Her more visible role in the public square (or the religious marketplace, if you will) came about almost accidentally. In 2002, customers noticed the Santa Muerte altar at the back of a small tortilla shop and asked the owner if they might pay homage. She agreed. Soon the place was full of flowers and candles, and people made pilgrimages to it. Eventually it became necessary to open a separate shrine, because all the veneration was making it hard to cook tortillas, let alone sell them.

In the decade since then, writes Chesnut, “hundreds of thousands of devotees have placed their hands on the glass of the encased altar,” which is reverently wiped down each night. Other entrepreneurs tapped into the Bald Lady’s following. And she has taken on more and more tasks, as signaled by the various colored candles that devotees light in her honor: red to call on her traditional powers in love, gold for help with money, and green for matters involving the law or justice. Purple candles are for faith healing. Criminals light black candles to appeal for help in their work, as do otherwise law-abiding citizens craving vengeance. But the white kind, expressing devotion and gratitude, are much more popular.

The black candle is, Chesnut notes, “among the slowest selling and rarely appears at devotional sites on Mexican roadsides and sidewalks.” The author says he seldom saw black candles even on private altars. The notion that Santa Muerte is a patron saint of the drug cartels is extremely one-sided: her appeal has spread through all sectors of society. Policemen and prison guards call on her protection. Rumor has it that there are even Santa Muertistes within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church – extremely discreet ones, presumably, since she has at least one bony toe dipped in spiritual currents that might well be heretical or blasphemous.