continued On the same table, pictures of Jesus (five pesos each) jockey for room with lucky rabbits' feet (ten pesos each). Why does Jesus cost less than the rabbit? Daniel just laughs.
Another table closer to the cathedral is strewn with books, including El Libro Negro ("the black book"). This how-to manual on black magic costs 60 pesos and is part of a do-it-yourself dark arts series.
I walk toward the cathedral now, only to find Malverde scapulars ("Malverde" could be rendered into English as "evil unripe" -- an ominous name). A scapular is sort of a micro monk's cloak; it consists of two small pieces of cloth joined by strings. A popular sacramental among Catholics but usually hidden under their clothes, Catholics wear scapulars as a way of showing a special devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel or the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Jesus Malverde was hung, according to legend, in Culiacan, Sinaloa, where his cult has been condemned by the Catholic Church. "He said before he died that he was going to help all," a vendor named Jaime explained. Malverde, popularly known as El Narcosanton, has become the patron saint of drug smugglers. At Jaime's booth a Malverde scapular sells for 40 pesos while a Mary scapular sells for 10. Maybe there is a difference between faith and superstition in these vendors' minds, after all; it's just not a theological one. Maybe it is a difference in price, with superstition getting the bigger markup.
I'm back in front of the cathedral entrance. Malverde scapulars dangle in a booth flanked by large pictures of Jesus, a guardian angel, and the Virgin. This booth, like most, sells charms to ward off the evil eye, made of deer eyes, so they say. Charms do get an explicit mention in the catechism: "All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others -- even if this were for the sake of restoring their health-- are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible."
If you don't buy the evil eye, or the need to ward it off anyway, this vendor (who is just a few steps from the cathedral) claims that the charm can make you look "charming." Buy it for ten pesos, he said, "so you can look handsome."
That's not the only claim that's been made in the superstition-selling game: customers have been told by vendors that they kick back some of their profit to the cathedral. Bishop Romo Muñoz rejected that claim as "absolutely false." He warned the faithful that superstitious charms and the like are contrary to the Catholic faith and induce people to practice black magic. He was only doing his job, according to the catechism: sorting out superstitious practices from pious devotions among the people is ultimately a judgment call made by the local bishops according to the norms of the Catholic Church.
True piety, however, "is a storehouse of values that offers answers of Christian wisdom to the great questions of life," the catechism added. This pungent wisdom "provides reasons for joy and humor even in the midst of a very hard life."
But unsavory elements keep creeping in. In front of the Cathedral of the Virgin of Guadalupe, through the barricades of smells, of cinnamon twists and sweaty armpits and cigarettes, a scent of incense was insinuating. But it didn't come from inside the church. And it didn't smell like Catholic incense.