A Santa Muerte altar in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in 2007. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Recently I got to write a 12-page ethnographic research paper on Mexican death cults for the final project in one of my anthropology classes. This is why I switched my second concentration from biology to anthropology — my pre-med friends were studying genetics and the physiology of a cell while I was traipsing around Mexican magic shops on behalf of my studies last week. This is probably also why engineering students secretly think other majors are easy, fake, or both. They’re just jealous that they don’t get interview practitioners of black magic for school credit.
I didn’t actually get to interview any practitioners, though, because apparently people who own Santeria-like botanica shops in L.A. speak exactly as much English as I speak Spanish: “I’m sorry, I don’t speak (insert language here).” I was hoping my professor would give me an extension on my paper so I could bring a Spanish speaker with me to translate an interview, but she said I should write the paper based on observation and turn it in on time. Apparently someone wanted to head out for the holidays ASAP, because she gave me a very shady reason for not granting the extension — something about grade deadlines that I’m pretty sure is not true. I can’t imagine why she would prefer to start her vacation early, rather than sit around waiting for me to turn in an interview with an occultist, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste.
Anyway, my paper was about Santa Muerte, also known as Santisima Muerte, or Saint Death, a grim reaper figure who for decades has been secretly worshipped as if she were a Catholic saint in Mexican cities. She is sometimes called “La Flaca,” Skinny Girl, or “Blanquita,” Little White Girl, and is usually portrayed as a skeleton wielding a scythe and wearing elaborate robes and jewels. Santa Muerte is vain and jealous, but followers love her imperfections because she is flawed like they are. They describe her as “beautiful” in the interviews I have read in newspaper articles.
Many of Santa Muerte’s followers are dissatisfied with society and feel that their government and the Catholic Church — the two entities that are supposed to protect them unconditionally — have abandoned them. Most are urban poor, and the movement originated in one of the most dangerous barrios in Mexico City: Tepito. Drug dealers, organized crime, burned out cars, and loitering rough-looking men create an aura of danger, according to American reporters who have visited the area (Walker 2004). When social, political, and religious institutions fail, worshippers of Santa Muerte turn to Death because she treats everyone equally.
Although most followers believe in both Jesus Christ and in Santa Muerte, they feel that Saint Death has done more for them and cares more about them than the Catholic Church does. Some practitioners are seeking “darker blessings” that no other saint would approve — such as sexual prowess or death to enemies. Still other followers are smugglers or drug dealers who feel that although they simply do what they can and must do to survive, saints such as the Virgin of Guadalupe would not sympathize with their lifestyles (Thompson 2004).
While Santa Muerte altars were once reserved for secret, private worship, over the past 25 years, Santa Muerte’s followers have begun to worship her in the open. She has spread to cities outside of Mexico — especially in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, and Chicago. On the first day of every month in Tepito, hundreds of people gather in the streets to show their devotion to Santa Muerte, and Sunday services are held in a donated house that leaders call “Mercy Parish.” Movement leaders estimate that there may be up to 1 million followers worldwide (Walker 2004).
But despite her growing popularity, Santa Muerte has suffered an image problem — to put it euphemistically — both in Mexico and the United States. The Catholic Church has accused her followers of being devil-worshiping occultists, and she is often described as the drug dealer’s saint of choice because many Mexican criminals in the United States get her image tattooed on their bodies. Many priests believe she is the devil in disguise, thereby tricking her followers into practicing Satanism. Others worry that leaders of the Santa Muerte movement intentionally deceive impoverished Mexicans by linking her to Catholicism.
These negative connotations might explain why I discovered that even in a city such as Los Angeles with a large Mexican population, it can be hard to find candles, necklaces, and T-shirts with Santa Muerte’s image. Folk art shops do not sell Santa Muerte paraphernalia, even though they sell pictures of Catholic Saints. Instead Santa Muerte is almost exclusively found in botanicas, stores that feature potions, amulets, and other magical items in addition sacred Catholic symbols such as Saint Christopher medals and crosses.
Many botanicas are listed in the phonebook — regardless of whether the owners speak English — so it was not hard for me to find a bunch of addresses for botanicas online at Google Maps. I thought the Botanica Santa Muerte sounded promising for obvious reasons, and drove out to the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles on a Monday morning.
The botanica turned out to be around the corner from MacArthur Park, a public park that is probably best known in L.A. as the easiest place in the city to get a fake I.D. It’s also somewhat notorious as the site of the most expensive melee in Los Angeles history. The park has a large pond and tall palm trees, and is actually very pretty despite all of the shady people who frequent it. The garbage on the streets doesn’t help either. Looking out my car window, I realized there was no way anyone in a botanica in this area spoke English, so I drove past the shopping center that contained the Botanica Santa Muerte and headed towards Olvera Street, the oldest street in Los Angeles. Olvera Street is a strange combination of locals and tourists, so I knew someone there would speak English and hoped they would be able to tell me about Santa Muerte.
Almost immediately upon arriving at Olvera Street, I went to the Olvera Street Candle Shop, a folk art store with incredible Day of the Dead decorations. (I say “almost” because before that, I made a detour at the Mexican Cultural Center, but the only people working there were Asian. They looked at me strangely when I mentioned Santa Muerte. That’s L.A. for you I guess.)
The owner of the candle shop said that although people occasionally ask her if she carries postcards with Santa Muerte, most of her customers are looking for something different than what you would find in a botanica. She was very non-judgmental as she explained that people who shop in botanicas are typically searching for objects or rituals that will give them something tangible in return for their own physical acts or rituals. People who worship Santa Muerte often ask for specific things, such as miracles, the vanquishing of enemies, or fidelity from their husbands. People who light candles in honor of saints are asking for more ambiguous blessings and guidance, and they aren’t expecting physical favors in return for their actions. “I don’t want to say voodoo, but there is an element of magic,” the owner said.
It was clear I would have to brave the language barrier to speak to a practitioner, so I went back to the Botanica Santa Muerte. I noticed again that even though it was the middle of a weekday, the sidewalks were packed full of people shopping for cheap clothes, soccer balls, and food. They stepped around men sleeping on the cold sidewalks, pressed up against the buildings.
The botanica was housed in the Selecto Plaza Mall, which is really just a warehouse with a bunch of stalls set up. The stalls sold everything from electronics to luggage to haircuts, and most were very open. There were just two walls marking their territory. The botanica was immediately recognizable because unlike the open stalls, it had four walls, a doorway, and a low ceiling. I noticed the unique physical dimensions and thought, “This is probably it,” just as my eyes passed over the grim reaper figure painted above the door and the sign, confirming my hunch. A hand-written flyer outside advertised, “Lectura de cartas, mano, caracoles, ojos, bola de cristal, auro, puro, limpias espiritual.” I wasn’t sure what all the words meant, but I jotted them down and looked them up when I got back to campus: “Readings of cards, hands, snails, eyes, a crystal ball, auras, and purity, plus spiritual cleansings.” Yes, snails. I double-checked that one.
The botanica was dark and no one was around, so I stood outside awkwardly for a minute while I tried to work up the courage to go in alone. I could see grim reaper images inside, and I was intimidated by both the darkness and strange objects hanging from the ceiling. These turned out to be mostly charms and dream catchers, but there was also a cow pelvic bone on the wall. (Normally I would not have been able to specifically identify a pelvic bone, but I had recently seen a picture of a pelvic bone mask in a book about Neopagans. Gotta love those anthropology classes.) Besides the charms, several shelves full of candles with Santa Muerte’s picture on them lined the walls. A woman in a nearby stall saw me and called out to the owner, Carmelo, that someone was there. Carmelo came out from the back to see what I needed, but he retreated back to his desk after we established that he spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish. I looked around for some kids who might be able to translate, but there were none, so I smiled and ambiguously thanked him anyway.
I turned in my paper without speaking to Carmelo about Santa Muerte, but I can’t stop thinking about the cult allegations and wondering how much merit they contain. Although my first instinct is to dismiss the Catholic Church’s description of Santa Muerte’s followers as a “cult,” I believe there are cult-like characteristics of the practices. Last fall, I wrote an article for the USC newspaper about a presentation on cults given by a USC professor, so I did some pretty extensive research and interviews on the topic. The professor said that “cult” is a loaded word in general, and that the term “high-demand group” is usually a better descriptor. She said one common characteristic of high-demand groups is that they don’t let members leave. Santa Muerte’s followers say that once you pledge your devotion to her, you must continue to worship her for the rest of your life; otherwise, a family member is likely to become ill and die. So although nobody is physically forcing followers to stay in the group, there might be an element of psychological terror involved. They are literally told that people they love will be struck down if they stop worshiping Santa Muerte, who I already mentioned is considered a vain and jealous saint.
The topic of cults inevitably leads me to consider the Catholic Church’s other big accusation: that Santa Muerte movement leaders trick impoverished Mexicans into following the Skinny Girl because they think they’re practicing something related to Catholicism. Based on the articles I read, practitioners don’t seem too confused about the connection. They say the Church has abandoned them, and they don’t want Catholicism’s saints; they want their own. As for the claim that Santa Muerte is the devil in disguise – well, let’s just say I’ve never had a healthy fear in God and the devil, and leave it at that.
I do think the Catholic Church might be correct when it worries about what my anthropology professor called the “branding problem.” If Catholicism is the brand, who gets to decide what that brand entails? The Church or the practitioners? Many services honoring Santa Muerte begin with prayers that invoke the Holy Trinity, but the Catholic Church says Christ overcame death on the cross by rising again, so worshiping death is antithetical to Catholicism.
Ultimately, I don’t think people should be told not to adapt their religions. If someone wants to go to Catholic Church and worship Santa Muerte, let them. If someone tries to lure you to a Santa Muerte service by claiming it’s associated with Catholicism, you have a branding problem that needs to be addressed. There are certainly gray areas, though, because maybe just by calling Santa Muerte a saint, followers are implying she is related to Catholicism.
These issues go far beyond Santa Muerte as people worldwide try to reconcile freedom of expression with claims to personal identity. Who controls the brand: the leaders or the practitioners? Does the Church’s opinion trump the congregations’? What happens if the brand lets you down? At what point are people using the brand to manipulate others? It’s legal to call your religion whatever you want, but is it ethical? These are debates that have raged throughout history and will probably only intensify in the 21st Century.
Associated Press. “In Mexican borderlands, unusual saint of death draws followers.” Dec. 18, 2002
Gray, Steven. “Santa Muerte: The New God in Town.” Time Magazine, Oct. 16, 2007.
Thompson, Ginger. “On Mexico’s Mean Streets, The Sinners Have a Saint.” New York Times, March 26, 2004, page A4.
Walker, Lynne. “Skeleton Force.” The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 1, 2004.