Do you remember the first scene of the third season of Breaking Bad? It's the one that introduces us to the Cousins, those besuited badass assassins who give Hank and Walt all sorts of problems. The first time we see them, they're exiting a sleek black Mercedes in the middle of a dusty Mexican village, where locals are crawling towards a small building. After a moment, they lie down alongside them and begin crawling too, until they enter a homemade shrine chock-full of candles and flowers and notes to a grim reaper-looking statue. Onto the statue they pin their wish of death: A sketch of "Heisenberg."
That's a shrine to Santa Muerte, Our Lady of the Holy Death. And her devotees compose the fastest growing religion in the world.
"She has between 10 and 12 million devotees, and she's only been public for 12 years," said Andrew Chesnut, author of Devoted to Death, the first English-language book about the cult. Before 2001, Santa Muerte was clandestine, with devotees building personal shrines hidden in their closets. But after a woman named Enriqueta Romero unveiled the first public shrine to the saint in the Mexico City barrio of Tepito, it has spread fiercely throughout Mexico, Central America, and Latino-heavy US cities like Los Angeles and Houston. Chesnut has even tracked the cult's growth to Japan, Australia, and the Philippines. "There's no other new religious movement that can complete with the velocity of that growth," Chesnut said.
Pre-Tepito, Santa Muerte's origin is not entirely clear. Many see it as a combination/bastardization of Spanish colonial Catholicism and Aztec beliefs regarding Mictecacihuatl, the queen of the underworld. The link to Catholicism is easy to understand, seeing as Santa Muerte worship contains many of the same rituals used at the Vatican, while the connection to indigenous beliefs seems tenuous—any number of cultures worship the personification of death in some form. But while the roots are murky, the reason why a cult based around death sprouted up specifically in Mexico isn't particularly hard to understand.
"[Mexico's] up to almost 80,000 deaths since 2006," said Chesnut. The ongoing narco wars lead to morning papers splattered with color photos of headless corpses. The hope that the changeover from Felipe Calderon's presidency to Enrique Nieto's would fix things has evaporated with the recent assassination of 43 students. "People are looking for protection, and Santa Muerte has the reputation for being the most powerful saint."
Santa Muerte's largest shrine is the 75-foot-tall statue in the city of Tultitlán, where Enriqueta Vargas performs wedding and baptism rituals for devotees. Vargas inherited the shrine from her son, Jonathan, after he was gunned down by assassins in 2008. That type of violence has led many to associate Santa Muerte with narco culture. (Many Americans' first exposure to it, after all, came from the aforementioned Breaking Bad scene.)
"No doubt she has a special appeal to narcos," said Chesnut. "Who better to ask for a few more grains in the hourglass of life than death herself?" And Santa Muerte has a toughness that synchs with the general machismo of drug smugglers and dealers. "One of her nicknames is 'cabrona,' which often means 'bitch.' She has this tough, badass bitch side to her." But it's a mistake to think she exclusively serves criminals.
"I wanted to commit suicide," explained Los Angeles–based devotee Lilian. "My husband beat me up and I couldn't find meaning in life. One day I called a friend and told her I was going to take pills to kill myself, and she talked to me about Santa Muerte." But if the deity helps, she expects something in return. Flowers, prayers, candles, cigars, sometimes money. "You need to keep your promises. If you don't, she punishes you by making it hard to find a job, or money, or illness, stuff like that," Lilian added.
To devotees, Santa Muerte has two roles: Overall devotional saint, and spiritual worker. "As a saint, she protects you and guides you through life," said Steven Bragg, a devotee since 2010 who leads a Santa Muerte church in New Orleans. "Instead of turning right, you turn left and avoid the traffic accident. Small things like that. But when it comes to big things, I turn to the three votives." This is where she morphs into a spiritual worker, when devotees summoning her power through three color-coded candles. White is for healing, peace, and prosperity. Red is for love, jobs, and justice. Black is for "darker forces," like protection from witchcraft. "She'll move mountains for you," said Bragg.
And you don't need to worship Santa Muerte exclusively. She doesn't get needy like, say, the Christian God, who wants His devotees to smash other idols. In fact, many Santa Muerte devotees still practice Catholicism, saving the colored votives for their more sordid dealings. "People feel more comfortable asking her for favors they probably shouldn't ask a Catholic saint for," said Chesnut. "If you want your shipment of meth to arrive safely, it's easier to ask her than the Virgin of Guadalupe."
The Catholic Church has certainly taken notice. In May 2013, Cardinal Ravasi, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, made Santa Muerte an official point of condemnation, calling it, "a blasphemy against religion." That mindset has spread to Catholic bishops throughout Mexico. "I can't go a week without reading about some ambitious Mexican bishop who's denounced her as satanic," said Chesnut. What's ironic in the Vatican's anger is the fact that there's a direct line between Christianity and Santa Muerte.
Many of the rituals involved in worshipping her—rosaries, candles, even some prayers—are reminiscent or direct copies of Catholicism. She's even posed like the Virgin of Guadalupe, if you stripped the skin off the saint. This familiarity strikes a chord with potential devotees. "It's a healing process," explained Bragg. "It's coming back and seeing it from a different perspective." But the Catholic Church has also done a bang-up job driving worshippers into Santa Muerte's arms.
"There is no racial, religious, or language barrier to her," said Profesora Cielo, who has led a Los Angeles-based congregation for the past 13 years. "[She's] one of the few forces I know that does not criticize you for what you are, what you look like, or what you do for living."
One such group that feels the critical and judgmental glare of the Vatican—in addition to most other organized religions—is the LGBT community. "LGBT is a small percentage of the general population," said Bragg. "But I would say that within Santa Muerte devotees, the percentage of LGBT is slightly larger."
While same-sex marriage isn't the same hot-button issue in Mexico as it is throughout much of the US—it's been legal in Mexico City since 2007, and most of Mexico recognizes same-sex marriages—there is still plenty of homophobia. In January, two gay men were removed from a New Year's celebration by machine gun–wielding cops after they publicly kissed. Applauding the forceful extraction were people like Bishop Leopoldo Gonzalez, who believes homosexuality "goes against nature." More recently, praise lavished on the Vatican by the LGBT community lasted about a day before the colloquium of bishops failed to muster up the necessary two-thirds votes to make it an official position that "people with homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and delicacy."
"The church has turned them away because they're gay or bisexual or transgendered," said Bragg. And so they end up in front of her altar. There aren't many other places to go. In some cases, they lead their own congregations. One of the more famous shrines exists in the Queens, New York, apartment of Arely Gonzalez, a transsexual immigrant who was forced away by discrimination from Catholic churches in Mexico.
"She has taught me to value and understand human beings. Many other religions don't teach that," said Profesora Cielo. "They teach you to discriminate and devalue people. Most teach you that if you are gay, we just pretend you don't exist or we reject you. That if you are a prostitute, you are living in sin and crime. With her, you are free."
Most devotees are quick to point out that LGBT members don't make up a large percentage of Santa Muerte congregants. Neither do narcos, or sex workers, or others who feel disenfranchised or pushed out of the "normal" realms of society. Instead, congregations are a melting pot of personalities, genders, points of view, and even religions. This level of complete inclusion is, ultimately, why she's not going anywhere. Because while the afterlife is the main point of debate among other religious sects, if there's one thing devotees of all faiths can agree on, it's that death is not all that picky.
"Death comes for everybody," said Bragg. "Death doesn't discriminate."
Special thanks to Olivia Sandoval for the extra reporting and translation help.
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