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Santa Muerte, Skeleton Saint: Emergence of an Underworld Cult

Santa Muerte is a sacred figure venerated in Mexico. The name literally translates to “Holy Death” or “Saint Death.”

Santa Muerte generally appears as a skeletal figure, clad in a long robe and carrying one or more objects, usually a scythe and a globe. The robe is most often white, but images of the figure vary widely from person to person and according to the rite being performed or the petition of the devotee. As the cult of Santa Muerte was clandestine until recently, most prayers and other rites are done privately in the home. However, for the past ten years or so, worship has become more public, especially in Mexico City.  The cult is condemned by the Catholic Church in Mexico, but it is firmly entrenched among Mexico’s lower classes and criminal worlds. The number of believers in Santa Muerte has grown over the past ten to twenty years, to approximately two million followers  and has crossed the border into Mexican American communities in the United States.

The two most common objects that Santa Muerte carries are a scythe and a globe. The scythe can symbolize the cutting of negative energies or influences. Also, as a harvesting tool, it can symbolize hope and prosperity.  It can represent the moment of death, when a scythe is said to cut a silver thread. The scythe has a long handle, indicating that it can reach anywhere. The globe represents Death’s dominion, and can be seen as a kind of a tomb to which we all return. Having the world in her hand also symbolizes vast power.

Other objects that can appear with an image of Santa Muerte include scales, an hourglass, an owl, and/or an oil lamp. The scales allude to equity, justice and impartiality, as well as divine will. An hourglass indicates the time of life on earth. It also represents the belief that death is not the end, but rather the beginning of something new, as the hourglass can be turned to start over. The hourglass denotes Santa Muerte’s relationship with time as well as with the worlds above and below. It also symbolizes patience. An owl symbolizes her ability to navigate the darkness and her wisdom. The owl is also said to act as a messenger. A lamp symbolizes intelligence and spirit, to light the way through the darkness of ignorance and doubt.

Sanctuary of La Santísima Muerte

Raising Santa Muerte images during a service for Santa Muerte in Tepito

The establishment of the first public sanctuary to the image began to change how Santa Muerte was worshiped. The cult has grown rapidly since then, and others have put their images on public display as well.

A believer by the name of Enriqueta Romero Romero decided to take a life-sized image of Santa Muerte out of her home and build a shrine for it, visible from the street. The shrine does not hold Catholic masses or occult rites, but people come here to pray and to leave offerings to the image. On the first day of every month, Enriqueta leads prayers and the saying of the rosary, which lasts for about an hour. On the first of November the anniversary of the altar to Santa Muerte constructed by Enriqueta Romero is celebrated. The Santa Muerte of Tepito is dressed as a bride and wears hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry given by the faithful to show gratitude for favors received, or to ask for one.The celebration officially begins at the stroke of midnight of November 1. About 5,000 faithful turn out to pray the rosary. For purification, instead of incense, there is the smoke of marijuana. Flowers, pan de muerto, sweets and candy skulls among other things can be seen. Food such as cake, chicken with mole, hot chocolate, coffee and atole are served. Mariachis and marimba bands play.

For many, this Santa Muerte is the patron saint of Tepito.

The image is dressed in different color garb depending on the season, with the Romero family changing the dress every first Monday of the month. Over the dress are large quantities of jewelry on her neck, arms and pinned to her clothing. These are offerings that have been left to the image as well as the flowers, fruits (esp. apples) candles, toys, money, notes of thanks for prayers granted, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages that surround it. Enriqueta considers herself the chaplain of the sanctuary, a role she says she inherited from her aunt, who began the practice in the family in 1962. The shrine is located on 12 Alfarería Street in Colonia Morelos. The house also contains a shop that sells amulets, bracelets, medallions, books, images and other items, but the most popular item is votive candles.

The cult of Santa Muerte attracts those who are not inclined to seek the traditional Catholic Church for spiritual solace, as it is part of the “legitimate” sector of society. Most followers of Santa Muerte live on the margin of the law or outside it entirely. Many drug traffickers, mobile vendors, taxi drivers, vendors of pirated merchandise, street people, prostitutespickpockets and gang members are not very religious, but neither are they atheists. In essence, they have created their own religion that reflects their realities, identity and practices, especially since it reflects the violence and struggles for life that many of these people face.

For decades, thousands in some of Mexico’s poorest neighborhoods have prayed to Santa Muerte. A large following developed among Mexicans who are disillusioned with the dominant Church and, in particular, with the ability of established Catholic saints to deliver them from poverty. The phenomenon is based among people with scarce resources, excluded from the formal market economy, the judicial and educational system, primarily in the inner cities and the very rural areas. Devotion to Santa Muerte is what anthropologists call a “cult of crisis.” Devotion to the image peaks during economic and social hardships, which tend to affect the lower classes more. Most new religious beliefs start with the lower classes, as they offer a spiritual way out of hardship. Santa Muerte tends to attract those in extremely difficult or hopeless situations.[4] Experts say that residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods such as Mexico City‘s Tepito have begun to revere Santa Muerte more than Jesus. Some of her most devoted followers are prostitutes, pickpockets, petty thieves and drug traffickers, associated with economic crimes often done out of desperation. A larger group of believers are poor people who are not necessarily criminals, but the public belief in her by drug traffickers and other criminals has associated her with crime, especially organized crime.

While the cult is most firmly based in poor neighborhoods, Santa Muerte is not unknown in upper class areas such as Mexico City’s Condesa and Coyoacán districts. However, the cult’s negative image in the rest of society has an effect. With the exception of some artists and politicians, some of whom perform rituals secretly, those in higher socioeconomic strata look upon the cult with distaste as a form of superstition.

Mexican authorities have linked the worship of Santa Muerte to prostitution, drug trafficking, kidnappingsmuggling and homicides. Criminals, among her most fervent believers, are likely to pray to her for successful conclusion of a job as well as escaping from the police or jail. In the north of Mexico, she is venerated along with Jesús Malverde, the so called “Saint of Drug Traffickers.” Altars with images of Santa Muerte have been found in many drug houses in both Mexico and the United States. Among two of Santa Muerte’s more famous devotees are kidnapper Daniel Arizmendi López, known as El Mochaorejas, and Gilberto García Mena, one of the bosses of the Gulf Cartel. She is considered to be the “Virgin of the Incarcerated.” Many of those who enter prison in Mexico without believing in her, come to do so after a number of months. Many cells have images of Santa Muerte in different forms. Conversely, however, both police and military in Mexico can be counted among the faithful who ask for blessings on their weapons and ammunition.

On Friday, 30 March 2012, the Sonora State Investigative Police announced that they had arrested eight people for murder for allegedly having performed a human sacrifice of a woman and two ten year old boys to Santa Muerte.

As noted above, the cult’s roughly two million adherents are mostly in Mexico StateGuerrero, Veracruz, TamaulipasCampecheMorelos and Mexico City, with a recent spread to Nuevo León. However, Santa Muerte can be found throughout Mexico and now in parts of the United States.

Devotees believe the Bony Lady (as she is affectionately called) to be the fastest and most effective miracle worker, and as such, her statuettes and paraphernalia now outsell those of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Saint Jude, two other giants of Mexican religiosity.

Santa Muerte has become the patron saint of drug traffickers, playing an important role as protector of peddlers of crystal meth and marijuana; DEA agents and Mexican police often find her altars in the safe houses of drug smugglers. Yet Saint Death plays other important roles: she is a supernatural healer, love doctor, money-maker, lawyer, and angel of death. She has become without doubt one of the most popular and powerful saints on both the Mexican and American religious landscapes.

The Skinny Lady may look sinister, and she’s certainly not to be trifled with, but something about her is terribly human. As demigods go, she is the salt of the earth. Devotees feel a special intimacy with her because she is, they claim, “an old battle-axe, like us.” She also has appetites. Lighting a candle will get her attention, but she gets thirsty, and while water is acceptable, she prefers something stronger. She enjoys tobacco, but won’t turn down marijuana.” 

Niño de las Suertes in Tacubaya

The Niño de las Suertes” is a Child Jesus image that has a strong following due to its association with Santa Muerte. While the image was created in the 19th century, its popular veneration is a recent phenomenon. The image was found by two evangelists in the rubble of the Hacienda of San Juan de Dios in Tlalpan. It was handed over to Archbishop Francisco Lizana y Beaumont. As a number of monasteries wanted to claim it, the archbishop decided to make the decision by lottery. It is said that this image favored the Convent of San Bernardo due to the vow of poverty by its nuns. This was confirmed by doing the drawing three times. In the 19th century, due to tensions between the Mexican government and the Church, the image was moved to Tacubaya when the convent was secularized. This image has a skull above the head. This originally symbolized the future Passion, has since made it associated with Santa Muerte and its devotees visit this image as well.

Santa Muerte in the United States

As of 2009, devotion to Santa Muerte has been on the rise in the United States for the past ten years or so, mostly following the millions of Mexicans who have immigrated to the country. Evidence of devotion to her can be seen anywhere there is a large Mexican community, such as New York CityHoustonSan AntonioTucson and Los Angeles.[1][3] There are fifteen officially registered religious groups dedicated to her in Los Angeles alone, which includes the Temple of Santa Muerte.

Many are true believers, but a number identify with the image for cultural heritage reasons. For this reason, young people, housewives and grandmothers now purchase the icon and speak publicly about their faith.

In Northern California, her popularity has spread well beyond the Latino community: The Santisima Muerte Chapel of Perpetual Pilgrimage is maintained by a woman of Danish-American descent.

(From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Muerte and other sources on the web.)






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