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