A look at Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a Mexican folk saint who gives hope to people on the edges of society, whose popularity has skyrocketed over the last 20 years.

The Catholic Church has condemned Santa Muerte as “satanic,” the Mexican military has destroyed shrines to her, the Mexican government refuses to acknowledge the veneration of Santa Muerte as a religion, and the media in the US and Mexico have conflated the cult of Santa Muerte with drug cartels.

But that’s not the whole story. We take a look at the history behind Santa Muerte and see how many people who’ve felt rejected by the Catholic Church have been able to find hope, comfort, and community in Santa Muerte.

Highlights include:
• Marijuana smoke used as incense
• A trans woman who puts on the largest festival to Saint Death
• A reimagined version of the rosary
• Frida Kahlo holding a ying yang

 

Episode Script for The Cult of Santa Muerte, aka Saint Death

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“Who better to ask for more time, for a few more years, than death itself? She’s seen as the great protectress, so for those who have so much that they need protection from, she is very powerful.” -Andrew Chestnut, professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint

 

 

  • So this topic isn’t exactly Ouija focused, but I was going through some of the articles I’ve saved about Ouija board murders and I got through exactly one article before getting sidetracked into this topic.
    • Now, fair warning, this is a fairly gruesome story, so anyone who doesn’t want to hear it can skip ahead a minute or so and get to the meat of the episode.
    • I have a folder of more recent Ouija murders, and I opened one from October 28, 2010, from The Tribune in Mesa, AZ, about a beheading that police believed was connected to a drug cartel.
    • They found a 38-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, named Martin Alejandro Cota-Monroy, who had been decapitated and left in an apartment. He’d been stabbed multiple times, and his head was found near his body.
    • Another article about him said that he’d stolen 400 pounds of weed and some meth, and he’d told the cartel that border patrol had seized the drugs.
    • Neighbors said that four men had been drinking in the apartment, and then some of them men left, then came back and murdered him.
    • So what does this have to do with Ouija or with today’s topic? Well, this paragraph piqued my interest:
      • Initial media reports indicated that the man’s death could be connected to a Mexican religious ritual, the Saint of Death, because candles and a Ouija board were found at the scene. But [a police detective] said the murder had “nothing to do” with the religion, although drug dealers and drug cartel members are known to participate in it because they believe if they do, it will protect them from law enforcement.
    • So naturally I was like, huh, I’ve gotta look that up.
    • I was only familiar with Santa Muerte because of the connection to drug trafficking, though when I read this article, I wanted to learn more about Saint Death, because it felt like I was only getting a very small part of a much larger story.

 

The Santa Muerte is also known as Saint Death, Holy Death, and the Bony Lady

 

And also, because the word “cult” is often used in relation to Santa Muerte, I just wanted to clarify that in a religious context, “cult” just means the wordship of veneration of a specific diety, and the rites associated with that diety. It doesn’t have the negative connotation that we think of when we hear the world “cult” and think of Aum Shrinrikyo or NXVIM.

 

  • So when I say that there’s a popular folk saint in Mexico called Saint Death who looks like a brightly dressed skeleton, probably the first thing most people think of is Day of the Death, or maybe the idea of La Catrina.
  • These are not all the same thing, so I wanted to quickly lay out some groundwork here:
    • The Day of the Dead is celebrated on Nov 1-2. It’s a time when people honor their ancestors and keep the deceased alive through memories and altars. The altars might contain a photo of the person who died, surrounded by some of their favorite things. The idea if that they’re reminding the dead that they haven’t been forgotten. It’s sort of a combination indigenous and Catholic practices. And probably a lot of people think of sugar skulls and candies, etc, when they think of Day of the Dead.
    • And then La Catrina is one of those things that people probably think they don’t know, but they really do.
      • You’ve probably seen an etching of a smiling skeleton leaning forward and wearing a wide-brimmed, fancy hat adorned with flowers and lace and feathers.
        • That was an engraving by Jose Guadalupe Posada, a political cartoonist who created this engraving around 1910 to represent Mexicans who were trying to adopt the traditions of European aristocracy in pre-revolution Mexico.
          • (The Mexican Revolution lasted from about 1910-1920, and was a reaction to the reign of Porfirio Diaz, a dictator who “modernized” Mexico, and whose administration was full of corruption, excess, and obsession with European culture and materialism. His reign created a concentration of huge wealth among the very wealthy, and made everyone else poorer.)
        • In the original leaflet that La Catrina appeared in was about a woman who wore French-style clothes and wore tons of makeup to make her skin look whiter because she was ashamed of her indigenous heritage.
        • Posada was relatively unknown by the time he died, but he was a huge influence on artists like Diego Rivera, whose 1947 mural Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda, which depicts a bunch of historical figures in Mexico’s history.
          • Those figures include Posada, who’s holding arms with La Catrina, who stands in the center of the group. The on the older side of La Catrina stands a child version of Rivera, holding La Catrina’s hand, and of course, his wife Frida Kahlo is standing behind him holding a yin-yang.
          • The mural is all about bourgeois complacency before the Mexican revolution, and while it shows well-dressed people strolling along, it also depicts indigenous people being forced back by police, and the victims of the Inquisition.
      • La Catrina has since become a popular image and has been tied in to the Day of the Dead, but she began as a political statement aimed at the wealthy

 

 

 

 

From the daily beast:

“From Argentina to Canada, there is no religious movement growing faster,” says Andrew Chestnut, professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. “Get this, going back to 2001, Santa Muerte is essentially unknown to 99 percent of Mexicans. Today, a decade and a half later, I estimate that there is some 10 to 12 million devotees in Mexico, the U.S., and Central America.”

  • Over the past 10 years in particular, she’s become very popular.
    • José Luis González, a professor at Mexico’s National School of Anthropology and History who specializes in popular religions said:
      • “The emotional pressures, the tensions of living in a time of crisis lead people to look for symbolic figures that can help them face danger. If you look at it from the point of view of a country that over the last ten years has become dangerously familiar with death, you can see that this skeleton is a very concrete and clear symbolic reference to the current situation.”

 

A little bit about the history of Saint Death:

  • Originally Saint Death was a man, but it sounds like she became a woman pretty quickly
    • However, in Paraguay, Argentina, and parts of Brazil there’s a male skeletal folk saint named San La Muerte, and in Guatemala, there’s one named Rey Pascual
  • Statues of her are usually a skeleton draped in colorful robes, often holding a scythe and a globe
    • The scythe represents cutting negative energies or influences, or since it’s used in harvesting, it can also symbolize hope and prosperity . It’s also said that it reflects the moment of death, where the thread of life is cut. And since the scythe is long, it represents how death reaches everywhere.
    • And then the globe represents death’s dominion over earth.
  • Sometimes she’s also depicted holding scales, an hourglass, an owl or an oil lamp
    • Most of that symbolism is obvious, though the owl represents how she’s wise and can navigate the darkness. The owl is also her messenger.
    • And the lamp represents intelligence, spirit, and it lights the way through the darkness of ignorance and doubt
  • The color of her robes often corresponds to what a petitioner is asking for. So for example, if someone’s looking for a husband, they might dress her as a bride. But often she’s in kind of typical saint garb, like a medieval nun’s outfit
    • Many of the colors she’s dressed in will be somewhat familiar to folks who do candle magic and color correspondences, with white symbolsing purity or cleansing, red standing for love, gold relating to proseperity, etc.
    • Dark yellow or amber symbolize heath, so statues of her wearing that color appear in rehab centers
    • Some people pair her with a seven-color candle, which some people say is adopted from the seven powers candle of Santeria
  • Apparently, Santa Muerte may have come from a combination of an early Aztec goddess and a female grim reaper named La Parca, or “the parched one”, who the Spanish invaders introduced
    • But no miracles came from her until the 1940s, when Mexican women would dress in black and ask Santa Muerte to bring their philandering husbands back to them. But if Santa Muerte couldn’t do that, then she would get rid of the other woman instead.
  • She’s a personification of death; she isn’t a dead human.
  • The first time Santa Muerte got a lot of press was in 1998, when a gangster was arrested and police found a shrine to her in his home
    • So that caused her to be associated with criminals
    • According to the Daily Beast, some cartel members pray to Santa Muerte for assistance, but the media tends to exaggerate the darkness of the Cult of Santa Muerte.
    • The Mexican government and media call her the “sinner’s saint” and highlight her popularity among drug runners and prisoners
      • Santa Muerte was venerated in secret until the mid-20th century, and when public shrines appeared dedicated to her, people often desecrated them
      • Part of the reason why Saint Death is popular among people who commit crimes is because it’s easier to approach Saint Death for help doing bad things, than it is to turn to another saint
      • A young inmate of the state prison of Culiacan, Sinaloa, told the National Geographic: “La Muerte is always beside you—even if it’s just a little postage stamp that you put up above your cot, you know that she’s not going to move, that she’ll never leave.”
        • One thing I wanted to note was that the National Georgraphic articles that I used as sources had some interesting info but were very anti-Santa Muerte
      • One thing worth noting is that much like in the US, Mexico adopted a neolibral “tough on crime”  stance that in effect began penalizing poverty.
        • In Mexico City in the 1990s and 2000s, the police forces were “reformed” because there was a public perception that crime was getting worse.
          • In 2003, Rudy Guiliani visited Mexico  and suggested some changes that resulted in “zero tolerance” policies that raised the prison population greatly, from 87,700 in 1992 to 176,400 in 2002. And in Mexico City, there’s been a large increase in the prison population since the early 200s0.
          • So of course more and more prisoners are devotees of Santa Muerte, because there are more and more prisoners in general.
          • There’s been a lot of debate about whether the changes made any difference to crime in Mexico and Mexico City.
          • In particular, there’ve been crackdowns on street vendors in the history city center, and there’ve been raids on markets and nightclubs that have caused many people to be picked up in huge law enforcement sweeps, whether or not they were necessarily committing a crime
          • A lot of this info comes from a great academic article from the Journal of Latin American Studies, La Sante Muerte in Mexico City: The Cult and its Ambiguities by Regnar Albaek Kristensen (2/5/15), which geotagged shrines to Santa Muerte and compared it with places where policing had increased, and they found that there was a correlation. The author of the article argued that part of her popularity is that there are “power relations at work beyond one’s control”
          • The article also talks about how Santa Muerte connects families with their relatives who are in prison, and she’s often treated and thought of as more like a female family member than a female saint.
          • If you want to know more about this, definitely read the article–I’ve linked it in the shownotes. You’ll be able to get a lot more nuance about the issue than I’ve been able to express here.
          • The author also interviewed a family in Mexico City and got their stories about how Saint Death helped them after they’d been set up by a wealthier neighbor who was out to get them. It’s an interesting story because it’s implied that Santa Muerte punished them for not properly honoring her, but then she saved them when they treated her better and asked for her help.
        • And while crime statistics are very suspect and should be taken with a grain of salt, according to wikipedia, a lot of people in Mexico are really suffering:
          • The war on drugs there has been going on since 2006. 120,000 are dead and 37,000 people are missing because of that.
          • Mexico’s National Georgraphy and Statistics Institute said that in 2014, about 1/5 of Mexicans were victims of some kind of crime
          • A lot of pushes to try to get rid of organized crime have been criticzed by human rights groups as just escalating the violence
          • And it’s probably worth mentioning than more than 100 journalists and people in the media industry have been killed or disappeared since 2000, with very few of those crimes solved (generally, they aren’t properly investigated)
          • So I can see why people are looking for protection from violence

 

  • The first public shrine to Sante Muerte was established in Mexico City by Enriqueta Romero: she built a shrine in with a life-sized statue of Saint Death in the window of her home, which is visible from the street.
    • Romero is a sort of chaplain of the shrine, a position she inherited from her aunt, who started the tradition in the family in 1962
    • On November 1st every year, Saint Death’s followers go to the shrine and pray the Santa Muerte rosary (which is based on the Catholic rosary.) Instead of incense, they use marajuana smoke for incense. Food is served, as well as drinks like hot chocolate and coffee, and mariachi and marimba bands perform.
  • In the 2000s, the Mexican Ministry of Interior revoked its registration of Saint Death as a legitimate religion, but that didn’t change how anyone felt about her
  • In March 2009, the Mexican army destroyed 40 roadside shrines to her near the US border
  • It’s much more common for people to ask for help with money, jobs, love, or protection from harm
  • She’s often approached for healing, protection, financial matters, and assurance of a path to the afterlife
  • Since death doesn’t discriminate, neither does Santa Muerte. The Cult of Santa Muerte is popular among queer people, sex workers, drug cartels, and millennials (apparently a lot of her followers are in their teens, 20s, and 30s).
    • A lot of her followers are part of the urban working class.
    • Though some wealthier people, including artists and politicians, may secretly venerate her, many rich people look down on the Cult of Santa Muerte as a superstition.
    • She has devotees of all genders, though I’ve read some places that she’s more popular among women.
    • Apparently a lot of same-sex marriage ceremonies in Mexico invoke
    •  Santa Muerte.
      • And the Traditionalist Mexican-American Catholic Church, a independent Catholic Church in North America that split away mostly because of Santa Muerte, recognized gay marriage and performed wedding ceremonies.
      • Though of course the Mexican government revoked its status as a religion in the 2000s. The Archbishop was arrested back in 2010 or 2011, though I think he still tries to lead the religion from prison.
  • Chestnut said that Santa Muerte has a reputation for being a quick and effective miracle worker.
    • Usually saints have specific powers or purposes, but Santa Muerte performs all sorts of miracles, and many of her followers see her as second only to god
    • She’s supposed to be specially good at protecting against violent death

 

  • Many people who believe in Santa Muerte identify as Catholic, though the Catholic church says that she isn’t a saint, and that she’s satanic
    • In 2013, the archdiocese spokesman of Mexico City said: “The cult of the Holy Death is destructive. It is blasphemous, it is diabolical and obviously it is anti-cultural.”
    • The Vatican even made a statement: “It’s not religion just because it’s dressed up like religion; it’s a blasphemy against religion.”
    • Many followers of Saint Death are still Catholic, much to the church’s chagrin. And though the group has no hierarchy, there are people in Mexico who identify as “priests” and say that their temples are part of the official Catholic Church
  • Around 2005, Santa Muerte started to become more popular in the US
  • Items relating to her cult can be purchased in botanicas, and Chesnut said that many botanicas in both the US and Mexico are kept in business selling Saint Death items, with many shops earning half their income from her
  • The daily beast interviewed someone named Arely Gonzalez, a trans woman who grew up in Mexico but now lives in Queens. She has the biggest shrine to Santa Muerte in NY, and she throws the biggest festival in the US in honor of Santa Muerte’s birthday.
    •  Gonzalez says she identifies as Catholic and believes in the Virgin of Guadalupe (one of Mexico’s most popular saints, which appears in shrines all over Queens.)
    • Despite identifying as Catholic, when she lived in Mexico, Gonzalez was kicked out of Catholic churches.
    • She became a follower of Santa Muerte when a friend gave her a statue and she prayed to the saint to help with her health problems. She told her that if she cured her, she’d start putting on festivals in honor of her. Santa Muerte helped her, and the rest is history.
    • The folks who attend Gonzalez’s Santa Muerte festival are mostly Mexican immigrants, but there’s apparently an increasing number of devotees from Central and South America
    • At the festival, which is usually held at a rented hall in Jamaica, Queens, hundreds of people gather, dance to mariachi music, and eat
    • They also say the rosary, tailoring it to specially honor Santa Muerte
    • There are, of course, no priests there
    • People bring their idols to add to the shrine
    • The festival usually lasts all night
    • Gonzalez has a home shrine that people bring offerings to, so they leave stuff like candles and tequila, as well as statues of saints and angels, and Jesus. Other common offerings to Saint Death are cigarettes, flowers, fruit, incense, water, coins, and candy.
    • Gonzalez said: “I think she is an angel sent by God. Like her name says, I think we’re all one short step from life to death. Sooner or later, she takes the rich, the poor— everyone. There is no one who can save himself from her.”
    • In the shownotes, I’ll include two links to a project called Faith in the Five Boroughs, which have two short videos showing Gonzalez’s shrine as well as the party she puts on, which I strongly recommend watching.
  • One note: Santa Muerte’s birthday is the second Saturday of August, aka yesterday. I was really excited by the synchronicity when I yesterday, on a whim, decided to do this episode about her. (Though to be fair, I’ve also heard that her days are August 15 and Day of the Dead, so I don’t think she just has one festival day.)
  • When the National Georgraphic asked Enriqueta Romero, who established that shrine in Mexico City, what she thought of the church rejecting followers of Saint Death, she said: “They can just go ahead and do that. But have you seen how empty their churches are?”

Sources consulted RE: The Cult of Santa Muerte, aka Saint Death

Websites  RE: The Cult of Santa Muerte, aka Saint Death

  • I Call Her La Flaca

  • You Can Ask Her For Anything

  • Journal of Latin American Studies, La Sante Muerte in Mexico City: The Cult and its Ambiguities by Regnar Albaek Kristensen (2/5/15):
    https://www.scribd.com/document/414513346/La-Santa-Muerte-in-Mexico-City-the-Cult-and-Its-Ambiguities

  • https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-death-worshipping-cult-of-santa-muerte

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Muerte

  • https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/5/130512-vatican-santa-muerte-mexico-cult-catholic-church-cultures-world/

  • https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2010/05/mexican-saints/

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditionalist_Mexican-American_Catholic_Church

  • https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/santa-muerte-and-the-interplay-of-cultures-on-dia-de-los-muertos/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_Revolution

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sue%C3%B1o_de_una_Tarde_Dominical_en_la_Alameda_Central

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Calavera_Catrina

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Guadalupe_Posada

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexico#Contemporary_Mexico

  • Police believe beheading was ‘hit’ from drug cartel By: Sakal, Mike. Tribune, The (Mesa, AZ). 10/28/2010.

  • http://www.nbcnews.com/id/41883795/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/cops-ariz-beheading-linked-mexican-cartel/

Listen to the Ouija board series:

Don’t miss our past episodes:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *