Mexico City’s One-of-a-Kind Spiritual Market – CityLab

Inside the Sonora Market in Mexico City, statues of death clutter long aisles. They share space with magical amulets and wooden pots for the storage of gods, Perspex pyramids, statues of Nigerian orishas, medicinal herbs, magical shampoos, tarot cards, live animals, and costumes for children’s and adult parties.

Felix Eduardo Vargas, a stallholder for 30 years now in what remains of the old herb market remembers how his collection of foreign and domestic herbs was formed. The stall originally sold only a small selection from Hidalgo from where his family came, but his father liked to travel through Mexico finding herbal remedies for different ailments. Most of the herbs come from Chiapas, Michoacán, and Guerrero—used for local folk remedies of the Mestizo population. Vargas himself prefers to read pharmacological books to traveling the countryside where finding herbs can be rough. “In isolated parts of the countryside there were for a long time no doctors and people had to rely on local cures,” says Vargas. Bemused by all the magical and religious booths around him, he notes that the changes were “a bit creepy” at first, “but I have gotten used to it.”

Though the city’s many cults may have originated elsewhere, the Sonora market place—linked to Mexico City’s great Merced market by a long galvanic steel footbridge—has been ground zero for the commercialization of Mexico City’s religious fashions. According to Salvatore Zavala, 60, who has worked at the market since he was 8, glamorous Mexican film stars of the 1950s and ‘60s would come to the market for ritual cleansings implicitly linked to the concept of death as a deity. This became explicit about 60 years ago when the first images of the Santa Muerte, depicted as a female grim reaper, started being sold in the market.

“People throughout Mexico always believed in a holy death figure, as part of our pre-Hispanic heritage. The difference was that it had remained hidden, because you could get into trouble having such an image,” says Zavala. Buyers from all over the world come here, adds the salesman, “The Santa Muerte is growing rapidly, whenever there is a new kind of problem there is a new statue of the Santa Muerte dedicated to it.”

Another cult, Santeria, an afro-Cuban religion similar to voodoo is also heavily represented at the market. “Santeria has been growing very quickly the last five to seven years,” says Marisela Pèrez, 60, seated with three other women before an altar in the heart of the market. Santería requires animal sacrifices for ceremonies seeking some kind of magical effect. According to Pérez, policemen and people in show business are especially drawn to Santeria. San Martin Malverde, represented as a cowboy seated on a wooden chair, is another religious figure related to Mexico’s troubled security.

Malverde came to the market as an import from Sinaloa in Mexico’s northwest, accompanying Mexico’s expanding drug trade. Next to the section of the market selling animals is a large stand of figurines representing North American indigenous religious figures and great war leaders such a Geronimo, Vittorio, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse, as well as female spiritual guides such as White Cloud and White Feather.

Victor Hugo Muñoz, 70, has been at the market for 50 years. He explains that the images represent guardian spirits. “If we do not know where we come from all how will we know where we are going?” he asks. “There are many forms of belief. This is ours, it grows from the soil. There are now many charlatans in this market, if we are not careful it will be finished quickly.”