal on our phones and were able to call a coastguard. It turned out we were in Peruvian waters. A boat which had come from China to the area picked us up and we were taken to the Mexican embassy who arranged, free of charge, to have us sent home. The whole experience really shook me up. But above all it strengthened my faith in her. I gave her an offering in the form of this tattoo that marks my skin as devoted to death. She gave me life.”
As the surf swells on the sand by my window, whispering the tales of the sea, here it is Santa Muerte who decides who lives or dies. Thus when a fisherman sets out, first he must pray to God and Santa Muerte, as must his loved ones, and only then can he go fish.
Dedicated to the wonderful family who own the shrine, and have looked after me year after year, and all those who have shared their stories with me. Special thanks also to Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut for inviting me post on this site and whose work on urban devotion was inspiring. Huge and heartfelt thanks to Dr. Ruth Gruhn whose unconditional support has made this work possible. Utmost respect and humble gratitude to Santisima Muerte who every day grants me life so that I may have another breath and continue my work on devotion to Death in Oaxaca.