Our Lady of Guadalupe battles 'Holy Death' for devotion of Mexican faithful

Walk into a Mexican grocery or botanica — a store that sells herbs and folk remedies — and chances are you’ll see the veladoras — tall religious candles in glass jars — lined up. There are devotional candles to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Jude. And often in the line of saints and religious images are candles to Santa Muerte. 

Santa Muerte, translated “Holy Death” or “St. Death,” usually is depicted on candles or in statues as a skeleton dressed in long robes or a bridal gown. Sometimes she has a wig on; sometimes she carries a scythe; sometimes she stands on the earth. She has become a favorite patron of narco traffickers carrying drugs across the Mexican-U.S. border, where shrines to her can be found along the roadsides. Many, if not most, of her followers call themselves Catholic. 

But Santa Muerte is no saint. Saints, after all, are real people, not personifications of a universal experience, who are living with God in heaven, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They can be intermediaries or intercessors with God, hearing the prayers of the faithful and asking God to perform miracles. 

Santa Muerte, her followers believe, grants favors on her own, and not all of them are the sort of favors that people think God would approve of. 

That’s part of her appeal, said R. Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Chesnut wrote “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint” (Oxford University Press, $24.95) to help familiarize English-speaking audiences with La Flaquita, (the Skinny Lady, one of many nicknames). 

“People are willing to ask her for favors that they wouldn’t ask of another saint,” said Chesnut. “You wouldn’t pray to another saint that your shipment of cocaine would arrive safely.” 

Patron of criminals

Perhaps that is how she became best known as the patron of choice for those who are on the wrong side of the law, trafficking in drugs or kidnapping people and holding them for ransom. Such people generally choose the Santa Muerte of the black candle — a color that Chesnut says is rarely seen in public shrines, but often is photographed in the homes of Mexican criminals after they are arrested. She is also often seen as someone who can help a woman find a man, or keep the man she has, as a patron of rough justice and revenge, a bringer of health, wealth and wisdom. Among her most popular candle is the one with seven colors, bringing together all of the powers Santa Muerte’s devotees believe she has, Chesnut said. 

Most English-speaking Catholics have never heard of Santa Muerte even if they have seen her image time after time. They might have seen the sugar skulls that children eat on the Day of the Dead, or seen the playful skeletons that are plentiful in Mexican imagery. But those are intended to take some of the fear out of death, not to lend death the power of God himself — power that some who worship Santa Muerte believe she has.

Blessing death

Some Mexican or Mexican-American Catholics might be familiar with her, but see her as just another part of their faith. Priests across the United States report having parishioners bring images of Santa Muerte to church for blessings. 

Father Esequiel Sanchez, pastor of St. Bede the Venerable Parish on the Southwest Side of Chicago, said that it has happened to him a few times. 

“They are always surprised when you tell them that you can’t bless it,” said Father Sanchez, a former director of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “It might have been a devotion their grandmother had; it’s not a new thing. But it’s really just a superstition.” 

Some people are willing to abandon Santa Muerte when they understand what she is, and is not. Others need more catechizing to understand why they cannot be good Catholics and offer prayers to death, the last enemy that Jesus defeated. 

“It’s an opportunity for catechesis,” Sanchez said. “And like any catechesis, it can be accepted or rejected.”

Great equalizer

Thousands of people worship at Santa Muerte “Masses” in Mexico City, and storefront churches devoted to her have opened in Los Angeles and some of the cities of the Southwest. 

The U.S. Catholic bishops have not spoken about Santa Muerte, but the Mexican bishops have, Chesnut said, and the Mexican government bulldozes the roadside altars to her. 

But Chesnut said he doesn’t think supporting the government’s suppression of Santa Muerte is a winning strategy for the Church, especially in areas where the rise of the devotion can be attributed at least in part to a lack of attention to teaching the people about their faith in the first place. 

One of the things that has attracted people to Santa Muerte is that death is evenhanded, Chesnut explained, coming just the same for the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. The Church too often in Mexico is seen as being on the side of the rich and the powerful, he said, and Santa Muerte seems to be using her scythe to bring it down a few pegs — just as her followers believe she can do to their enemies. 

“It’s an expression of people’s desperation,” Father Sanchez said. “It’s a way people are trying to cope. The shrines, the offerings, the promises … behaviorally, it’s very pagan.” 

The whole idea, he said, is a corruption of the Catholic notion of a “holy death,” one that occurs when a person is in a state of grace, having had the opportunity to have the sacraments, and has a “safe passage” to eternal life — the opposite of what Santa Muerte promises. 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.