1375 Aztecs establish their capital at Tenochtitlan (the site of modern Mexico City). Their empire dominates central Mexico culturally and politically until 1519. The Aztec belief system includes Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death traditionally represented as a human skeleton or carnal body with a skull for a head.
1519-1521 Spanish conquest of the Aztecs drives traditional Indigenous beliefs and devotions underground as the colonial era commences.
1700’s Spanish Iniquisition documents reflect localized devotion to the Santa Muerte, though the practice remains occult.
1800-1900 Virtually no mention of Santa Muerte in the traditional written historical record.
1940’s Santa Muerte reappears in documents produced by Mexican and North American anthropologists, primarily as a folk saint whose divine intervention is sought for matters of the heart.
2001 On All Saints Day, Enriqueta Romero Romero brings Santa Muerte into the open, establishing the first public shrine dedicated to the devotion in the downtown Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito.
2003 Self-declared “Archbishop” David Romo’s temple, the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, Mex-USA is granted official recognition by the Mexican government. On August 15, the feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the church celebrates the inclusion of Santa Muerte in its set of beliefs and practices.
2003 The Santuario Universal de Santa Muerte (Universal Sanctuary of Santa Muerte) is founded by “Professor” Santiago Guadalupe, a Mexican immigrant from the state of Veracruz.
2004 One of Romo’s disgruntled priests files a formal complaint of the church’s inclusion of the Santa Muerte in its devotional paradigm.
2005 The Mexican government strips the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, Mex-USA of its official recognition. However, Mexican law does not require such sanctions, and the incident provoked political controversy.
CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL FOUNDATIONS
Santa Muerte’s name says much about her identity. La Muerte means death in Spanish and is a feminine noun (denoted by the feminine article “la”) as it is in all Romance languages. “Santa” is the feminine version of “santo,” which can be translated as “saint” or “holy,” depending on the usage. Santa Muerte is first and foremost an unofficial saint who heals, protects, and delivers devotees to the afterlife. Santa Muerte is the only female saint of death in the Americas.
Santa Muerte is a Mexican folk saint who personifies death. She is most often depicted as a female Grim Reaper outfitted with a scythe and wearing a shroud. Often she holds a set of scales representing her ability to deliver justice. Many times Santa Muerte also holds a globe- symbolizing her global dominion. She typically appears with an owl perched at her feet. In Western iconography, the owl symbolizes wisdom, and Mexicans view this nocturnal bird similarly. However, the Mexican interpretation goes even farther- relating back to the popular proverb: “When the owl screeches, the Indian dies.” The tecolote (“owl” in Mexican Spanish, derived from the Nahuatl language) symbolized death in Aztec culture.
Most Santa Muertistas view devotion to the skeleton saint as complementary to their Catholic faith or even a part of it. Unlike official saints, who have been canonized by the Catholic Church, folk saints are spirits of the dead considered holy for their miracle working powers. In Mexico and Latin America in general, folk saints command widespread devotion and are often more popular than the official saints. Where the Skinny Lady differs from other folk saints is that for most devotees she is the personification of death itself and not of a deceased human being.
Santa Muerte has many familiar nicknames. She is known variously as the Skinny Lady, White Sister, Godmother, co-Godmother, Powerful Lady, White Girl, and Pretty Girl, among others. As godmother and sister, the saint becomes a supernatural family member, approached with the same type of intimacy Mexicans would typically accord their relatives.
In some ways adherents view her as a supernatural version of themselves. One of the main attractions of folk saints is their similarities with devotees. For example, they typically share the same nationality and social class with their adherents. Indeed, many devotees are attracted by the leveling effect of Santa Muerte’s scythe, which obliterates divisions of race, class and gender. One of the most oft-repeated acclamations is that the Bony Lady “doesn’t discriminate.”
Herein lies one of Santa Muerte’s great advantages in the increasingly competitive religious marketplace of Mexico and in the greatest faith economy on earth here in the United States. Much more than Jesus, the canonized saints, and the myriad advocations of Mary, Saint Death’s present identity is highly flexible. It is largely dependent on how individual devotees perceive her. Despite her skeletal form, which suggests death and dormancy to the uninitiated, the Bony Lady is a supernatural action figure who heals, provides, and punishes, among other things. She is the hardest working and most productive folk saint on either side of the border.
Santa Muerte has followers from all walks of life. High school students, middle class housewives, taxi drivers, drug traffickers, politicians, musicians, doctors, and lawyers are all among the ranks of the faithful. Mexico, with an average age of twenty-four, is a country of young people. The majority of believers in that country are in their teens, twenties, and thirties. Because of her condemnation by both Catholic and Protestant churches, more affluent believers tend to keep their devotion to the saint of death private, adding to the difficulty of quantifying just how many individuals are devoted to the skeleton saint.
Her cult is generally informal and unorganized and only became public ten years ago. However, information about the popularity of the devotion may be gleaned from indirect analysis. It has been estimated that five million Mexicans venerate the angel of death. Santa Muerte occupies more shelf and floor space than any other saint in dozens of shops and market stalls specializing in the sale of religious and devotional items throughout Mexico. Votive candles are the best selling of all the Santa Muerte products. Costing only a dollar or two, they afford believers a relatively cheap way of thanking or petitioning the Pretty Girl.
Street vendors who sell goods to motorists stuck in traffic waiting to cross the border into the United States offer more figurines of Santa Muerte than any other saint, even the Virgin of Guadalupe, Patroness of Mexico. For the past five years the Bony Lady has been accompanying her devotees in their crossings into the United States, establishing herself along the two-thousand-mile-long border and in U.S. cities with Mexican immigrant communities. It is in border towns such as El Paso, Brownsville, and Laredo where evidence of her cult is strongest. However, devotion to Santa Muerte has spread to cities and towns deeper within the U.S., as indicated by the increasing availability of her devotional paraphernalia.
The following is a specific prayer to the Santa Muerte for the millions of Mexicans who make the dangerous trip to “the other side” (as they say in Mexico) – the United States. The Prayer for Protection During Travels reads:
Most Holy Spirit of Death, I invoke your holy name to ask that you help me in this endeavor. Lead me over mountains, valleys, and paths. Don’t stop showering me with your good fortune. Make sure that my destination is freed of all evil purposes. Santa Muerte, through your powerful protection, prevent problems from materializing and weighing heavily on my heart. My lady, prevent sickness from touching me and keep away tragedy, pain, and want. I light this candle so that the gleam of your eyes forms an invisible shield around me. Grant me prudence, patience, and, Holy Queen of Darkness, grant me strength, power, and wisdom. Tell the elements not to unleash their fury wherever I go. Make sure I have a happy return trip, because I’m ready to adorn and decorate your home at my holy altar.
The Santa Muerte Bible recommends lighting a gold votive candle on the eve of the journey.
North of the border area the Godmother hears the prayers and petitions of Mexican and (to a lesser extent) Central American immigrants who ask her for the favor of getting ahead in their new land. Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, New York, with their large Mexican and Central American communities, are obvious places to find Santa Muerte. Los Angeles is the American mecca of the cult of the skeleton saint. In addition to at least two religious article stores bearing her name (Botanica Santa Muerte and Botanica De La Santa Muerte), the City of Angels offers devotees two places of worship where they can thank the Angel of Death for miracles granted or petition her for assistance. Casa de Oracion de la Santisima Muerte (Most Holy Death House of Prayer) and Templo Santa Muerte (Saint Death Temple) are two of the first temples dedicated to her cult in the United States.
In Mexican, Texan, and Californian penitentiaries, the cult of the Bony Lady is so widespread that in many she is the leading object of devotion. In less than a decade she has become the patron saint of the Mexican penal system and is also popular in American prisons. Almost all of the TV news coverage of her rapidly increasing cult in the United States has been provided by local stations in border cities. These news reports tend to be sensationalistic, playing up Saint Death’s alleged ties to drug trafficking, murder, and even human sacrifice.
However, the mushrooming devotional base is a heterogeneous group with various afflictions and aspirations. The skeleton saint has assumed the role of an omnipotent generalist whose range of operation is probably greater than that of any other spiritual rival. In the final analysis, the Santa Muerte worshiped by most believers is neither the morally pure virgin nor the amoral spiritual mercenary who perpetrates all kinds of dark deeds.
Much more than an object of contemplation, the Bony Lady is a saint of action. Santa Muerte’s popularity as a folk saint also derives from her unique control over life and death. Her reputation as the most powerful and fastest acting saint is above all what attracts results-oriented believers to her altar. Most devotees perceive her as ranking higher than other saints, martyrs, and even the Virgin Mary in the celestial hierachy. Saint Death is conceived of as an archangel (of death) who only takes orders from God himself. Those familiar with Catholic theology will recognize the role of Archangel Michael, God’s angel of death who guards and judges souls, weighing their merit with a set of scales. One Mexican woman explains her devotion to Santa Muerte in this way: “I believe in God but I trust in her.”
Most Americans and western Europeans would immediately recognize Santa Muerte as a sort of female Grim Reaper (Grim Reapress) with origins in medieval Catholicism. Spaniards have their own personification of death, a female skeleton known as La Parca. Mexicans, however, are more likely to regard the skeleton saint as an adapted version of an indigenous goddess (usually Aztec or Mayan) of death.
The most common version of the story of the saint’s indigenous identity gives her Aztec origins. Santa Muerte is thought to have originated as Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death who along with her husband Mictlantecuhtli, ruled over the underworld, Mictlan. Like the Bony Lady, the deathly couple was traditionally represented as human skeletons or carnal bodies with skulls for heads. Aztecs believed that those who died of natural causes ended up in Mictlan, and they also invoked the gods’ supernatural powers for earthly causes. With its persecution of indigenous religion, the Spanish Conquest drove this devotion underground and into syncretism with Catholicism.
Spanish clergy employed the Grim Reapress in didactic fashion among the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Drawing on traditions of sacred ancestral bones and interpreting Christianity through their own cultural lens, some indigenous groups took the church’s skeletal figure of death for a saint in its own right.
Spanish colonial documents from 1793 and 1797 housed in the archives of the Inquisition describe local devotion to Santa Muerte in the present-day Mexican states of Querétaro and Guanajuato. The inquisitorial documents describe separate cases of “Indian idolatry” revolving around skeletal figures of death petitioned by indigenous citizens for political favors and justice. Neither Mexican nor foreign observers recorded her presence again until the 1940s.
The first written references to the skeleton saint in the twentieth century mention her in the context of acting as a supernatural love doctor summoned by a red candle. Saint Death of the crimson candle comes to the aid of women and girls who feel betrayed by the men in their lives. Four anthropologists, one Mexican and three American, mention her role as a love sorceress in their research conducted in the 1940s and 50s.
From the 1790s until 2002, Santa Muerte was venerated clandestinely. Altars were kept in private homes, out of public sight, and medallions and scapulars of the skeleton saint were hidden underneath the shirts of devotees, unlike today when many proudly display them, along with T-shirts, tattoos, and even tennis shoes as badges of their belief.
The logic of reciprocity underlies the way in which rank and file believers seek divine intervention. In Christian contexts the request for a miracle begins with a vow or promise. Thus, devotees request miracles from Saint Death in the same way they would from other saints, both folk and official. What distinguishes contracts with the White Sister is their binding power. If she is considered by many to be the most potent miracle worker on the religious landscape, she also has a reputation as a harsh punisher of those who break their contracts with her.
It is the prayers, pilgrimages, and promises of devotees that activate the saint’s supernatural powers. While devotion to Saint Death may be understood as an extreme variant of folk Catholicism, it appears that the cult is developing into a new religious movement. Santa Muerte’s role as a saint of extraordinary holiness distinguishes her from Roman Catholic theology and praxis.
Prayers, novenas, rosaries, and even “masses” for Santa Muerte generally preserve Catholic form and structure if not content. In this way, the cult offers neophytes the familiarity of Mexican Catholicism along with the novelty of venerating an emerging folk saint. Altars, both private and public, serve as one of the main tools to communicate with and honor the Bony Lady. Some are as simple as a statuette framed by a few votive candles, while others are elaborate sacred spaces created with considerable investment of time and resources.
Drawing heavily on Catholic modes of worship, devotees employ a colorful range of rituals. The general lack of formal cult doctrine and organization means that adherents are free to communicate with Saint Death in whatever manner suits them. In practice, however, most prayers are far from impromptu. One type of epic prayer has emerged as the cult’s premier collective ritual. Pioneered by the godmother of the cult, Enriqueta Romero Romero (affectionately known as Doña Queta), the rosary (el rosario) is an adaptation of the Catholic series of prayers dedicated to the Virgin.
Doña Queta organized the first public rosaries at her Tepito shrine in 2002 and since then the practice has proliferated throughout Mexico and in the United States. The monthly worship service at Doña Queta’s altar regularly attracts several thousand faithful.
Among the most common ways to petition Santa Muerte is through votive candles, often color coded for the specific type of intervention desired. As mentioned previously, red candles, for instance, are employed for petitions related to love and passion. Santa Muertistas employ votive candles in essentially the traditional Catholic way. In accord with the term “votive,” Catholics offer these wax lights as symbols of vows or prayers made to particular saints, persons of the Trinity, or the Virgin. In addition to candles, devotees make offerings that correspond to things they themselves desire. Items commonly found on Santa Muerte altars include sweets, bread, tobacco, money, alcohol, flowers, and water.
Her transformation from object of occult devotion to protagonist of a public cult has involved a concomitant development in her identity. With the eruption of drug related violence in the 1990s, the black colored Santa Muerte of dark deeds stepped into the limelight as she appeared at the altars of notorious narcos. And it is the amoral Grim Reapress of the black devotional candle who continues to command media attention on both sides of the border and dominate public perception of her. Black candles, however, are slow sellers and are the least common at public altars in both Mexico and the United States.
Despite her media image, Saint Death isn’t so much the guardian angel of narcos as she is the patroness of the drug war. In other words, her devotion among the police, soldiers, and prison guards on the front lines of the war against the cartels seems as widespread as it is among the traffickers.
At most botanicas on both sides of the border, the white Saint Death candle symbolizing purity, protection, gratitude, and
consecration is the top seller. Less concerned with the fate of their souls in the afterlife, devotees seek the Powerful Lady’s intervention in the worldly matters of health, wealth, and love.
FOR PRAYERS CORRESPONDING TO
love, romance, passion
vengeance, harm; protection from others seeking same
purity, protection, gratitude, consecration
insight and concentration; popular with students
enlightenment, discernment, wisdom
money, prosperity, abundance
justice, equality before the law
The long period of furtive devotion ended on All Saints Day, 2001, when Doña Queta, who at the time worked as a quesadilla vendor, publicly displayed her life-size Santa Muerte effigy outside her home in Tepito, MexicoCity’s most notorious barrio. In the decade since then, her historic shrine has become the cult’s most popular in Mexico. More than any other devotional leader, Doña Queta has played the starring role in transforming occult veneration of the saint into a very public cult.
Just a few miles away, self-declared “Archbishop” David Romo founded the first church dedicated to the Santa Muerte. Borrowing heavily from Roman Catholic liturgy and doctrine, the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church Mex-USA offers “masses,” weddings, baptisms, exorcisms, and other services commonly found at most Catholic churches in Latin America.
In the United States, the Los Angeles based Templo Santa Muerte offers a full range of Catholic-like sacraments and services, including weddings, baptisms, and monthly rosaries. The Templo’s website, http://templosantamuerte.com, hosts a chat room and streams music and podcasts of masses to those who cannot make it to the services offered by “Professors” Sahara and Sisyphus, founders of the Templo. Both leaders emigrated to the United States from Mexico. The latter’s training included an apprenticeship with two Mexican shamans, one of whom “taught him to speak to Most Holy Death.”
A few miles across town is the Santuario Universal de Santa Muerte (Saint Death Universal Sanctuary). The Sanctuary is located in the heart of LA’s Mexican and Central American immigrant community. “Professor” Santiago Guadalupe, originally from Catemaco, Veracruz, a town famous for witchcraft, is the Santa Muerte shaman who presides over this storefront church. Faithful believers visit the Sanctuary for baptisms, weddings, rosaries, novenas, exorcisms, cleansings, and individual spiritual counseling.
The Catholic Church in Mexico has taken a decisive stance against Santa Muerte, denouncing the cult on the grounds that the veneration of death is tantamout to honoring an enemy of Christ. The Church argues that Christ defeated death through resurrection, therefore his followers must align themselves against death and its representatives, including Santa Muerte. The current Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, is a member of the National Action Party (PAN), founded by conservative Roman Catholics in 1939. Calderon’s administration has declared Santa Muerte religious enemy number one of the Mexican state. In March, 2009 the Mexican army bulldozed dozens of roadside shrines dedicated to the folk saint along the US-Mexico border.
A significant number of high-profile drug kingpins and individuals affiliated with kidnapping organizations are Santa Muertistas. The prevalence of Santa Muerte altars at crime scenes and in the cells of those imprisoned has created the impression that she is a narco-saint. Because many of her devotees are members of society who have been marginalized by the prevailing socio-economic order, they and their faith are often dismissed as deviant.
Archbishop David Romo, the godfather of the Santa Muerte cult and its self-declared national spokesperson, is stridently anti-PAN and anti-Catholic. He believes that a PAN-Catholic Church alliance was behind the revocation of his church’s legal status in 2005. Romo was arrested in January 2011 and is presently incarcerated in Mexico City having been convicted of belonging to a kidnapping ring. Given the dynamism of the cult of the Bony Lady, Romo’s fall from grace will most likely prove to be only a temporary setback in efforts to organize and institutionalize this new religious movement.
The material in this profile is drawn from R. Andrew Chesnut, Devoted to Death.
Chesnut, R. Andrew. 2012. Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. New York: Oxford University Press.
SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION SOURCES
Aridjis, Eva, dir. 2008. La Santa Muerte. Navarre, 2008.
Aridjis, Homero. 2004. La Santa Muerte: Sexteto del amor, las mujeres, los perros y la muerte. Mexico City: Conaculta.
Bernal S., María de la Luz. 1982. Mitos y magos mexicanos. 2nd ed. Colonia Juárez, Mexico: Grupo Editorial Gaceta.
Chesnut, R. Andrew. 2012. Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint. New York: Oxford University Press.
Chesnut, R. Andrew. 2012. “Santa Muerte: Mexico’s Devotion to the Saint of Death.” Huffington Post Online, January 7. Accessed from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/r-andrew-chesnut/santa-muerte-saint-of-death_b_1189557.html
Chesnut, R. Andrew. 2003. Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Chesnut, R. Andrew. 1997. Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Cortes, Fernando, dir. 1976. El miedo no anda en burro. Diana Films.
Del Toro, Paco, dir. 2007. La Santa Muerte. Armagedon Producciones.
Graziano, Frank. 2007. Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. 1974. “Godfather Death.” Tale 44 in The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon. Accessed from http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm044.html on February 20, 2012..
Holman, E. Bryant. 2007. The Santisima Muerte: A Mexican Folk Saint. Self-published.
Kelly, Isabel. 1965. Folk Practices in North Mexico: Birth Customs, Folk Medicine, and Spiritualism in the Laguna Zone. Austin: University of Texas Press.
La Biblia de la Santa Muerte . 2008. Mexico City: Editores Mexicanos Unidos.
Lewis, Oscar. 1961. The Children of Sánchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family. New York: Random House.
Lomnitz, Claudio. 2008. Death and the Idea of Mexico. New York: Zone Books.
Martínez Gil, Fernando. 1993. Muerte y sociedad en la España de los Austrias. Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores.
Navarrete, Carlos. 1982. San Pascualito Rey y el culto a la muerte en Chiapas. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas.
Olavarrieta Marenco, Marcela. 1977. Magia en los Tuxtlas, Veracruz. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.
Perdigón Castañeda, J. Katia. 2008. La Santa Muerte: Protectora de los hombres. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2008.
Thompson, John. 1998. “Santísima Muerte: On the Origin and Development of a Mexican Occult Image.” Journal of the Southwest 40 (Winter). Accessed from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb6474/is_4_40/ai_n28721107/?tag=content;col1 on February 20, 2012.
Toor , Frances . 1947. A Treasury of Mexican Folkways. New York: Crown.
Villarreal, Mario. “Mexican Elections: The Candidates.” American Enterprise Institute. Accessed from http://www.aei.org/docLib/20060503_VillarrealMexicanElections.pdf. on February 20, 2012.
*** All photos contained herein are the intellectual property of Banda Ancha Productions, L3C. They are featured in the profile as part of a one time licensing agreement with the World Religions and Spirituality Project.