Inside Santa Muerte, Mexico’s Fast-Growing Death Cult (link)
MEXICO CITY—The woman and her daughter approach the
glass in silence. They light a cigarette and place it next to a candle.
The girl rings a bell. They kneel softly, close their eyes and whisper.
The space around them becomes quiet, almost eerie. “Holiest death,” the
mother mumbles, “give my family strength and prosperity.” A tear rolls
down her cheek. Behind the glass, a skeletal statue in a white wedding
dress stares back, grinning.
Welcome to the shrine of Santa Muerte (Holy Death). Every day hundreds
of people flock to the gritty Tepito neighborhood in Mexico City’s
colonial center to ask Santa Muerte—also known as La Niña Blanca (The
White Girl)—for health, wealth, prosperity and happiness.
Though traditional Roman Catholicism is still by far the dominant
religion in Mexico, the Santa Muerte is the fastest growing belief
system in the country. It boasts between 5 million and 10 million
followers, and even more if you count Mexican immigrants in the United
States. The Santa Muerte has become so popular that Holy Death
paraphernalia now outsell those of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s
traditional Catholic patron saint.
7 Things to Know About La Santa Muerte, Mexico’s Folk Saint of Death
La Madrina. La Flaquita. La Niña Blanca.
The Mexican folk saint of death — an intimidating skeletal figure holding a scythe — goes by many names, most notably La Santa Muerte. Though worship of La Santa Muerte has become inextricably intertwined with drug cartels, she has become an all-purpose deity for working-class and poor mexicanos, not just criminals.
As veneration for Santa Muerte grows, so do the misconceptions about what she represents. Below, read 7 things to know about La Santa Muerte:
1. La Santa Muerte has unclear roots, though some believe the
folk saint emerged as a combination of Spanish Catholicism and Aztec
worship of Mictecacihuatl, the queen of the underworld and the
Before 2001, devotees of Santa Muerte largely worshiped in private, erecting shrines in their closets or personal spaces. In recent years, adulation has spread like wildfire — especially since Enriqueta Romero, better known as Doña Queta, erected a life-size statue of the saint on the sidewalk outside of her home in Tepito, an impoverished, crime-riddled barrio of Mexico City.
Doña Queta, along with Enriqueta Vargas, have become the two most prominent leaders of the Santa Muerte movement in Mexico. When Vargas’s son was murdered in 2008, she inherited his 75-foot, fiberglass Santa Muerte statue and temple. Today, worshipers flock to the temple in Tultitlán, where Vargas performs weddings and baptisms.
2. While rates of Catholicism continue to decline across Latin America, the number of La Santa Muerte devotees continues to surge. In an interview with Vice, Andrew Chesnut, the author of Devoted To Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint, said that the folk saint boasts between 10 and 12 million devotees.
However, La Santa Muerte doesn’t demand exclusive devotion. Many followers also practice other religions, such as Catholicism.