Searching for Santa Muerte in Mexico City

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
Doña Queta did not take kindly to me taking photos of Santa Muerte.

My not-so-surreptitious photo of Santa Muerte, which earned me the evil eye.
My not-so-surreptitious photo of Santa Muerte, which earned me the evil eye.

When I asked my friend and travel partner, Karen, what she wanted to see during her first visit to Mexico City, she named three things: Frida Kahlo’s house. Diego Rivera’s murals. And Santa Muerte.

Santa Muerte, as her name alludes (not so subtly), is the saint of death. Her altar is in the neighborhood of Tepito, variously described as downtrodden and dangerous, marginal and sketchy. In short: bad. My friend, the journalist Daniel Hernandez, describes it–the saint and the neighborhood– this way in his book, Down and Delirious in Mexico City:

“The most famous Santa Muerte altar in Mexico City lies deep in the mythically ‘rough’ barrio of Tepito, the most notorious neighborhood in all of Mexico–maybe in the entire continent…. Deep in the neighborhood on a street called Alfareria, the most popular public altar to Santa Muerte is watched over by a well-regarded woman known as Doña Queta…. She dresses her Death in extravagant gowns and tiaras….”

I never went to see Santa Muerte when I lived in Mexico City; there were too many other things closer to my own barrio that captured my attention. And there was this: I didn’t want to be seen as the spectating gringa.

Now, here I was, about to spectate.

The trip to Tepito from our hotel in Centro Historico was underground, but the transition from one neighborhood to the next was marked. The windows of the Metro had far more scratch graffiti than the other lines. The riders looked less professional, more punk. We emerged at street level right into Tepito’s infamous market stalls; covered by one long runner of strung-together tarps, the stalls are disorienting, offering no way to establish your bearings.

A Google map, consulted before we left the comfort of our hotel room, indicated we should walk five blocks north and one block west; the altar isn’t far from the Metro at all. But above-ground, it wasn’t clear which way north or west was, so we asked a few female vendors and got pointed in disparate directions before we finally decided to just walk confidently in some direction until we figured it out.

When we found Alfareria #12, what was there to do but take photos or pray? And since I’m not one to pray at all, much less pray to something I don’t believe in, I took my small point and shoot out of my bag and shot what I thought were a few discreet, unobtrusive photos of la santa and her altar.

A bit anxious about the neighborhood’s reputation, I slid the camera back into my bag and looked around to see if anyone noticed. That’s when I saw Doña Queta’s dark eyes burning with disapproval. “Pinche gringa,” she probably thought to herself. She held me steady in her sights until I turned away, unnerved not by the neighborhood, but by her evil eye.

One of the many items left at the shrine for Santa Muerte.
One of the many items left at the shrine for Santa Muerte.
The problem was, though, that I didn’t want her to think of me as a pinche gringa, so I tried to smooth it over, my obvious affront. I approached Doña Queta at the altar’s small shop; I would right my wrong by buying a prayer card.

She was talking to a visitor who had come to report on the miracles that Santa Muerte had worked for his daughter and, indeed, his whole family. There were stomach problems cured, school performance improved, and relationship woes mended or unraveled completely (and the better for it, he thought). Without acknowledging my presence, Doña Queta listened to him give his testimony. Upon its conclusion she said, simply, “The saint is good,” clapping her hands together with restrained reverence. As if he wanted more emotion from her, he picked up the testimony again, elaborating on the miracles in greater detail and with more emphasis. “She does work miracles,” Doña Queta affirmed. The man had done what he had come to do, and with nothing more to say, he took his leave.

Then, Doña Queta turned to me, simply asking, “Yes?”. She trained one eye on me and one on the altar, perhaps concerned that I’d charged Karen with getting the money shot while I distracted her at the gift shop. “Do you have any prayer cards?”, I asked as soberly and reverently as I could, feeling suddenly small and childish, the Catholic school girl chastened silently by the glare of a gruff nun.

She picked up stacks of cards, held together with rubber bands, and asked, business-like, “Which one do you want?” “Well, um, the prayer to Santa Muerte,” I answered. She looked exasperated, “I don’t have prayer cards with a prayer to Santa Muerte,” she said. “Well, what do you have?” I asked. “I have the prayer to dominate another person, the prayer of the white-skinned woman, and….” She continued, each prayer a bit more unnerving than the last. Let’s just say that Doña Queta’s prayer cards weren’t pleas to make the supplicant an instrument of God’s peace. None of these sounded good to me. Even though I didn’t intend to use the card to pray, just holding a domination prayer in my pocket or in my wallet felt like bad hoodoo.

“Well, could I read them?” I asked, figuring I’d purchase the one that felt the most innocuous.

“No. You buy it or you don’t buy it,” she said, her face expressionless.

“Well, I don’t buy it then,” I said, both chagrined and pissed.
As Karen and I left the altar and walked back to the subway, I felt annoyed. Though I was sightseeing at a place that some people considered sacred (and photographing it, too– yes, I should have asked permission first), I wanted Doña Queta to know I wasn’t just another pinche gringa passing through Mexican culture. I wanted her to know all the things I couldn’t explain in a single introduction or exchange: that I loved Mexico and had lived there and that if I could have chosen a nationality, it would have been Mexican, even if that meant, as it inevitably would, that my country and my life would be beautiful and fucked up and complicated beyond words. Instead, I’d been and done exactly what I’d never wanted to be or do- someone just passing through. And I didn’t even have a prayer card to show for it.

#FriFotos: Windows

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
This is an admittedly poor quality iPhone shot, but it’s one that’s timely, not only for the theme of this week’s #FriFotos–windows–but also because it shows a cake that celebrates Mexico’s Fiestas Patrias: the independence celebrations that start in earnest tomorrow.

A cake for Fiestas Patrias, doing window display duty at Pasteleria Ideal in Mexico City.
A cake for Fiestas Patrias, doing window display duty at Pasteleria Ideal in Mexico City.

This photo is of a cake at La Pasteleria Ideal, a massive palace of flour and sugar that’s been serving up baked goods in Mexico City since 1927. Today, it was especially frantic when I stopped in; shoppers are filling up big boxes with traditional pastries and breads that they’ll eat during their Fiestas Patrias parties this weekend.

How to Plan a Trip to Mexico City

Text & Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo

If you’re a regular visitor to Collazo Projects, you’ll know that Francisco and I lived in Mexico City for about two years between 2007 and the beginning of this year. (We’d live there still if our residency visas had been renewed).

Mexico City is definitely one of my favorite cities in the world–if not my absolute favorite (though I avoid definitive superlatives), and if you ever read David Lida’s fantastic book, First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, The Capital of the 21st Century, you’ll understand why.

I’m always happy to accept opportunities to write about Mexico’s capital. It’s an overlooked travel destination, which is a shame, both for travelers and for Mexico. My recent series of articles for TravelMuse explains why the city shouldn’t be left off your top places to visit list, and helps you plan a trip there. The guide includes five articles:

The Resurrection of Mexico City

Mexico City’s Top Cultural Attractions

Mexico City All Night Long

Where to Take a Siesta in Mexico City

Buen Provecho: Top Mexico City Dining

If the articles inspire you to visit or if you need other advice, feel free to leave a comment below!

Closed Due to Possible Collapse/Cerrado por Posible Derrumbe

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Additional Photos: Brayan Collazo

“Cerrado por posible derrumbe”– “Closed due to possible collapse”— was the sign hanging from a rusty chain that was blocking the entrance to the history museum in Mariel, Cuba.

Say “Cuba” and crumbling buildings are as likely to come to mind as rum and the Buena Vista Social Club. Francisco’s son, Brayan, is a photographer whose portfolio has plenty of decayed building shots:

But if you’re really paying attention to your surroundings, there are places falling down all around you.

This, then, is the first installment in another occasional series– “Cerrado por Posible Derrumbe”–which documents decay in the Americas, insisting that these places are important, even as they’re falling apart.


This trio part of a group of photos I’ve taken of closed movie theaters in Mexico City.

Although movies remain an important part of Mexican culture, the movie houses of old–dramatic and beautiful, if not on the outside, then on the inside–now sit on prime pieces of real estate, slowly falling apart.

This first photo is of the “taquilla,” or ticket booth, at the Cine Latino, a massive building on one the city’s principal avenues, Avenida Reforma. A metal gate keeps the curious from poking around inside (the door to the theater is actually open), but through the holes in the gate, you can see an enormous mural painted on the lobby wall. (You can’t, however, get clear shots through the holes.)

This is the front exterior of the Cine Latino. All around the cinema, new retail developments have sprung up in the past two years. Given its location, it’s hard to imagine that the abandoned theater will be here much longer.

This is the old El Patio Cinema. Its sign is still intact, but as you can see, the theater is presenting… nothing. The cinema sits across the street from a police precinct in a neighborhood that’s a little down and out right now, but which is likely to be the next gentrified zone in Mexico City.

Un Besote Para Mexico!/A Big Kiss for Mexico!

On my way to Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport yesterday morning, the taxi driver asked me, “What will you miss most about Mexico?”

My first impulse was to say, “Everything.”

I’ll miss the markets, the color, the coexistence of the traditional and the modern, the food, the sounds of Mexico City, the public transportation, the ability to find anything you need at almost any moment, the Beetle taxis, the names of the streets, the organization (and chaos) of the city, and a hundred other things.

But what I said, because it’s true, is “The people.”

I’ll miss people greeting one another in the street, the people I know, of course, and–especially–the displays of affection and love that couples engage in publicly.

A few months ago, I wrote that while Paris may be the City of Love, Mexico’s capital gives the French capital some serious competition.

Yesterday, as my plane was taking off, thousands of people had gathered in the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main plaza, to participate in “Besame Mucho,” (“Kiss Me A Lot”), a mass kiss-in organized by the city government. The purpose of the event was to break the existing Guinness World Record for the number of people kissing in a single place at the same time.

And they did it! According to the Associated Press, 40,000 people puckered up, allowing Mexico City to claim the Guinness title, taking it away from the English town of Weston-super-Mare, which won the title in 2007.

The purpose of the kiss-in wasn’t just for Guinness kicks, though. The city government organized the event as a response to a surge in violence that occurred in 2008, saying the kiss-in would be a display of love in the face of aggression.

Felicidades, Mexico! Te mando un besote bien grande!!

Logo: chrizar (via Flickr)