Believing to Death

America’s Fastest Growing Death Holiday Is From Mexico

Long regarded as a ‘narco-saint,’ Lady Death has deep roots in Latin America’s Catholic tradition as well as its acceptance that all people must die.

11.01.14 10:55 AM ET

One night in 2001, as Halloween turned into All Saint’s Day, a woman named Enriqueta Romero put a life-size model of a skeleton in front of her home in Mexico City. That was 13 years ago. The skeleton was wearing a dress. In the annals of 21st-century Latin American religion, it was a historic moment.

For decades, maybe centuries (the details are murky), some people in Mexico had been venerating a kind of sanctified death figure. Part Grim Reaper, part angel, this deathly saint had few followers, and they mostly worshipped in private. Romero helped make that veneration public. You might think of her as a kind of postmodern Mexican Martin Luther: someone whose small public act puts a new spin of faith, all while pissing off the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther tacked up his Ninety-Five Theses, and gave us the Protestant Reformation.

Enriqueta Romero put a skeleton on the sidewalk, and helped give us Santa Muerte.

Santa Muerte: Saint Death. A grinning skeleton is a national symbol in Mexico. Santa Muerte is something different. She’s angelic. She receives offerings, and she’s thought to grant favors and miracles. Although rooted in medieval Catholic depictions of death (and, perhaps, ancient Mesoamerican death deities), she is not beloved of the church.

Before 2001, Santa Muerte was “unknown to 99 percent of Mexicans,” according to Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religion at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Devoted to Death, an academic study of Santa Muerte. You can now find her hooded image on cars, necklaces, votive candles, tattoos, and altars across Mexico and the United States. Romero’s original shrine, in Mexico City’s lawless Tepito barrio, attracts crowds to monthly festivals. Today, on All Saint’s Day, thousands will gather in Tepito to worship the bony deity.

In total, Chesnut estimates that Santa Muerte may have as many as 10 million devotees, and counting. “This is the fastest growing new religious movement in the entire Americas,” he told The Daily Beast. Some of that growth has come among drug traffickers, as well as in prisons on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

But its growth is not just among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. When I spoke with Chesnut, he suggested that I might not have a hard time finding traces of Santa Muerte in my small North Carolina city. So I went searching.

Little did I realize how easy it would be. A block away from where I live, there’s a magick-and-tarot shop. It’s owned by an Anglo-American who goes by Magus. Magus doesn’t speak Spanish, but when lady death appeared to him in a vision a few years ago, he knew who she was. When I walked into Magus’ shop, just to ask around, there was Santa Muerte: on a little altar, with offerings of water and chocolate chip cookies—hooded, serene, and undeniably in all of our futures.

Most coverage of Santa Muerte has focused on her role as a narco-saint. She’s been portrayed as a satanic figure by everyone from Catholic bishops to FBI analysts.

While some of that coverage is justified, it misses what might be the most extraordinary, and revealing, feature of the Santa Muerte cult: namely, its fundamental ordinariness. Santa Muerte’s followers tend to be regular people. Rather than an esoteric quirk, she fits into a much larger religious tradition of reckoning with death, and a much larger Latin American tradition of adapting official Catholic rituals for unofficial purposes. As Catholicism struggles to retain followers in Latin America, and Mexican religious movements grow in the United States, it’s worth realizing that Santa Muerte isn’t some weird death cult: It’s the not-so-new religious normal.

Earlier in October, I spent the better part of two days at the Templo de la Santa Muerte Internacional in Tultitlán, a working-class suburb of Mexico City. The temple was founded in 2007 by Jonathan Legaria Vargas. He was gunned down the next year, at the age of 26, under mysterious circumstances. The place now is run by his mother, Enriqueta Vargas. It’s known for a 72 foot-tall steel-and-fiberglass statue of Santa Muerte, her arms spread in a pose that resembles a certain Brazilian sculpture of Jesus (which, incidentally, is only 26 feet taller).

There are smaller statues of Santa Muerte nearby, each clothed in a different color—red for love, yellow for those seeking work, black for those looking for protection, and so on. Per Santa Muerte tradition, devotees offer apples, cigarettes, and bottles of tequila.

The vibe, though—and there’s really no other word for it—is almost cloyingly wholesome. People call Vargas madrina—godmother. She’s a hugger. Visitors leave pictures of their loved ones pinned to some of Santa Muerte’s outfits. In the first five minutes of our conversation, Vargas told me about a holiday miracle: A woman had no money or food for Christmas, and she came to Santa Muerte to ask for help. Shortly afterward, someone gave her some cash and “un combo de Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

Fast food and personified death: not exactly Hallmark material. But the spirit is there.

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The temple hosts weddings. Its Sunday masses easily bring in 200 people. So many families come that Vargas has arranged for a clown to entertain the kids. On the Sunday I visited, someone brought four 12-inch-high statuettes of Santa Muerte to the mass, each dressed in its own snug, pink-and-white, hand-knit coat, like little tea cozies for the Grim Reaper. “We believe in God,” Vargas told me. “Our angel of death only receives orders from him.”

As Chesnut points out, most devotees of Santa Muerte still consider themselves Catholics, and many worship her alongside more conventional saints. Sunday mass in Tultitlán includes the Lord’s Prayer as well as invocations to La Santísima, “mi vida, mi muerte, mi total.” Another Santa Muerte church, in a whitewashed building near downtown Mexico City, has a massive cross out front, holds four masses daily—which include communion—and keeps a large statue of the Virgin Mary on its altar. (There’s also a skeleton in a frilly purple dress nearby; a black cat was sleeping on one of the kneelers the day I visited). Some Santa Muerte icons depict her holding Jesus after the crucifixion.

I don’t mean to overplay the wholesomeness. Tepito, the neighborhood that hosts the first, and still most significant, Santa Muerte shrine, is home to a sprawling black market and a thriving drug trade. In Devoted to Death, Chesnut describes a Mexican hitman who has an image of la Santa engraved on the butt of his pistol. People sometimes burn marijuana at her shrines.

Still, a cultural celebration of death is far from unusual, in Mexico or elsewhere in the world. I’m not the first to note the resemblance between Santa Muerte and Kali, a destructive Hindu deity worshipped in India for millennia. And when I told the custodian of a little Santa Muerte shrine in Colonia Guerrero, a gritty Mexico City neighborhood, that death worship could seem strange or scary to Anglo-Americans, she looked at me as if I were stupid. “Halloween,” she said. “Horror movies.”

Unlike films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though, you can’t miss the underlying Catholicism here—nor the underlying sadness. As Chesnut points out, Santa Muerte “has proliferated in a time of great death and dying in Mexico.” Many of her worshippers come from marginal communities. Santa Muerte shrines are generally in poorer neighborhoods. She’s especially popular among Mexico’s LGBTQ community, whose members tend to find a warm welcome at her shrines.

Meanwhile, Santa Muerte may seem blasphemous, but there’s also nothing unusual about Catholic-tinted worship that takes place outside the official purview of the Vatican. Santa Muerte is one of thousands of folk saints in the Catholic Americas, which range from venerated ex-criminals to minor local icons known for their dramatic deaths. This kind of folk worship can eclipse that of official Catholic saints. Santa Muerte is just a dramatic example of an easy-to-forget truth: Worldwide, religious worship is as much a funky, homegrown symbolic mashup as it is an exercise in official doctrine.

A couple hundred years ago, of course, the church or state could have just crushed such a heterodox movement. Today, Santa Muerte has Facebook pages and a degree of religious freedom. The 21st century isn’t a bad time, really, for deviant religions to thrive.