Over the last decade, one saint in Mexico has attracted 2 million followers: Saint Death. Known as Santa or Santisima Muerte, this figure has become an issue for the government and Catholic Church of Mexico. The church does not recognize Santa Muerte as an official saint, but the worship of her resembles other syncretic traditions in Mexico. For example, the Virgin of Guadalupe is revered by many Mexican Indians as an Aztec goddess, but Santa Muerte is not as well received.
The figure of Santa Muerte is depicted as a skeleton in a long robe. She always holds a globe in one hand and either a scythe or a set of scales in the other. Worship of Santa Muerte is most common in central Mexico but she has also been emigrating to the U.S., most notably to New York, Houston and Los Angeles. This saint is unique because she is said to grant any favour without judging it — one reason the Catholic Church does not want to be associated with her.
The origins of Santa Muerte are unknown. Some sources claim Santa Muerte has pre-Christian origins. There are two similar figures in the Aztec religion: Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead, and his wife, Mictecacihuatl. On the other hand, David Romo, the priest of the One and Only National Sanctuary of Santa Muerte, says that the saint was born during the Italian bubonic plague. Romo’s opinion seems to be a lot less common, but for someone who wishes to connect Santa Muerte with the Catholic Church, an origin in Italy, home of the Vatican, would be more favourable than a connection to pagan gods.
Many followers of Santa Muerte who still see themselves as Catholic, such as Romo, see no contradictions between worshipping her and practising Catholicism. The church disagrees.
The church sees Santa Muerte as a false idol, and its stand is in fact justified. Santa Muerte is not connected to the Catholic Church so there is a strong contradiction in combining her worship with the practice of Catholicism. Many priests claim that the only connection between Santa Muerte and the church is a misinterpretation of “holy death,” which means to be purged of sin before you die.
A saint who accepts offerings of cigarettes and alcohol and will protect anyone and grant any favour is something quite different. The church declared the worship of Santa Muerte a satanic cult when some of its followers separated from Catholicism and began vying for control over Catholic buildings. Although it makes sense for the church not to recognize Santa Muerte, it is interesting, yet predictable, that when the figure becomes a noticeable threat they would offer such a harsh judgement. It is one thing to distinguish between faiths, but it is a much more severe thing to condemn a specific one.
The Mexican government is also hostile towards the worship of Santa Muerte. When David Romo incorporated this saint into his church, the government withdrew their official recognition. In the past, the government attempted to shut down the main shrines to Santa Muerte and the army destroyed 30 altars in Nuevo León. The government and church are against Santa Muerte because they believe she is associated with violence, drug trafficking and other illegal activity — they are not wrong.
Adolfo Constanzo, who was behind the Matamoros drug murders of the late 1980s, was said to have invoked Santa Muerte. More recently, in 2007, gunmen from Gulf Cartel shot three men at a Santa Muerte altar in Nuevo Laredo where they left threatening messages and lit candles before leaving the scene. In 2008, a Santa Muerte altar was found in the home Juana Barraza who has been named one of Mexico’s worst serial killers in recent history (she has murdered 11 people since 2001, and close to 40 in total).
However, there are many average Mexican citizens who worship Santa Muerte as well. For instance, police officers will often ask the saint for protection and for blessing of their weapons. In all cases, it would be ridiculous to conclude that everyone who follows a specific faith is a criminal. Citizens believe that the government is targeting Santa Muerte as part of their war on drug cartels, but the associations with illegal activity should not be enough for the government to persecute one belief system. As Mica Rosenberg, journalist for Reuters, argues, “The death saint is being unfairly targeted, since criminals profess all kinds of religions.”
Despite the official dislike of Santa Muerte, she has become popular with the people. There are several possible reasons for this — her judgment-free petitions and not discriminating against criminals are two examples. People might also be attracted to Santa Muerte due to failings from other sources of authority. Michael Miller, from the Global Post, states that Mexicans have become disillusioned with the dominant church, and, in particular, the ability of Catholic saints to deliver them from poverty.
According to Miller, Mexico is in the worst economic downturn since the great depression — 44.2 per cent of the population lives in poverty and 10.5 per cent live in extreme poverty. In addition to feeling disillusioned by the Catholic Church, the people are also feeling abandoned by their government. Brian Frank, from the Global Post, who studied the drug war in Tepito, claims, “Many in the poorer neighbourhoods see death as the only truth in life.”
It seems that some Mexicans are starting to seek hope in new (or possibly very old) traditions, and this might be a sign of a larger shift away from the conventional powers (church and government) who are not meeting their needs.
Joanna Graham is a second-year arts student at the U of M.