Header image: W Ralph Walters
I’m not telling you anything new if I say that sometimes life blows. Maybe your job is six kinds of hell, and the walk home has you clutching your keys between your fingers. Maybe you or a loved one are ill, and your insurance ran out a month ago. Maybe your neighbor keeps calling the cops on you because you dress in black and keep your Halloween decorations up year round. Sometimes we hit a point where we don’t know what to do, and seeking outside assistance seems the best course. So who you gonna call? Think about dialing up La Santa Muerte, the patron saint of the outcasts.
La Santa Muerte is considered a folk saint—a being venerated as a saint, but without canonization from the church. That’s an understatement in her case, as the Vatican has condemned both her and her millions of followers as being blasphemous and satanic. (Don’t worry. It happens to the best of us.) “(Santa Muerte) is literally a demon with another name,” says Fr. Andres Gutierrez.
But what’s in a name? La Santa Muerte translates to “The Holy Death.” “Santa” is sometimes traded for “Santisima,” meaning “most holy.” Unlike the Calavera Catrinas seen during Day of the Dead celebrations, La Santa Muerte is not the skeletal remains of a human. Rather, she is the personification of death itself, and the only female death figure in the Americas. Thought to have sprung from the skeletal–deity hotbed that was Aztec culture, she is likely a continuation of Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Underworld.
It is Santa Muerte’s other names that show the loving, almost familial relationship felt by her followers. They call her the Saint of the Last Resort, and the Pretty Girl. She is the White Sister, the Godmother, and the Bone Mother. She is the Lady of Shadows. She has as many guises as she does names: though she always appears as a skeletal form, she seems to take no issue with her followers dressing her to suit their personal vision of her. Some clothe her in robes similar to those of the Virgin of Guadalupe, while others give her hair laden with flowers and an embroidered dress. She may be dressed as a bride, as a mother, or as a simple grim reaper-esque character who wouldn’t look out of place on a black concert tee shirt. This flexibility and opportunity for personalization may be one reason for her enormous cult following. In The Santa Muerte: The Origins, History, and Secrets of the Mexican Folk Saint, author Gustavo Lozano says, “…One of the main features of this cult is its extraordinary elasticity. It will adapt to anything. Anyone can dogmatize. Everybody contributes according to his or her feelings and experiences.”
Her domain of influence is likewise incredibly varied. Like her foremother Mictecacihuatl, the White Sister is much more than a reaper of souls. She is invoked for help with healing, love, protection, financial success, courage, luck, and revenge, just to name a few of her talents. Her devotional candles come in every color of the rainbow, each color tied to specific requests. Black candles, used for overcoming obstacles, protection, and both petitioning for and breaking curses, are rarely seen at her public shrines, as they are viewed as having ties to witchcraft and black magic. Fair enough: mixing witchcraft with Catholicism is fairly common, and while the Vatican isn’t too keen on that practice, La Santa Muerte doesn’t mind. You might say she’s a bit of an all-purpose saint, and she’s giving the Virgin of Guadalupe a run for her money.
Despite (or perhaps because of) vilification by the church and government, the Bone Mother is seen as an everyman saint: death is the great equalizer, and it’s this facet that truly sets her apart from other folks who wear a halo. She is the saint of the marginalized; she is a comfort to people who may have found traditional church services lacking in support or straight up dangerously judgmental. “These people include not only the working poor, but also criminals, drug addicts, gay people, prostitutes, single mothers, the homeless, and the mentally ill,” writes Tracey Rollin in Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death. It’s postulated that those involved with criminal activities don’t feel right asking a Catholic saint for help with their sinful activities, and instead call upon “The Saint for Sinners”, who will assist without passing judgment. She has become so associated with drug cartels that in 2009, the Mexican army assisted workers in bulldozing some 30 shrines near the Mexican/American border. Despite this, La Santa Muerte counts many police and military officers among the followers who light candles for protection, as she’s trusted to shield believers from violence. For the same reason, she’s a favorite in the LGBTQIA+ community, and is invoked at same sex marriages in Mexico. Her cult contains more than just those on the fringe, though. Between those who sidestep the law and those who uphold it are millions of very average followers who are simply looking for a saint willing to give them a leg up.
Those followers are growing and spreading. Originally confined to Mexico, the cult of La Santa Muerte has easily crossed the border into the United States, travelling with both immigrants and tourists. Home to the largest Mexican immigrant population in the country, Los Angeles also shelters the only La Santa Muerte temples in the States: Casa de Oracion de la Santisma Muerte (Most Holy Death House of Prayer) and Templo Santa Muerte (Temple Saint Death). The intricacies of her story, rituals, and followers are too numerous for a simple article to cover in the depth they deserve, but suffice to say, La Santa Muerte is gaining in popularity all over. Non-latinx pagans have even started incorporating her into their rituals, which should be handled delicately as to avoid appropriation. Even far to the north, in my home state of Wisconsin, I was able to find devotional candles bearing the robe-clad, scythe-wielding image of the White Sister. I’m not saying I bought one. I’m saying I bought two. If there’s anyone this queerdo would like on her side this year, it’s a saint who looks out for the little guy.
Loranzo, Gustavo Vasquez, and Charles River Editors. The Santa Muerte: The Origins, History, and Secrets of the Mexican Folk Saint. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016. Print.
Martín, Desirée A. Borderlands saints secular sanctity in Chicano/a and Mexican culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U Press, 2014. Print.
Rezac, Mary. “Have you heard of Saint Death? Don’t pray to her.” Catholic News Agency. Catholic News Agency, 04 Aug. 2017. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.
Rollin, Tracey. Santa Muerte/ Holy Death The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death. N.p.: Weiser, 2017. Print.
Santa Muerte History, Colors, and Symbols. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.
“Santa Muerte.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 July 2017. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.
Tuckman, Jo. “Mexican Saint Death cult members protest at destruction of shrines.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 10 Apr. 2009. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.