For a while now I have been hoping for an encounter with death- Saint Death, that is, or Santa Muerte, affectionately known to her (largely Mexican) followers as La Flaca- the Skinny Girl. She’s all bones, you see.
I don’t remember how I first found out about Lady Death. It was some time last year, while I was prowling the Texas-Mexico border. For the uninitiated, Santa Muerte is a crypto-saint not recognized by the Catholic Church. Nobody seems to know where she came from- one source I read speculated that the cult was new, dating back only to the late 1960s. Another speculated that it was much older, and arose as a result of peasant confusion between a Catholic Saint and an Aztec deity of death. Whichever variant is true, Holy Death emerged looking like a figure from a death metal album cover: grinning skull face, scythe, hooded robe etc.
Anyway, according to one very interesting documentary about the cult (called La santa muerte http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1022580/), there’s nothing to worry about if a growing subsection of Mexican society worships Death. For Santa Muerte accepts all those that the official Church rejects- such as transsexuals, gays, drug dealers, prostitutes and prisoners. The Skinny Girl turns nobody away. Her devotees meanwhile light candles in her honor and bring gifts of candy, cigarettes, booze and drugs to her roadside shrines. Apparently Death likes a toke on a joint now and then. In return she takes care of the insulted and the injured.
Aw- isn’t Death lovely?
Well, maybe not. Although the film I saw was scrupulously non-judgmental, President Calderon of Mexico does not feel so relaxed about all the shrines to Death in his country. Since the Saint is also a favorite of narco-terrorists, he ordered the army to demolish her shrines- including one that was found under the bridge leading from Nuevo Laredo in Mexico to Laredo in Texas.
Anyway, ever since watching the film I have wanted to do a little investigating of my own. For instance I discovered that there is a religious shop dedicated to Santa Muerte in Houston, but like most people in Texas, I avoid visiting Houston unless it is absolutely necessary.
I did tell a friend however, who immediately told the editor of the kind of magazine you find on the top shelf of a newsagent’s. Apparently he wanted more journalism in his flesh-packed pages and Saint Death was right up his alley. I called him since his mag was reputed to have a large expense account and I fancied a trip to the mega-temple dedicated to Death that I had read devotees were building in Mexico City.
Alas, it was not to be. First, the editor couldn’t understand my accent; and then when I finally managed to explain that I was talking about Death- a woman, no less- he wanted to know exactly how this affected him. Since I imagined he lived in a mansion decorated with tiger skins and populated by nubile young females I didn’t have a ready answer, even though I pushed hard the angle that the cult was infiltrating America. He passed.
And that was pretty much it for me and Death until this weekend, when I was driving in north Austin. Suddenly a big SUV pulled in front of me, and in the rear window, I spotted a decal of the Skinny Girl herself. After searching for so long, she had come to me! I wasn’t sure the driver was all that wise to advertize his spiritual affiliation however- I had read that Austin cops will stop cars with Death on the back window if they have an excuse, as- surprise, surprise- they are sometimes loaded with drugs.
Excited, I sped up to catch a glimpse of the driver. Was he a transsexual? A prostitute? A drug dealer? Maybe even a sympathetic white cultural anthropologist?
Well, he was going at 80mph, so it was hard to get a good look. I did notice a baseball cap and a dangly earring, but that’s not much upon which to base a judgment. Then, perhaps annoyed that a man in a lowly Mazda 6 had overtaken him, the Death- worshipper gunned on the accelerator and disappeared.
Perhaps I should be content to leave it at that, but I do think I’ll make it to the death shop in Houston eventually. Even then, encounters with the dark side are rarely what you expect. For instance, a day after spotting Death on the freeway I had a conversation with a man covered in gang tattoos, including a scorpion and cobwebs on his neck, and two teardrops at his left eye, which- if we adhere to classical interpretations- indicate that he had killed not one but two people.
His name was Lesley.
We talked about real estate.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.