"Santa Muerte" – Saint Death or Holy Death– is the focus of a deathly Mexican cult that has gained a so-far undetermined number of adherents on both sides of the illusory barrier that divides the United States from Mexico.
It made news in the US in early March when its putative leader led a demonstration in Mexico City protesting against the Mexican government’s current reconsideration of his group’s status as an officially registered "church."
Removal of this status would forbid it from legally soliciting donations or owning property. Sounding a lot like the ACLU or other US and European civil libertarians, the marchers for St. Death brandished banners during a March rally in Mexico City shouting "We are not criminals" and "Respect religious freedom"!
While their dispute is with the Mexican government, much of their anger is directed at the Catholic Church, which has warned the faithful to beware of the cult and its tendency towards Satanism. The bishop of León, Guanajuato State, Mexico, complained to the Mexican government last year that the organizers of the cult had fraudulently used the name "Catholic" in their moniker.
Cult spokesman David Romo Guillén, who styles himself as a bishop, declared that his group "The Mexico-US Tridentine Catholic Church" or "The Traditional Catholic Mex-USA Church" has temples in Mexico and prayer groups in the US – including Texas, California, and Washington DC. However, a spokesman of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington DC in an email response to Spero News declared that he "had no knowledge" of the cult, while no response was forthcoming from the Los Angeles Catholic archdiocese about St. Death.
Adherents of Santa Muerte come from all social sectors in Mexico, according to some observers such as Mexican author Homero Aridjis, who is also president of the International PEN organization. Even so, in violent prison riots and other disturbances over the last month in Mexico, the image and the growing influence of the death cult were obvious. According to Aridjis, criminal narco-traffickers are very religious and their shrines to Santa Muerte have been found during police raids on their homes and hideouts. Aridjis, who has written a novelized account of his contacts with the cult, says that its adherents include not only the most marginalized sectors of Mexican society, such as prostitutes and narco-traffickers, but also police officers and powerful politicians seeking deliverance or advantage over their enemies.
However, Dr. Timothy Steigenga, renowned religion researcher at Florida Atlantic University, averred that the cult’s adherents come from a population segment he designates as "unaffiliated" to either the Catholic Church or the numerous, and growing, Protestant churches in Mexico and Central America. While not likening Santa Muerte to Pentecostal Christianity, Steigenga said in an email response to Spero News that research about these "unaffiliated" persons suggests "that this may be a group from which Pentecostals find converts and/or to which former Pentecostals gravitate. In other words, many of the non-affiliated find themselves marginalized in situations that motivate them to become ‘seekers’. Thus, cults like the Santa Muerte cult as well as Pentecostal churches, Afro Brazilian religions, and other religious groups find converts among this group."
According to press reports from California, Santa Muerte iconography is increasingly found as merchandise offered at stores called "botánicas" that, while they have long served the local Latino populace, are now attracting non-Hispanic customers seeking new forms of spirituality. At the "botánicas", customers can purchase not only traditional herbal remedies and Santa Muerte merchandise, but also Catholic devotional imagery such as St. Christopher medallions. In one report, a local observer of the Santa Muerte cult posited that since the Second Vatican Council in 1960s, Hispanic Catholics felt a vacuum when some traditional devotional practices were abandoned by the Catholic Church. Since the cult of Santa Muerte uses some familiar ritual forms and artifacts (e.g. candles, liturgy, statues, and offerings), it may fill this spiritual void for some people. However, Professor Steigenga said, "I don’t think we can blame Vatican II for the upswing in syncretism or the growth of Pentecostalism. Rather, all of these religious changes are responses to a similar set of socio-political conditions, external religious actors, and the broader fissure within Latin American Catholicism."
Catholic Church authorities concur that Santa Muerte seeks to lull the uninformed into believing that the cult represents an authentic form of Christianity. Apparently lending credence to this assertion, Santa Muerte cult spokesman Romo has spoken of himself to the press as "bishop" and further emulates the Catholic Church by wearing garb typical of Catholic clerics. Romo and other "priests" of Santa Muerte even hear confessions, but espouse a theology at odds with any recognizable form of Christianity.
Reuters news service helped along the farce by referring to Romo as a "Catholic" priest, while the Mexican newspaper "La Reforma" refers to the cult as "Catholic, albeit not Roman". The main shrine to Santa Muerte in Mexico City is referred to as "Parroquia de la Misericordia" – Mercy Parish. Candles flicker before the Grim Reaper, while the faithful come to pray on their knees and beg for the intercession of this death angel. Seeming to hedge on their devotion to death personified, worshipers can also revere there the icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe or an image of St. Francis of Assisi that are also found at this temple to Death.
Called by various names, for example "La Santísima", Most Holy, "La Flaca" –Skinny Girl -, and "Blanquita" – Little White Girl - her devotees come to temples in tough Mexico City neighborhoods such as Tepito to worship a bizarre skeletal image robed in red, white, or black according to the season. She bears the scythe of the Grim Reaper and holds a red apple symbolizing wealth or plenty.
Worshipers leave offerings such as money, food, jewelry, and cigarettes. Frequently, she bears a rosary as well. They ask for favors that the patroness of innocent life, the Virgin Mary – Our Lady of Guadalupe – will not provide: sexual prowess, or the death and defeat of their enemies. And, according to popular belief among her devotees, Saint Death demands payment for her favors. If Saint Death is denied, she demands retribution on God’s orders in the form of the life of one of the devotees’ family members.
According to some observers, the modern cult to Death and its images stems from the 1960s, although its ultimate origins are mysterious. For example, in the ancient Jewish pantheon of demiurges, the angel of death is named Azrael. Some analysts point to Spain, or to Africa and its animist traditions, as the origin of some analogous folk beliefs, such as the fear of the Evil-Eye. Even the ancient Celts of Britain and Ireland revered skulls and severed heads, used them as chalices, and believed that these human remains emanated some divine power.
But Mexico has native religious beliefs that pre-date the 1521 Spanish conquest and the arrival of the Catholic faith. Aztec and Mayan art and imagery are replete with images of death in the form of skull-adorned temples and deathly idols. Human sacrifice was offered by Mexicans’ ancestors to placate pagan gods and ensure the fertility of the earth. Before the Conquest, as many as 60,000 human lives were offered to the Aztec deities in as little as four days. That cult of death was sometimes personified by "Mictlantecuhtli" – a god who is represented as a skeleton or flayed man. Mass baptisms of Native Americans and catechisms in native languages offered by the first Spanish missionaries in the 1500s were not enough to wipe away generations of non-Christian, non-Western beliefs.
Over the centuries a popular system of belief emerged that melded Christian and non-Christian teachings. This syncretism is still evident among the Mayan peoples of southern Mexico and neighboring Guatemala where, while they may call themselves "Catholic", they sacrifice animals and pour libations onto idols left by their ancestors. In Guatemala, despite the success of Pentecostal missionaries in gaining converts over the last few decades, the phallic cult of "San Simón" or "Maximón" flourishes among those who otherwise may go to church on Sunday. And the prominence of pre-Christian Mayan cults was symbolized in 2004 in the person of Manuel Colom – currently the president of Guatemala and a self-described Mayan shaman.
The cult of Santa Muerte, which pre-dates the Catholic Church in Latin America and is older than Christianity itself, likewise flourishes even while masquerading as authentic Christianity and offering a perennial challenge to Christian ministrations. Lamenting the failure the Catholic Church has had in adequately addressing the needs of his flock, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City said last month that "Catholics are easy prey for the snares of imposters because of the deficient evangelization and religious formation we (the hierarchy) have provided to the faithful."