Saint of Death Santa Muerte Gave Me a New Lease on Life

Saint of Death Santa Muerte Gave Me a New Lease on Life April 25, 2023

By guest contributor Seamus Bellamy*

 

I found Santa Muerte before I came to Mexico. I had seen Her many times, in many ways, over the years. I spoke to Her before I even knew her name. She was with me at times when I did harm to others. She watched over me when I attempted to harm myself.

“Not yet,” and I would stay a little longer.

“Not yet,” and I stayed so long that I outlived the plans I had made for myself. 

I was forced to find a new plan. 

I found counseling. A partner. A marriage that is based on trust and the need to keep moving. The Skinny Girl watched over me as my wife and I sold our possessions and struck out on the road, to live in a motorhome. To sleep in driveways and be moved on by law enforcement. She protected us as we built memories of the sort one cannot have if one chose to stay still and build a house. 

It wasn’t until we came, for the first time, to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley that I learned Her name. It was in Mission, Texas that I found the love I felt for her was shared by others. They knew, as I had suspected, that when no one else would listen; when neither the saints of the church nor God’s ear heard your whimper or shout, She would. Santa Muerte understood. She would help shoulder your burden, no matter what you had done, until the time came to lay the weight of your years down, once and for all. Even then, She would be there to usher you into a quiet death or, at the very least, comfort you through a painful one. As I had never been able to bring myself to ask for absolution for my past transgressions, Her presence in my life was a balm for my soul. 

April 2019

My wife and I found our way to Playa Del Carmen, where I worked with a tattoo artist to create an image of the Most Powerful Saint that was both traditional and tasteful. It would be pricked into a canvas that started on the inside of my forearm at the wrist and end at the crook of my elbow. 

My right forearm. The arm I had used for much evil, years past. I knew that seeing Her there, each time I raised my hand to write, feed myself or caress my wife would be a reminder that life is short and should be lived well, with as much kindness as possible. I liked the idea that my body would become a shrine to her. Each time I bathed, a veneration. That April, I sat for my tattoo. My artist laid a stencil of the artwork on my arm, donned a pair of black latex gloves, and primed his gun. 

As he settled into his work, the needle of his gun perhaps half an inch from my skin, the power to half the city went out.

Was the power loss supernatural in nature? Most likely not. I imagined a meet-cute between a combi bus and a power pole. Someone at the CFE knows. I attempted to find them for this story and failed. 

The three tattoo artists and two of their friends, who were in the shop that day, had their own theories. 

I was left in my chair while the five heavily tattooed men assembled as far away from me as possible, near the shop’s front door. It was argued by one man, surprisingly, in English, that I should not be given the tattoo. “Look what She did to prevent it.” The majority of the group, my artist included (skin in the game, I suppose) pleaded my case They believed that the blackout was a show of Her power, not a warning

I was told by the shop’s owner that they decided that I should have the tattoo. 

“If Santa Muerte doesn’t like it, she’ll take care of you, later.”

Two hours of waiting for the power to return and three hours of discomfort later, I left the shop with my tattoo.

September 2019

After time spent in Mexico, we returned to Calgary, Canada, perhaps a week before the COVID-19 lockdowns began. I had been in treatment for PTSD, for some time. I had a therapist. I needed a family doctor.

I got a good one. 

As part of the how’s-your-father physical that new patients with a history of medical issues get, I was sent for a stress test—my doctor wanted to know a little more about a heart murmur that I’d had since I was a child. Long story made short: an 80% blockage in my heart was discovered. I was taken from the clinic where the test was conducted and popped into the hospital. The next day, I underwent an angioplasty procedure. A stent was inserted. I was good as almost new. I was terrified throughout the procedure, but praised La Dama Poderosa. The blockage had been found before I had a heart attack. She had given me more time with my wife. Both facts felt like miracles to me. 

As I recuperated in the ICU, a nurse from somewhere south came to draw my blood. I offered my tattooed forearm. She froze, stepped away from my bed, and asked if I knew what tattoo I had. I smiled politely and told her that I did. 

“It is an evil thing where I am from.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Colombia.”

“Well, She is from Mexico. I’m so sorry that She’s making you uncomfortable.”

The nurse asked me why I had the tattoo. I told her that it reminded me of who I once was and, whom I wished to be. Admitting my devotion felt unnecessary at that time; harmful to someone who had come to help me during a time of need. 

The nurse drew my blood. A different nurse came to do the same, for the next three days of my stay.

February 2022

Almost as soon as the land border between Canada and the United States opened once again, my wife and I put our RV into storage, packed our car with what we felt we needed, and drove for the deep south of Texas. We planned to stay a few months in the Rio Grande Valley before continuing south into Mexico.

The Mercedes Flea Market, depending on traffic, is a 30-minute ride from where we were staying in Mission, Texas. On weekends, the market is flush with locals, southern border day-trippers, and Winter Texans.  Fresh fruit, ropas, shoe stores, tools, meals, music, and every imaginable curio can be found there. The sound of the drifting conversations had by the masses as they move and mingle gets lost in the Bluetooth speaker blare of norteño and mid-afternoon troubadours singing everyone’s music but their own. 

Weekdays are softer. Norteño music is omnipresent, but the volume is far more reasonable. There are fewer people. Vendors have time to breathe. I had been a devotee of La Huesuda for three years, but traveling light as we were, my altar was lacking. I could have ordered a statue of her, online, while I was in Canada. Something small enough to pack in my bag and travel with. But I wouldn’t know if what I’d ordered felt right until I unboxed it. It was unthinkable for me to return an altarpiece. I couldn’t help but think that She would be insulted. Several stalls at the flea market sold statues. Some were poorly painted and placed prominently. Others needed to be asked for: hidden under the counter of a housewares stand. In the back of a stall full of votive candles featuring Saint Benedict, Jesus, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. The sculpture my altar demanded turned out to be smaller than I was expecting: two inches tall and cloaked in black. She was chipped as if She had been worn down from travel. But Her smile suggests that she was ready for more. We were simpatico.

The woman selling her seemed to expect me to haggle. When I gave her the money she had asked for, the vendor asked me, “Why do you turn to her?” 

I told her that Saint Jude and Jesus never answered. 

She paused for a moment, handed me the statue, and told me that she could respect that.  

January 2023

We have been living in San Miguel de Cozumel, for six months. The city is a port of call for many cruise lines. In the high season, the island of Cozumel’s population can grow by thousands, during the daylight hours, almost every day. I have no love for the tourists or the tourist strip. Strange, considering that, even as a resident, I’m still little more than a tourist myself. The part of town we live in is rough, but welcoming. We shop, eat and launder with the locals. Seemingly everyone on the island knows my dog’s name. I love the people of Cozumel. Their kindness: how thoughtful they can be. There is less violence here than on the mainland. Families stay out late together. Neighbors know one another. 

I see My Lady, everywhere.

The man that fixed my bicycle had hands that are covered in tattoos of Her; a silver chain with a cameo of Santa Muerte around his neck. I showed him my tattoo and the necklace of Her bust that I wear. We talked, briefly, about Her as he worked. My Spanish was worse than his English. There is no temple on the island, that he knew of. The church and the people would not allow it. I asked if it was safe to show Her affection. Yes, he told me. But a temple was too much.

We agreed that She was powerful and that She had never failed us. 

“Like family,” he told me. 

March 2023

There are two bodegas, that I know of, in Cozumel, that sell esoterica. The one I frequent is a part of the Mercado Municipal between Avenidas 20 and 25. The space that the store is in sat vacant, behind dirty metal security shutters, for months. One morning, as I sat eating barbacoa for breakfast, I looked up from my meal and noticed that the store had opened. Open to the air on two sides, the shop’s proprietor had filled one of the open spaces with shelves of votive candles: a kaleidoscope of colors to catch the eye and inform of the bodega’s contents. 

I finished my breakfast and set off to browse. 

A young woman was minding the shop’s counter when I entered. The long-sleeved shirt she wore covered all but a suggestion, on her hands, of full-sleeve tattoos. Even for those acclimated to the island’s heat, it was a hot day. I imagined her suffering for the sake of her outfit. I brought a single Santa Muerte candle to the counter—black, to ask for protection from those who would do harm to me and mine—and pulled pesos from my pocket. The shopkeeper made no eye contact with me as she rang my purchase up. She said no more than was necessary. I didn’t feel unwelcome, so much as fretted over. 

Weeks later, I returned to the store, looking for more candles and perhaps a bit of conversation. The same young woman was behind the counter. She became tense as I began to speak with her.

I explained that I was a devotee. When I showed her my tattoo, her body language suggested that she had relaxed. I told her that I was writing about Santa Muerte. I would love to talk about her shop. I gave her my name. She gave me hers—Kali.

Kali was quick to tell me that the store wasn’t hers. She didn’t know how much she could help me with what I wanted to know about Santa Muerte. The store sold items related to Her, but also products of other religions and beliefs. As, even after a close to a year on the island, my Spanish was still too poor for anything but the most basic conversations, I used Google Translate during my chat with Kali. I wanted to make sure that I did not misunderstand what she was telling me.

I asked Kali if Santa Muerte was welcomed on the island. She sighed and told me “…there are people who are afraid of it and there are not only Catholics but other people of other faiths who see it as bad. There is a lot of prejudice about her here.”

If this was the case, did Kali feel safe working in the shop?

“I’m just an employee,” Kali said. “I don’t feel very safe, but I like it here. 

I asked Kali, if she felt unsafe, did her employer watch out for her? Was there any security, aside from the local police or National Guard that she could call upon? Kali told me that the store’s owner called her, often. Kali seemed to hesitate before adding “…recently the owner gave me a large picture of her [Santa Muerte]. The people I live with burned it. So, I can’t say I am a believer because people see it as very bad.” 

I told her I understood, but it was a lie. 

So far as most people are concerned, I’m just a gringo who got an ill-advised tattoo on my last Mexican vacation. A white man living on an island with a population that makes a large part of its living, off of tourism makes me, in some ways, untouchable. Kali, a Mexican woman with beliefs that differ from the mainstream is an easy target. That she feels unsafe in her work and—if the burned effigy of Santa Muerte sets a standard—in her home is a terrible thing that I will never experience. 

April 2023

As an expression of gratitude for a kindness visited upon me, I promised Santa Muerte a tattoo of an owl on my left forearm. Ideally, I wanted the same artist who had jabbed La Flakita into my skin, to create this, my second tattoo, for me, as well. I called the shop where he works and left a message for him. It was never returned. I found his Instagram account and sent him a photo of the fine work he had done for me. I told him I wanted more of it. 

Nothing.

I sent a second message: was he available for work? Could I make an appointment? The artist read both of my messages. I suspect that he received my phone message as well. I’ve yet to hear from him. 

Perhaps he was still waiting to see if Señora Blanca would take care of me.

*Seamus Bellamy is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, BBC World, USA Today, as well as many other publications over his three decades as a journalist. The author of two books, Seamus currently lives in San Miguel de Cozumel, Mexico. Follow him on Twitter.

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