Saturday, September 16, 2006

La Santísima Muerte

The border between the United States and Mexico is unlike any other. Nowhere else in the world is there a border between a first-world nation and a third-world nation where the income difference is as large as it is between these two nations… On September 5th, I heard a journalist named Charles Bowden on WBUR’s Here and Now program talking about the migration of people from Mexico to the United States, and how our typical proposed solutions to the problem of illegal immigration, from walls to guest worker visas, are bound to fail. According to Bowden, the complete collapse of the Mexican economy, essentially the failure of Mexico as a state, has led to a mass migration of people that is inexorable and beyond the power of either nation to control. The harder it is to get here, the more will die trying to get here, but they will still come. Bowden has been watching the border situation closely for over 20 years. As long as Mexico has no work the problem will endure, and NAFTA, which was promised as a panacea, has been an absolute catastrophe for Mexico.

I don’t know too much about Mexican Folk Religion, or about the syncretism between Catholicism and native Aztec and Mayan religions beyond knowing about the festival of the Mexican Day of the Dead. Apparently, however, there has been a new devotion to a new “saint” within the last 20 years, the Cult of La Santísima Muerte. Most Holy Death.

In Mother Jones (I can just hear my conservative friends... “Mother Jones?? Mother freaking Jones?? Alright, alright… Shut up) Charles Bowden covers the same material in an article called Exodus, in which he writes about the migration of biblical proportions and the skeletal La Santísima Muerte.


She waits by the fork in the road. El Puente del Comercio Mundial, the World Trade Bridge, is on the new truck highway that each day feeds 5,800 semis in and out of the twin cities of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas. This is all part of the SuperCorridor, a huge construction project designed to speed the flow of NAFTA trade. Big new ports on Mexico's Pacific coast will drain the freight from Long Beach and other California docks. The products of Asia will be unloaded in these harbors safe from the maritime unions and then sped north by Mexican truckers safe from the Teamsters union. The drivers will deliver these loads anywhere in the United States. At the moment, such Mexican truckers put in about 50 hours a week and earn around $1,100 a month. They all have wrecks, they all use drugs, and they all work like beasts–one run from Ensenada to Cancún takes five days and six nights and no one stops for sleep or anything else.

That is why she is here. The first little capilla appeared five years ago at the interchange of I–35 and the World Trade Bridge. Now there are three more chapels, each large enough for a man to enter. Trucks idle on the shoulder of the highway as men approach La Santísima Muerte, Most Holy Death. She is the saint for drug dealers and for truckers and for anyone else who understands that the game is not on the level and help is necessary for survival.

La Santísima Muerte has no flesh — her bony feet and hands reach out from her cloak. One hand holds a huge scythe, the other the world. She looks like death but promises a chance at life to those whirling in a world of death. In Nuevo Laredo, 230 people have been slaughtered in the last 16 months as a byproduct of the drug industry. In February 2006, two men entered the daily newspaper, sprayed the office with assault rifles (the lobby still has more than 20 bullet holes), cut down some staff, threw a grenade into the editor's office, and then left after 180 seconds of commentary. The paper decided to cease publishing stories on the cartels. When four cops were executed on a downtown street this past spring, the news was broken by Mexico City papers 700 miles to the south. Yesterday, a cop guarding the assistant police chief's house was mowed down. The paper buries this story in the back facing a feature on a local honey cooperative.

A trucker in his early 20s stands before La Santísima Muerte, his voice very soft as he speaks to her. He says, "She is just like us, except she has no flesh. She can speak to God. She has helped me many times."

Once he saw her standing by the road. She saves him when the highways are wet and saves him from wrecks and saves him from police and saves him from the many faces of death. He enters the main capilla, lights a cigarette, and leaves it burning for her. The altar is rich with candy bars and fruits and money.

He explains, "I have believed in Santa Muerte since I was 13 years old. If I tell you of her favors to me, I will never cease talking. I have a shrine to her in my house and offerings of rice, tomatoes, wine, apples, corn, and bullets."

A man of about 40 climbs down from his truck. He wears black, dark sunglasses, and a gold chain. He stands before La Santísima Muerte and softly speaks to her as he sprays her body with perfume. An expensive two–seater sports car rolls up. The occupants do not get out but sit in their machine a few feet from La Santísima Muerte, praying as the air conditioner roars. No one looks at them because everyone knows how expensive sports cars are earned here.

She first appeared during the late '90s in Tepito, the thieves' market of Mexico City, a zone of 37 blocks stuffed with contraband, whores, addicts, live sex shows, and violence. The priests were alarmed but could do nothing because La Santísima Muerte exuded tolerance. Women went to her to be safe from AIDS and to ensure their clients remained docile. Men sought protection from bullets. She spread north to the line and then spilled over into the ragged neighborhoods where migrants hid from view in the cities of America. The anthropologists pounced and concluded she had erupted from the long–dormant virus of Aztec death worship.

I think she is the saint of NAFTA. In 1994, the trade agreement first kicked in and within a year the numbers crawling through the wire began to spike. Within three years, La Santísima Muerte had entered the minds and hearts of those broken on this new notion called free trade. NAFTA crushed peasant farmers who could not compete with the torrent of cheap agricultural products flowing from American agribusinesses. Trade with China, Mexico's introduction to the global economy, swiftly wiped out traditional industries: toys, serapes, shoes, and so forth. Then the border plants, the maquiladoras where Mexicans assembled goods for American corporations, closed up shop and hightailed it to China where men and women work for one–fourth the wages of Mexicans. Juárez, the poster child of free trade, lost 72,620 jobs to China in less than three years, for example.

In Nuevo Laredo near the Rio Grande, a market stall sells statues of Christ, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Emiliano Zapata, and La Santísima Muerte–who outsells all the others combined. She touches more human behavior than the Border Patrol or Homeland Security or the DEA. She holds the whole world in her bony hand. For years, she succored the souls being displaced and hurled north, listened to their fears and hungers while politicians talked about slight adjustments in the global economy, while others spoke of guest worker programs, as some babbled about pathways to citizenship, as growing numbers rumbled about building big walls on the line, and still others explained the need for workers to perform tasks beneath the notice of native–born Americans. All this while, like the illegals themselves, she remained largely invisible to those who believed themselves to be in control. Most Holy Death is the real face of the migration, one kept safely off–camera, one never invited to be on the cable talk shows, one worshipped by men and women who scorn presidents.

The exportation of human beings by Mexico now reaches, officially, a half million souls a year. Or double that. Or triple that. What is for certain are the apprehensions by the Border Patrol (during one week this April, agents caught 12,434 people in the 262–mile Tucson Sector, for example). And that any reduction of poverty in Mexico takes two forms: the exportation of brown flesh to the United States, and the money those people send home to sustain the people, la gente, whom their government ignores.

Everything else is talk. And bad talk.

There are no honest players in this game. People cut the cards to fit their ideology. More Mexicans come north than either government admits. They do take jobs. (They say Mexicans take jobs Americans refuse to do. This is probably true in some instances. But in the mid–1960s slaughterhouse workers earned twice the current wage for their toil. Now such jobs are held by Mexicans.) They do commit crimes. And if the arrival of millions of poor people in the United States does not drive down wages, then surely there is a Nobel Prize to be earned in studying this remarkable exception to the law of supply and demand.

They are no longer migratory workers. And it is not seasonal labor. The people walking north all around me are not going home again. This is an exodus from a failed economy and a barbarous government and their journey is biblical.

And all the solutions in political play are idiocy. Worker permits? Demand at this moment is certainly the 12 million illegals in the United States today, and it climbs each year by maybe a million more. Open the border? Mexicans would be trampled to death by Asians storming up the open route and, also, by other Latin Americans, those folks the Border Patrol calls OTMs, Other Than Mexicans. Build a wall? The border consists of 1,951 miles of desert, mountains, and scrub, a zone legally traversed by 350 million people a year–the busiest border in the world. Employer sanctions to make illegals unemployable? Fine, then Mexicans go home and Mexico erupts and we have a destroyed nation on our southern border and even greater illegal migration. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution ripped apart a nation of 15 million souls. One out of 15 died. But 892,000 fled to the United States. Now there are 108 million Mexicans. Do the math.

There are piles of studies on these matters, studies that prove illegal migration benefits the United States, studies that prove it does not benefit the United States, studies that show it enhances the GDP or has little or no contribution to the GDP. There are plans to manage this migration and plans to stop it dead in its tracks. There are proposed solutions. And, of course, there are claims that we don't really need a solution, because mass migration is natural for a nation of immigrants and as American as apple pie.

But in the end, you don't get to pick solutions. You simply have choices, and by these choices you will discover who you really are. You can turn your back on poor people, or you can open your arms and welcome them into an increasingly crowded country and exhausted landscape.

I think this country already has too many people and that the ground under our feet is being murdered and the sky over our heads is being poisoned. I find these beliefs pointless when I stand on the line.

Across it flows the largest migration on earth. Nearly 15 percent of the Mexican workforce now resides in the United States. When the dust settles, this exodus will influence us more than the Iraq war. The war is who we are; the migrants are who we will be. For a century, the United States has tolerated and sponsored various nondemocratic rulers in Mexico. When Porfirio Díaz ruled as a dictator, we celebrated him. When the revolution came, we tried to corrupt and control various factions and repeatedly invaded. When a new dictatorship settled on Mexico disguised within single–party rule for 71 years, we celebrated it. When the students were butchered in Mexico City in 1968 on the eve of the Olympics, we focused on gold medals and ignored the murders. When Mexico became a narco state in the 1980s, we denied this fact. When NAFTA proved ruinous to most Mexicans, we denied this fact. And now as millions flee this charnel house, we pretend it is simply a mild structural readjustment of globalization, something that provides us cheap labor and grows that thing we call our economy.

For several decades now our economic theology has outsourced not only American jobs but also the reality that most people on this planet must endure. We buy clothes made by children and comment on the good price. Oceans have largely sheltered us from the consequences of our actions. But the Third World has finally said hello and this time not even a wall will keep it silent or at bay. What is happening on our southern border has penetrated our entire country and the border is simply a point where we watch the world race toward us at flood level. The issue is not securing a broken border any more than the real issue in New Orleans is building a better levee. Storms are rising, and the walls and levees are simply points where we taste their initial force as they move inland.

We have entered the future even as we pretend it is simply a version of our past.

One guy, 19, gives the basic biography of a pollo: "I have never been in the U.S. before. I plan to spend a couple of years, and then go back to Mexico. There are no jobs in Guerrero. Why even go to school? When you graduate, there are no jobs. Last week, in the state capital I saw 300 young schoolteachers demonstrate because they could find no jobs. I work in the fields. I can grow beans, corn, and squash.

"His eyes are anxious. He has heard Americans think people such as himself steal jobs from them. But he does not believe this because "people who have been in the United States tell me Americans don't work in the fields."

He has two worries: dying in the desert, and not finding a job. He's heard of the recent big marches and thinks people have a right to march.

"Why," he asks, "won't the U.S. let us work and then go home? We don't want to do anything bad to America. In my village, 20 percent of the people have gone to the U.S., and in the state, about 50 percent have gone. I've been in Altar two days waiting to cross."

This story plays out of mouth after mouth in the plaza. There is no work in Mexico. Do you know where Oregon is? Do you know where Tennessee is?

Juan Hernández, a dark Mixtec Indian who has already been caught once by the Border Patrol, explains, "There is no work, no rain, nothing to do in the fields. We are very poor there. I don't know what the U.S. is like," but, he adds, already 20 to 30 people from his village have gone to America.

Francisco Garcia, 39, has smooth skin, black hair and mustache, and the slack gut of a man who does not work in the fields. Until recently, he was the mayor of Altar. Now he works for the Catholic aid center for migrants six blocks off the plaza. Those defeated by the desert and the Border Patrol come here for food and shelter. And then they head north again — Garcia knows one migrant who tried 25 times before he succeeded. He thinks at least 90 percent of the migrants get through.

He explains that the traditional economy of Altar was cattle and farming. Now it is pollos and drugs. "The migrants are like a curtain that hides the money of the drug business." Almost all the people in the pollo industry — the people running phone services and boardinghouses, the coyotes — come from outside Altar.

He describes the people–smuggling business as like a string of rosary beads, with each bead a self–contained cell. In the Mexican south, men recruit pollos, then other men round them up and ship them on buses to, say, Altar. Here another cell plants them in flophouses and arranges van rides. Sixty miles north, another cell moves them through the wire. At the end of their desert trek, they brush against the next cell, which loads them in vans and takes them to stash houses.

Here a key representative of the coyote arrives, copies down names and phone numbers and destinations, makes the calls to tell the pollos' relatives of the charge. Sometimes these people double the price from what had been earlier agreed. After forking over half the fee, the pollos are loaded into vans according to their destinations. On arrival, another key figure appears, some blood kin of the coyote, who pockets the rest of the money. The top coyote remains in the shadows, Garcia says, an intelligent, cunning, and mysterious figure….

This year he thinks 800,000 Mexicans will pass through Altar on their way to El Norte. The sign behind his desk advises that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were migrants looking for a better life….

Down at the plaza, people line up at the public restroom (three pesos a visit). Outside, buses keep arriving and unloading people from the south. Two pollos stop at a stall to buy foot powder before climbing into a van. Vans depart more and more frequently. They will haul Mexicans until at least 8 p.m., people who, if everything goes per schedule, will move through the wire on Good Friday. Where the road leaves Altar and heads north into the desert stand three crosses. One says "Children," the next "Family," the third states that "2,800 have already died on this journey and how many more must die?" The town priest put them up. Then he was shipped to the Vatican where he couldn't make such a fuss….

The tired and frightened men and women crawling through the line soon become founts of money and wire $340 a month back home on average. This is the largest transfer of wealth to the poor in the history of the Western Hemisphere and it dwarfs all the American gestures of aid and all the revolutions that have filled the plazas of Latin America with tired statues. Remittances to Mexico alone are now estimated to be $20 billion a year, a figure much greater than tourism and rivaled only by the drug trade. (After the U.S. offered migrants amnesty in 1986, families reunited and the motive for remittances ended. Were remittances to dry up today — due to amnesty or a seriously toughened border — the Mexican economy could implode.)

This is also the largest teach–in of American values in history. Some 12 million illegals are studying law enforcement without massive corruption, contract law, the joys of homeownership, the existence of real public schools with real textbooks, the pleasures of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and recently, in the marches and protests, the strong drug of dissent. Beneath the Mexican and other flags in the demonstrations, a deep shift is taking place as strangers in a new land become part of that new land. American employers have inadvertently created the most affluent and politically active generation of poor people in the history of Latin America. Sending them home would detonate the nations they have come from. The politicians all know that….

The catholic casa del Migrante Nazareth sits on the Nuevo Laredo bank of the Rio Grande. Men can seek refuge here for three days, women sometimes for six. But these days, the Casa is seldom open for the migrants. The woman who answers the door says come back in five hours when a priest will stop by. For blocks near the Casa, men are sprawled on the sidewalks. She looks out at them and explains they are not migrants and so not her concern. Across the Mexican north a silent battle has been taking place between priests influenced by liberation theology and bishops picked by the increasingly conservative Vatican. Here liberation theology seems to be losing….

We want an answer, a solution. But there is only this fact: We either find a way to make their world better or they will come to our better world. At the moment, we insist on the wrong answer to the wrong question. And so, the Border Patrol will grow.There will be a wall. Tougher laws will be passed by Congress. And the people will keep coming.


Mike McG... said...

You rock, Jeff. This is an absolutely astounding article, the only one I've read that honestly confronts the essential falsity of the 'solutions' proferred by all sides. Clearly Mexico is changing the United States every bit as much as the United States has changed Mexico. Together, under the patronage of La Guadalupana.

I met one of my closest friends, an undocumented Mexican, while teaching English as a second language. Through Pedro I have come to the believe that Mexican immigrantion is a blessing to the United States and may signal the rebirth of American Catholicism.

Nevertheless, I despair at the public policy ramifications.

Liam said...

I second Mike's praise, Jeff. This is important to read.

Funny, in Spain there is also anxiety about waves of immigrants, there from Africa. Europe will also have to learn that they cannot stop a flood of people from failed states to the south, and many of their own past colonial policies are partially responsible for the state of things.

Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis used to share an apartment in Queens with a family from Ecuador. The father worked two or three jobs at a time and the mother cleaned houses, spending her free time helping her children with their homework the best she could, since she didn't speak English. The whole family shared one room. Still, they were always cheerful and never complained. I cannot imagine how people like this can be anything but an asset to our country.

Jeff said...

Thanks guys,

It always makes a difference when you know someone. It always helps to put a human face on these things. Multitudes are hard to grasp as more than an abstraction, and abstractions are too easy to make generalizations about.

In the radio interview, Bowden points out that for some time now Europe has seen more of this third-world pressure upon the first-world than we have, and that we have actually been quite insulated from it so far. We are finally getting a taste of what these seismic shifts really mean.

crystal said...

Interesting, Jeff. I like the Day of the Dead - you can, supposedly, speak to dead loved ones then ... I wrote a short story once about it :-) Living in California, immigration is a hot topic ... it's easy for us to forget that most of us had immigrant ancestors.

Jeff said...


Yes, for those of us inclined to think of Mexico's Day of the Dead as pagan, morbid, and strange, it can be pointed out that it is a lot more joyful and colorful than Halloween is.

I'd love to read your short stories. Do you have them posted anywhere for people to read like Liam does? (Liam's are very good, by the way. Whoever hasn't seen them should take a look)

On the topic of being in communion with the dead, I noticed that one of your favorite movies is Hitchcock's Vertigo. I watched it again a few nights ago, after not having seen it for quite a long time. Great picture. Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak...

crystal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeff said...

Ha! Talk about an "extreme makeover", eh? Jimmy was a little bit "controlling" in that flick. Kind of creepy.

Usually it's us guys who get brought in for alterations. :-)

Thanks for the link, I'm looking forward to having a look at your work.

Jeff said...


I read some of your stories last night. It made for a very entertaining evening. Brilliant. I loved your stuff, especially 'Conflicted'. It reminded me of Eric Van Lustbader crossed with Blade Runner. :-)

Keep on writing, you are very talented. If it was up to me, you would get published. :-)

cowboyangel said...


Once again you have a great post. I could write at length about some of these issues, but will only toss out some quick thoughts:

You and Bowden are absolutely right to talk about the utter importance of Mexico’s economy in the immigration issue. The large –scale emigration of Mexicans to the U.S. began in the late 1980s, with the first big meltdown in the Mexican economy. That was only made worse by NAFTA, which led to the 2nd meltdown from peso devaluation in 1994 and a worsening situation since then. The only thing that’s going to stop massive immigration from Mexico is for their economy to get better. Everything else is cosmetic.

This is the same old story of immigration. People come when things are bad in their own country. That was true when the great wave of Irish came after the potato famine in the 1840s all the way to the massive number of Russians coming when the Wall went down in 1988. It usually becomes a controversy, however, when the economy in the host country starts having trouble. Thus, the increasing anxiety over immigration, I think, is an outward sign of our own economic unease. We’ve always let in a lot of Mexicans when we needed their cheap labor, and we always try to shut down the pipeline when our economy tanks. That cycle’s been going on in Texas and the southwest for at least a century.

The current controversy also shows a lot of the typical racism that takes place when things start going bad economically at home, and we try to clamp down on those dirty immigrants taking away our jobs. The language being used now isn’t any different than it was in New York in the 1860s, for example. The worst riot in U.S. history (over 100 people killed) is still the Draft Riots of 1863, when the Irish went after the blacks because they were taking away their jobs.

For example, in the current climate, it’s as if the Mexicans were the only ones coming into the U.S. But building a fence along the U.S./Mexican border isn’t going to do anything about all of the Chinese immigrants, for example, many of whom (particularly women) are basically forced into indentured servitude. (That’s an ongoing problem in New York.) Or all of the people coming from the Phillipines or India. These are not small numbers. I’m pretty sure I read that immigration from Mexico has actually declined in the last few years. Basically, they’re already here. I think people in the U.S. just realized a little too late what was happening.

Being part Mexican and having been an illegal immigrant myself in Spain for five years, I have mixed feelings about all of this. From my own experience, I can definitely verify the racism. Being a “wet back” from the U.S. in Madrid was nothing like being a “wet back” from Africa or Morroco. I was never stopped on the street and asked for papers or hassled by police. The only time I ran into trouble was at the airport.

If you study history and see how human beings have ALWAYS moved from one place to another, (I once counted at least 13 people groups that had “invaded” or come into Spain during its history, including Celts, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Moors, etc.), all of the hand-wringing and ugly politics of immigration seem pretty silly. It happens. It’s always happened. It always will happen. Laws cannot stop it. We’ve got to learn how to deal with it better, because you can’t prevent it. You say this beautifully in your own conclusion.

If you compare NAFTA to the European Union plan, you’ll see two huge differences that could have helped the situation here. First, the EU pumped a gazillion dollars into struggling economies like Spain and Ireland in order to even the playing field. Now, those two countries are doing very well. But 20 years ago, they were much worse off than Germany or France. Investment made the difference. Secondly, the EU made it legal for people in one country to live and work in another. NAFTA was never about creating a genuine trading community – it was about letting the U.S. buy and sell its goods as inexpensively as possible and to have access to cheap labor. I know you can’t compare the EU to NAFTA exactly, but in some ways, the EU did things much, much better – for ALL involved.

On La Santísima Muerte, El Día de los Muertos, etc.: Actually, I think it’s Anglo America that has weird concepts about Death and its place in society. Most cultures treats Death very differently than we do. We try to keep it at arms length, fearing it, and, ultimately, not paying our respect to the Life Process. Trungpa Rinpoche even talks about this in one of his books on Buddhism, saying it’s a major spiritual issue in the West in general and lies at the root of many of our problems. There’s an unbroken line of humanity that runs down through the ages. Respecting that line is essential for a culture to experience a connection to the Almighty. As are the unbroken lines between all people living, no matter where they are located. The cosmic interconnections, if you will. Our culture is bad at history AND geography, which isolates us from humanity both in space and time. Not good, if you ask me.

Finally, it’s great that you point out the income difference between the U.S. and Mexico, but I think it’s an over-simplification to say, “Nowhere else in the world is there a border between a first-world nation and a third-world nation.” First of all, I don't think those classifications are very valid anymore, if they ever were. Secondly, I don't think Mexico would be consdiered 3rd world, evem by the old standards. Finally, no country is all one or the other. The U.S. contains a lot of “third world” areas and elements, from the collapsed infrastructure in sections of New York City to economically desolated rural regions in Texas. Just as Mexico has many “first world” elements within its own land. I know – I’ve had to deal with the U.S. Postal system in Brooklyn, which made Spain’s 18th century postal system seem efficient!

Well, so much for “quick” thoughts. Sorry!

Jeff said...

Hi Guillame.

Great post, thanks. I’ve always considered immigration to be this country’s life-blood, although it has always produced anxiety and resentments as well (such as what was seen in the various Nativist and “Know-Nothing” parties). I find that now, however, that there is more anxiety in the USA about the work that is leaving the country more than there is about competition that is coming in over the border, at least among the middle class.

Good points. Being from Texas, I would imagine that you’ve seen a lot of this first-hand. Thanks for pointing out the virtual slave labor in certain Asian sweatshops too..

Interesting that you bring up working in Spain. Just an anecdote about working there... At least we have a tradition here of being accustomed to the immigrant. My best friend married a Spanish woman and has been living in Spain for the last 17 years. He’s done very well in building a career there, but when he first arrived, he had to break his way in starting from absolutely nothing. In one long-running hassle with a bureaucrat, as he was trying to get set up, he started making some noise about getting some legal representation to defend his rights. The bureaucrat turned away from her paperwork for a moment, fixed him with a look and told him coolly and flatly, “Senor Sullivan, no tiene derechos en Espana.” (Mr Sullivan, you have no rights in Spain)

Good points as well about other cultures and how they deal with the reality of death and are somewhat more comfortable with its immanence. I remember spending time in Italy and being struck by how many people will spend most of their Sunday afternoon in the cemetery, tending and puttering around the graves, and essentially having a picnic. Being of mixed Irish/Italian background, I know that the Irish were always a little wigged out about how the Italians would often put photographs of their deceased loved ones on headstones. The Irish really shouldn’t talk, though. They have their own death fixations. They have a special flair for it. In plentitude.

Our American culture is very much into death-denial. Do you ever get the sense that you know people who seem to think that they will live forever? Dying? Nah. They’re either too healthy, wealthy, smart, clever, educated, etc… For them, death is like something that happens to those other people who don’t take care of themselves.