Santa Muerte: Unusual saint gaining popularity in Mexico and the US

Originally the saint of drug traffickers and criminals, Santa Muerte is attracting a whole new class of converts

Adams Morgan, DC

Adams Morgan, DC

From my column in Communities @ Washington Times 

WASHINGTON DC, March 04, 2013 – At a time when devotion to the Catholic Church is in decline, the cult of Santa Muerte, a Mexican folk saint, is flourishing on both sides of the border.  Traditionally worshiped in secret, Santa Muerte’s popularity is growing among Mexicans, Latinos, and even some non-Latino communities in the U.S.

By reputedly granting whatever a devotee wishes—regardless of the wish’s morality or propriety– faster than any traditional saint, Santa Muerte is attracting converts of all kinds.  An amalgamation of several cultures with and undisputable reverence for death, this increasingly mainstream saint has mass spiritual- and marketing -appeal.

Santa Muerte, “Holy Death,” is represented as a female skeleton dressed in long flowing robes, holding a scythe and/or globe.  The color of her tunic varies depending on what is being sought from her.  For example, white can symbolize health or cleansing, red symbolizes love, gold symbolizes power and economic stability, yellow symbolizes luck, and black can mean protection from black magic and revenge.  Students are known to wear a blue–robed Santa Muerte around their necks, since blue symbolizes wisdom and education.

Rituals associated with Santa Muerte, mainly based on Catholic tradition, vary according to the devotee.  Believers build altars to her, at which they light candles and offer gifts of money, flowers, tobacco, Tequila, fruits, etc.  More unsavory believers are known to offer blood (human or animal) as well as cocaine and marihuana.  Santa Muerte has a Saint’s day, as do Catholic saints.  The Saint’s day for Santa Muerte varies as well, but is commonly celebrated on November 1, February 2, and August 15.

Sometimes known as “Señora de la Noche” (“The Lady of the Night”), Santa Muerte protects those working at night like Mariachis, taxi drivers, police, soldiers, and bar owners, among whom she has many devotees.  Known for helping in otherwise lost causes, she is often known as “a saint of last resort.”

Mexican and Spanish roots

The syncretism of Pre-Columbian and Spanish Catholic symbols, Santa Muerte is thought to be a mixture of Mayan and Aztec personifications of death, represented as a figure missing half of its flesh; the medieval Spanish figure of La Parca, a kind of female Grim Reaper; and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Even though colonial conversion to Catholicism attempted to stamp out the pre-Columbian veneration of death as a person, it was never completely successful in doing so.  Going underground for centuries, the ancient cult of death incorporated other beliefs to flourish today into the well-known Day of the Dead and the emerging cult of Santa Muerte.

Santa Muerte’s evolution is also associated with Catrina, a female skeleton dressed in fancy clothing created by José Guadalupe Posada, popular at the beginning of the 20th century in Mexico.  The modern version Santa Muerte appeared in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City in the 1940s, and worship has become increasingly public.  By the late 1990s, Santa Muerte was becoming popular in Tepito and other parts of Mexico.   In 2001 Enriqueta Romero opened a popular public shrine to Santa Muerte in the Mexico City neighborhood.

Described as a “cult of crisis” by some anthropologists, an increasing number of people in inner cities and rural areas of Mexico have worshiped Santa Muerte for decades.  Taking hold among the very poor, uneducated, and marginalized sectors of society, it reflects a worldview adopted by people who feel overlooked by official religious, political, and social systems.

Associated with difficult situations and hopeless causes, many of her devotees include low-level criminals such as small-time thieves, scammers, pickpockets, and prostitutes.  Santa Muerte has also increasingly been associated with drug traffickers, as her image is often found in drug houses in both Mexico and the U.S.  She is often worshiped alongside Jesús Malverde, known as the patron saint of drug traffickers.  Drug runners are said to appeal to her for protection against being apprehended by law enforcement or killed by their enemies.

The FBI published a series of statements about the drug culture variant of Santa Muerte in its Law Enforcement Bulletin February 2013.  According to Robert J. Bunker, this “variant of the cult promotes greater levels of criminality than the more mainstream and older forms of Santa Muerte worship. Sometimes it can be so extreme that it condones morally corrupt behaviors.”  Altars with offerings of human blood and body parts have been found in drug houses and Santa Muerte prayer cards are found at scenes of drug massacres.

Even though a great majority of her followers are not criminals, a large number of Mexican drug dealers and shady characters count themselves among her followers.

With a reputation for quickly granting whatever a devotee wishes regardless of morality, the cult to Santa Muerte is attractive to a many people.  The fact that there are many interpretations of the cult ranging from the benevolent to the bloodthirsty, there is certainly a version of the cult to suit almost every kind of person.  Today Santa Muerte has devotees from all walks of Mexican society.

The Mexican Catholic Church has denounced the cult to Santa Muerte for combining Catholic beliefs with cultism and idol worship. The Mexican Church takes issue with personifying death and revering it as a saint.  However, an increasing part of Mexican society sees her as a compliment to their Catholic faith, while others have created a new faith built on an unsanctioned form of folk Catholicism that embraces both traditional and non-traditional saints.  Yet others seem to be flocking to this new saint after being disillusioned by recent Catholic Church scandals.

Growing popularity outside of Mexico

In the last decade, the cult of Santa Muerte has followed Mexican and Central American immigrants into the U.S.  In New Orleans, New York City, and Northern California, her devotion has spread to non-Latinos.  There is currently a public shrine in New Orleans, and a woman in Queens, NY hosts an annual Santa Muerte festival on November 1.  Most new converts in the U.S. come out of curiosity and because they hear that she grants any wish.

Despite the condemnation of her cult by the Mexican Catholic Church, the reaction from the Catholic Church in the U.S. has been rather mild.  Even though the Catholic Church in Chicago has instructed priests with large Mexican congregations to address the subject of Santa Muerte, churches in other major U.S. cities report not being aware of a problem.

Andrew Chestnut, a professor of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, attributes her mass appeal in the U.S. to the fact that devotees can ask her for anything they wish. “She’s the ultimate multi-tasker.”  Perhaps it is the fact that like death, Santa Muerte doesn’t discriminate.

Walk into the Yemaya Botanica in Adams Morgan in DC, and there is a huge five-foot Santa Muerte statue at the door surrounded by smaller ones in all colors and sizes.  The proprietor, Martha Bedoya says that in her 20 years in the NorthWest DC neighborhood, she has seldom seen so much interest in a saint among the non-Latino community.

“It’s the living you have to fear, not the dead,” says Bedoya when asked about the association of Santa Muerte with devil worship and criminality.

Commercializing a saint?

Whatever the reason for the growing popularity of the cult, there is an economic factor that cannot be ignored.  From the mass-produced figurines and votive candles to the increase in people tattooing stylized versions of Santa Muerte on their bodies, her image is starting to signify big bucks. In Mexico and several U.S. cities with large Latino populations, sales of the popular figure’s statutes, prayer cards, and votive candles have skyrocketed rivaling sales of Saint Jude and the Virgin of Guadalupe merchandise in some areas.

However, is this commercialization watering down the true meaning of the cult?  Is that necessarily a bad thing? It is difficult to reconcile the violent bloodthirsty underworld saint to whom drug dealers offer the decapitated heads of their enemies with Martha Bedoya’s nondiscrimination saint and the stylized versions on merchandise, clothing, and body art.

As Santa Muerte begins to move into more mainstream U.S. culture, it will be interesting to see whether she will become like the overplayed image of Che Guevara present on every t-shirt and coffee shop wall in the 1990s, its message and history so diluted that it ends up meaning nothing.