La Santa Muerte

Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte or Santa Muerte (Spanish for holy death) is a popular saint who is venerated especially in Mexico and in the southwestern USA. As the personification of death, it is associated by its followers with healing, protection and safe passage to the afterlife.

Despite being demonised by the Catholic Church, the Santa Muerte tradition arose from popular Mexican popular belief - a mixture of indigenous Mesoamerican and Spanish Catholic beliefs and practices. Since pre-Columbian times, Mexican culture has retained a certain reverence for death, as evidenced by the celebration of the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Elements of this celebration include the use of skeletons to remind people of their mortality. Adoration is condemned as heretical by the Catholic Church in Mexico, and is firmly anchored in Mexican culture.

Santa Muerte generally appears as a female scythe figure dressed in the habit of a nun with one or more objects. Usually a scythe and a bullet, which she holds in her bony hands. The color of her robe depends on the petitions and thanks that her followers address to her. Since the worship of Santa Muerte was secret until the 20th century, most prayers and rites were traditionally handed down and performed within the family. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Santa Muerte has become the focus of public attention, especially in Mexico City, after Enriqueta Romero unveiled her famous shrine in Mexico City in 2001.

Over the past ten to twenty years, the number of followers of Santa Muerte has grown to several million in Mexico, the United States and parts of Central America, Australia, Europe and Japan.


Holy Death

The Spanish name of the skeleton saint, Santa Muerte, has been translated into English as "Saint Death" or "Holy Death", although the religious scholar R. Andrew Chesnut believes that the former is a more accurate translation because it "better reveals" her identity as a folk saint.

A variant of Santa Muerte is Santísima Muerte, which is translated as "Most Holy Death", while many followers call it Santisma Muerte during their rituals.

Santa Muerte is also known by the following names: the thin lady (La Flaquita), the bony lady (La Huesuda), the white girl (Niña Blanca), the white sister (La Hermana Blanca), the pretty girl ( La Niña Bonita), the powerful lady (La Dama Poderosa) and the godmother (La Madrina).

The Skeleton Saint also has a number of proper names, such as Señora de las Sombras ("Lady of the Shadows"), Señora Blanca ("White Lady"), Señora Negra ("Black Lady"), Niña Santa ("Holy Girl"), Santa Sebastiana (St. Sebastienne) or Doña Bella Sebastiana ("Our Beautiful Lady Sebastienne") and La Flaca ("The Thin Woman").


Santa Muerte History

The exact origins of the worship of Santa Muerte are controversial, most likely it is a mixture of the Mesoamerican and the Spanish Catholic faith. The Mesoamerican belief systems retained a reverence for death, which manifested itself in the religious practices of ancient Mexico, including the Aztec religion. Death is symbolized in the Aztec culture and in other indigenous cultures as the duality of life and death. From their ancestors the Aztecs inherited the gods Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the lord and lady of Mictlan, the realm of the dead. In order to receive the deceased in Mictlan, offerings to the gods of death were necessary.

In the European Christian tradition, many artists used skeletons to express human mortality. This worship of skeletal figures in 14th century Europe, in times of epidemics, is a precedent.

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, the worship of death diminished but is never completely eradicated. According to an 18th century report recorded in the annals of the Spanish Inquisition, indigenous peoples in central Mexico threatened a skeletal figure they called "Santa Muerte" with whip lashes unless she performed miracles or fulfilled their wishes.

A further mixing of pre-Columbian and Christian beliefs about death is found in the celebration of the Day of the Dead. During these celebrations, Mexicans gather in cemeteries to sing and pray for deceased friends and family members. Chocolate or sweets are consumed in the form of skulls. In contrast to the Day of the Dead, the open worship of Santa Muerte remained a secret until the middle of the 20th century. When the Santa Muerte tradition came to public attention at sporadic events, the reaction was often hostile and included the desecration of shrines and altars.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the artist José Guadalupe Posada created a similar secular figure called La Catrina, a female skeleton in fashionable clothing of the time. José Guadelupe Posada began to awaken the idea that the universality of death created a fundamental equality between people. La Catrina is supposed to represent the arbitrary and violent nature of an unequal society. Modern artists began to establish Posada's styles as a national artistic goal in order to expand the boundaries of upper class taste, like Diego Rivera's mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at the Alameda Central with the painting La Catrina.

In effort to establish a symbol of Mexican national identity, the image of the skeleton and the Day of the Dead ritual, which used to be held underground, has been commercialized and domesticated. The skeletal images are folklore and embody Posada's message of "la muerte igualidad" (same death). The skeletons were put into extravagant dresses with plaits in their hair, which changed the image of Posada's original La Catrina.

Contrary to the political message Posada intended, the "skeletons of equality" became skeletons that appeal to tourists and the national folkloric Mexican identity. In recent years, the renewal of social and political significance and the creation of the statue of Doña Queta strengthened the Santa Muerte tradition, although it is not recognized by the Catholic Church.

The veneration of Santa Muerte was documented in the 1940s in working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City such as Tepito. Other sources indicate that the revival around 1965 originated in the state of Hidalgo. At present, Santa Muerte can be found throughout Mexico and in parts of the United States and Central America. The tradition of Santa Muerte received widespread attention in Mexico in August 1998 when the police arrested the notorious criminal Daniel Arizmendi López and discovered a shrine to the saint in his apartment. This discovery was widely reported in the press and shaped the image of Santa Muerte as a sign of violence and crime among the Mexican people.

In the late 2000s, the founder of the first Santa Muerte Church in Mexico City, David Romo, estimated that 5 million followers worshipped Santa Muerte in Mexico, which is a good 5% of the country's population.

The rise of the Santa Muerte tradition is controversial, and in March 2009 the Mexican army destroyed street shrines near the U.S. border. Starting in 2005, the Santa Muerte tradition was brought to the United States by Mexican and Central American migrants, and by 2012, tens of thousands of followers were counted throughout the country, especially in cities with a high Latino population.