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By Rebecca Salinas
At first sight, Santa Muerte seems evil. Covered in a blood-red cloak, her skeleton body sits at her throne accompanied by a scythe and globe in each hand, representing justice and world domination, respectively.
Santa Muerte, or “Our Lady of the Holy Death,” is often associated with drug cartels and crime-ridden communities, who adore her for carrying out favors, good or bad. After she grants prayers, worshipers garnish her altar with gifts to thank her for her loyalty.
The statue of the non-Catholic saint is one of the most popular at Papa Jim’s Botanica, a South Side store that sells religious and spiritual statues, candles, perfumes, herbs and oils.
There, customers pray to Santa Muerte’s altar and surround her with flowers, pieces of gum, a cup of water, money and unlit cigarettes.
Although associated with negativity, Papa Jim’s Manager Anna Flores says the false stigma around Santa Muerte comes from her grim features. Because of that, the Catholic Church condemns her as devilish.
“It’s the way you use it,” she said about the saint also known as “La Santísima.” “Sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s good.”
For example, while some of the customers use products for revenge, others use herbs to heal or cleanse, she said.
Located at 5630 S. Flores St., the 30-year-old store is just one example of the botanica culture that surrounds the Hispanic community in San Antonio, mainly in the South Side.
“Hispanics are the ones that said, ‘Grandma said to try this, and Grandma said to try that,’” Flores said.
Long-time customer Jerry Bright inherited that mentality from his great-grandmother.
Bright first entered a botanica at 6 years old, immediately connecting to Santeria, an African-based religion whose followers believe their deities are living things with the same needs as other beings, and have the capability to do good and bad. Humans contact Orishas, or saints, with dancing, drumming, speaking and eating rituals.
Now 20 years old, Bright uses spells to help his friends with health problems.
“For me, it’s like the power to do bad and the power to do well,” he said, adding his family strays from the dark side unless they have a “problem with somebody.”
He added that Santeria has become more popular among families, especially on this side of town. Flores shares the same belief, stating that new people join the religion every day.
“It’s not that secretive thing that people do in the basement anymore,” Bright said, adding that practicing the religion liberates him.
Santeria is often associated with voodoo or evil spirits, he said, but that is a misconception because people do not care to educate themselves on the religion.
He said people who believe in other religions already have the “sense of accomplishment” they feel from praying to their god, but they should be open to other religions.
“A lot of people call me a devil worshiper, it’s rough meeting people that don’t understand what it is,” he said. “It’s kind of been put down because you’re not praying to their god.”
“It’s somebody’s opinion, I have no say so in it. I just know what’s good for me.”