By Susanna Zaraysky
Every night, Jajaira stands on a street corner in San Francisco’s run-down Tenderloin District in a mini skirt and halter-top praying to the Santisimma Muerte pendant dangling above her fake breasts.
She is one of the 10-20 male-to-female transgender sex workers who come to San Francisco each year from Guadalajara (Mexico’s “Gay Mecca”) to pay for plastic surgery and genitalia operations. Mexicans involved in high-risk jobs such as prostitution and drug dealing seek protection and salvation from Mexico’s popular street saint, the Santisimma Muerte or “Holiest Death”. This female skeleton cloaked in a robe protects their lives with the globe she holds in her hands. Worshiping the embodiment of death yields hope for Mexican transgender sex workers, yearning for faith and their own version of Catholicism.
Due to the omnipresence of Catholicism in Mexican culture, Mexican transgender sex workers maintain Catholic traditions despite their ostracism from the church for being transgender and for selling their bodies for sex.
They learn to internalize their own spiritual practices. Without a supportive church to attend, transgender sex workers find their own source of spirituality within themselves. By continuing cultural religious traditions with daily prayers, pendants, religious symbols and altars, this group sustains a religious and spiritual base.
Vicky, a transgender prostitute who worked in San Francisco and returned to Guadalajara elucidated her faith, “The majority of gay people are in danger and the Santisimma Muerte takes care of people in danger, she helps us survive.”
Santisimma Muerte worshippers believe that she was the first spirit to greet Jesus Christ in heaven after he died. While wobbling on the margins of society and risking death every day while working on the street, these prostitutes want to be protected and the Santisimma Muerte is their holy shield against death.
“For me, the Santisimma Muerte is about a preparation for death, to welcome death …It’s about not being afraid of death, about not being so attached to the fear of death. More than anything, it’s about not being afraid, to know that there will be something after my spiritual release”, Jajaira explains.
Juan Carlos Esparza of ITESU Jesuit University in Guadalajara, describes this religious phenomenon, ‘Death is in the origin of the Supreme Being. There is a Spanish phrase that says, “Death gave birth to the saint”… Dead people have an important role in the lives of people who are alive.”
Even though the Catholic Church does not consider the Santisimma Muerte an official saint, her believers worship her like any other Catholic saint, with prayer books, figurines and candles.
Rodolfo Contreras, Deacon of Guadalajara’s Apostolic Reformed Catholic Church explains the basis of Mexican religion and why it travels so well, “Mexican immigrants bring their religion with them. Their Catholicism is very much based in rites, traditions and customs that are not questioned… In the US, there are Mexicans who wear the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe [Mexico’s patron saint] even though they are outside of Mexico.”
Some of the prostitutes are afraid to bring their altars and pendants across the border because they think that their smuggler (coyote) might steal them. So upon arrival in the US, the sex workers either buy new altars and candles in the US or their families send them their Santisimma Muerte items from Mexico.
Specializing in Latin American and African native religions traditions, the Yoruba Botanica store in San Francisco’s Mission District is a popular store for Mexicans looking for their Santisimma Muerte figurines, shrines, candles and prayer books.
The Santisimma Muerte figurines are in different colors and have herbs and rice at the bottom that signify good luck. A red figurine is for destruction; a white one symbolizes purity; a green statue is for money; an orange one brings protection and a yellow one attracts love.
To prepare an altar for the Holy Death, the devotee lights candles while praying to her. Some chose to leave her offerings of food and water. The fear of death is overcome by lighting orange candles for the Santisimma Muerte’s protection. Yellow candles bring love and green ones anchor money. The white candles are for praying for something good to happen to another person, red candles are for love and black ones are to wish something bad to someone else.
Traditionally, Mary Magdalene (historically misinterpreted in the New Testament to be a prostitute) was the unofficial patron saint of sex workers. Now, a popular saint in Mexico’s underworld is the new image for salvation.
Susanna Zaraysky completed this research for The Religion and Immigration Project at the University of San Francisco under a Pew Foundation Research Grant.