The highway that leads from the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza back to the resort-lined coast of the Yucatan Peninsula runs straight through several small towns. I came to Mexico as a tourist and everywhere along this road are items held out for my consumption. Local vendors sell refrigerated coconuts (cocos fríos) as refreshments to sunburned travelers like myself. Hacked with machetes into makeshift juice boxes complete with bendy straws, the coconuts can be bought for 10 pesos. Outside the colonial town of Valladolid, small knick-knack shops line the road selling everything from gaudy jewelry to carved wooden miniature pyramids. And there beside the Virgin of Guadalupe and San Judas Tadeo a gargantuan lawn statue of La Santa Muerte—Mexico’s patroness saint of death—looms over the rest.
After Mexican children go trick-or-treating on Halloween they will celebrate the “Days of the Dead,” corresponding with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1-2). These days are marked by colorful processions, visits to the graves of family members, and the construction of altars replete with offerings to the souls of the dead.
For devotees of La Santa Muerte, November 1 is set aside as a special feast day—a devotion made notorious by US (and European) news media as a shadowy, macabre, and even gruesome cult venerated solely by drug traffickers.
But this is a mistaken perception, fueled largely by American fears of an exotic and unknown Mexico.
La Santa Muerte, which literally translates to “Holy Death” or “Sacred Death,” is a feminine representation of death—a fate that, like it or not, awaits all people. She is clothed in long grim reaper-styled robes and often carries a scythe in one hand, and either a globe or scales in the other. Often mistakenly translated as “Saint Death,” La Santa Muerte is closer to orthodox Catholic devotion to spiritual entities such as archangels, not physical human beings. She is the personification of the inevitable, with the hope that the end might not be so painful: “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a Holy Death,” goes the liturgical prayer.
It’s no wonder the devotion emerged in contexts where death, crime, and violence were widespread, such as Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood, with a long reputation for poverty and official municipal negligence, where fear of death pervades.
Yet the image of La Santa Muerte has been exported from this local context and gone viral, tweeted hundreds of times daily, even appearing in roadside tourist tiendas like this one. Makeshift shrines and devotional paraphernalia have likewise crossed the border. Candles, prayer cards, t-shirts, and figurines dedicated to La Santa Muerte have shown up in most every border town and in major American cities.
Idol Worship or Just Religion as Usual?
So is Santa Muerte a saint? An idol? How does devotion to a well-dressed skeleton work its way into the religious culture of a Catholic country like Mexico?
The anwer lies in the idea of sacred immanence, that the sacred can inhere within physical objects—a doctrine has been part of Roman Catholic teaching since at least the Council of Trent. Whether through the elements of the Eucharist, or in depictions of Christ, Mary, and the saints fashioned into icons, statues, and scapularies, the divine presence inhabits the physical world via material objects. Although official Church teaching mandates a separation between sign (i.e. icons, etc.) and signified (i.e. the divine presence), in practice the two often merge.
Both Roman Catholic modernizers and Protestant iconoclasts have for the last four hundred years tried to stress the transcendence of God’s presence—the absolute separation between the material and spiritual in the here and now. But sacred immanence continues to influence Catholic religiosity in Mexico and elsewhere.
Another misreading of Santa Muerte has to do with the tired conceptual framework that pits “elite” religion against “popular” religious practice—the idea that true unadulterated religion belongs to the institutional church, whose job is to stamp out heresy.
A more analytically useful vision has been sketched by scholars like William Christian, William Taylor, the late Adrian Bantjes, and others. These thinkers prefer the term “local religion” to “popular” as it better captures the give-and-take relationship between religious elites and everyday practitioners. This is a more flexible framework, and works well in assessing the ways that local devotions change over time. Local religious traditions often operate on the margins of official orthodoxy, either not recognized or anathematized by religious elites, so can more easily be adapted to the needs of a variety of groups—even individuals involved in activities on the margins of the law.
Not for Narco-Traffickers Only
Along with other so-called narco-saints like Sinaloa’s Jesus Malverde, devotion to La Santa Muerte emerged long before Mexico’s current drug war exploded onto the American popular landscape. Some believe that La Santa Muerte derives from Aztec devotion to the god and goddess of death. Other theories suggest that the devotion stems from late-medieval European practices of protection from plague, where individuals would don scapularies depicting skulls as prophylactics against the disease. Yet the modern Mexican devotion is firmly rooted in local religious practice, which draws on the tradition of sacred immanence.
Mexico City’s rough and tumble Tepito neighborhood arguably boasts the most robust devotion to La Santa Muerte and its modern origins can perhaps be found there. The barrio has a reputation for being host to a large informal economy, where black-market goods from stereos to designer knock-offs can be purchased in open air markets.
Devotion to La Santa Muerte in Tepito emerged in the 1960s and quickly appeared in other Mexican states like Guerrero, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Campeche, Morelos, Nuevo León, and Chihuahua. But in Tepito veneration to La Santa Muerte translated into the construction of numerous unofficial chapels, overseen and tended by lay devotees, often women. Enriqueta Romero Romero, a current chaplain of a major shrine to La Santa Muerte in Mexico City, inherited the devotion from her aunt forty years ago. Although condemned by Mexican bishops as satanic, adherents like Romero argue that the devotion has nothing to do with witchcraft, black magic, or Satanism.
Homero Aridjis, author of a recent novel on La Santa Muerte, contends that devotion to La Santa Muerte encompasses two distinct, although overlapping groups. The first includes Roman Catholic faithful, who ask for favors, miracles, health, and healing, while the second includes the powerful, wealthy—and, more recently, those associated with organized crime and drug trafficking.
The origins of devotion to La Santa Muerte emerge from local religious contexts, venerated by Catholics seeking intercession and favors from death personified, given her powers by God. In essence, the devotion does not denote, in itself, a correlation with crime and violence. Locally venerated by a cross-section of the community, including those involved in crime, narco-traffickers popularized the cult of La Santa Muerte as the drug trade spread out to other regions of Mexico. Thus, veneration to La Santa Muerte developed apart from drug trafficking, but has now extended regionally, transnationally, and globally with the drug trade through the agency of her narco-devotees.
Local Religion, Globalization, and La Santa Muerte
Although the origins of La Santa Muerte developed locally and unrelated to criminality, there is no doubt that the devotion is changing. Like language, symbols as objects of devotion are constantly in flux. Images that once helped to ease the fear of death have now come to embody that fear on both sides of the border. As savvy marketers, drug cartels have appropriated the image for their own sinister uses and the international media has bought what they are selling.
The Roman Catholic hierarchy in Mexico faces the uncomfortable choice of how to respond to La Santa Muerte, an image that has now been monopolized by criminals. Still, thousands of Mexican Catholics not associated in any way with the drug trade remain devotees.
As recent polls conducted by both Latinobarómetro and Consulta Mitofsky have shown, popular confidence in the Church still remains stronger than other institutions in Mexico (such as congress, political parties, and even the presidency). But this support is eroding quickly, especially among the young, many of whom are more likely to participate in the unauthorized devotion to La Santa Muerte than go to Mass. This fact has not been lost on the Mexican hierarchy, who has sought to channel popular devotion into orthodox directions. For example, the relics of John Paul II drew thousands of faithful in a recent tour of Mexico, and one woman from the Yucatan even claimed to have been healed from cancer through the intercession of the former pope.
But for many Mexicans, devotion to La Santa Muerte provides more hope in dealing with the profound social fragmentation and instability caused by drug violence than the spiritual succor offered by the institutional Church.
In contrast to the American celebration of Halloween, largely a religious-turned-commercial holiday, Mexico’s Days of Dead are spaces where community solidarity, remembrance, and family continuity take shape. In this context, the image of La Santa Muerte is momentarily freed from her association with drug violence and reimagined as simply another member of the panoply of spiritual helpers, along with todos los santos (“all saints”) in the Catholic sacred universe.