Santa Muerte is upset with the way the cartels are running the country and plans to overturn them by having Benecio rise in the ranks. But she does not take into consideration that what she asks him to give up in return may be too much. "I'm either going up in the cartel or down into my grave," Benecio says.
"She is this all-loving figure, but she has her own agenda," Bernson said of Santa Muerte. "She doesn't think she's evil."
The play presents this paradox well. Santa Muerte may laugh scornfully when she sends her devotees to cause pain, but in the next scene she hears the prayers of others on the outskirts of society who see her as the only mother figure who will accept them. Among these are a young gay man who feels his father's resentment, a prostitute who thanks Santa Muerte for sending her clients and a mother who wants Santa Muerte to keep her son safe after he joins the lower ranks of the drug cartel.
As one character proclaims, Santa Muerte accepts outcasts when no one else will. Benecio begs the saint to let his young friend, Incenio (Nick Donias '12), who has just joined the cartel, leave her and return to his prayers to the Virgin Mary. Santa Muerte retorts that the Virgin probably would not take Incenio back. "He is a murderer, after all," she says.
"En Las Manos" also shows the relationship between Benecio and his girlfriend Maria (Alejandra Flavia '13). Maria does not want to believe that Santa Muerte is real but cannot help herself from recognizing the power of this saint.
"You pray to a skeleton… I don't know how she keeps her white robes clean… Her lovers are in prisons all across the country," Maria says scornfully. Later, however, she says, "At least she can keep you safe. All I can do is sit and pray." The question is, what is Maria praying to, if not the deity she claims to hate?
Director Patricia Ybarra, an assistant professor of theatre, speech and dance, said she hopes audiences will see that characters in the play are in the lower rungs of the drug cartels — they are not the ones making the big bucks but are struggling to get by. She said she also aimed to portray how families are restructured in the face of narco culture.
"What isn't shown in the news is the people in the lower rungs," Ybarra said. "It's very easy to demonize people in the trade and label it as a Mexican problem."
Ybarra said she hopes the play shows the wider spectrum of the situation. She said the financial instability of these communities strengthens the belief that rising in the drug cartels is a real possibility.
The trans-national spread of narco culture is also an issue Ybarra wanted to explore. Tourists and migrants alike, passing through Mexico on their way to work in the U.S., have felt the strain of the drug war. "If it's worth it to kill someone for $100, it's a dire situation," Ybarra said, citing forces of globalization and the rise of free markets as reinforcing the stresses of narco culture. "They are caught up in a global network of trade that they have no control over."
Bernson said she wanted to write the play to shed light on the drug war in Mexico since "nobody really knew what was happening." She said she wanted to bring the play to Brown to get people thinking about illegal drugs and "how it's getting into their hands."
When Bernson first heard of Santa Muerte, she knew she had found her central theme. "I was completely fascinated by her," she said.
In response to the evolving narco culture and other societal problems, many people, especially criminals and prisoners, have turned to Santa Muerte for guidance and protection in Mexico, Ybarra said. "She emerges in the 80s, 90s and today as a saint for people not finding comfort from the traditional Catholic Church," she said. Sermons to Santa Muerte are often radically inclusive in a way most mainstream religions are not, Ybarra added, contributing to her role as a controversial figure.
In order to understand this culture better, Ybarra said, the cast spent the first week of rehearsal doing dramaturgical research. They watched several films about narco culture and had political discussions. The culmination of this process was the cast's writing original prayers to Santa Muerte themselves.
"En Las Manos De La Muerte" leaves audience members thinking about a situation not well known and touches them with its honest, emotional portrayal of a troubling situation.
"En Las Manos De La Muerte" is playing at Rites and Reason Theatre Oct. 29-Nov. 1, Fri., Sat. and Mon. at 7 p.m. and Sun. at 3 p.m.