Inside a botanica in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, she stands on the counter in all her glory: a smiling skeletal woman dressed in a long robe and veiled like a virgin.
In one hand the statue holds a globe, while the other clutches a scythe. She is known as Santa Muerte, Holy Death or Saint Death, but the people devoted to this religious icon are praying for a better life. They visit her at this storefront spiritual shop to ask for favors or seek protection, laying offerings of money, cigars and sweets at her bony feet.
Eduardo Ornelas, a spiritual adviser and owner of the Botanica San Miguel Arcangel, said he tells them the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize Santa Muerte. Even so, for many in the Mexican community she has emerged as representing a dark, less-traveled path ultimately connected to God.
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‘People ask her for many things. Some want to be cured from an illness or are looking for a job or want protection of their business or family. You make a contract with Santa Muerte and devote yourself to her,’ said Ornelas, 33. ‘She is not a saint, but people see her that way. They have faith in her and are apparently seeing results.’
‘The thing about Santa Muerte that frightens people is that she gives and she can also take away,’ he said. ‘Leaving her is more complicated.’
For decades Santa Muerte has been present in the tough neighborhoods of Mexico City, where prostitutes and drug traffickers worshiped her mostly in secret. Last month, a group devoted to the icon made her over, giving the figure long, brown hair and a rose to hold in an attempt to change her image and win Mexican government recognition.
But as Mexican immigrants journey north, devotion to Santa Muerte has grown immensely in Chicago, Los Angeles, Tucson, Ariz., and other urban areas. In one of the more unusual religious phenomena to cross the border, statuettes, candles, charms and medallions of the skeletal figure are sold in supermarkets, dollar stores, malls and flea markets.
Often, Santa Muerte stands near statues of Catholic images of Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Peter or St. Lazarus. Moreover, followers are no longer limited to the lowest sectors of society. In the Chicago area, young people, housewives and grandmothers purchase the icon and speak openly about her power and their faith.
‘I respect her,’ said Brenda Alfaro, 25, who works in a Chicago store where Santa Muerte items are sold. ‘She represents death, and that’s something we are all going to face one day. She’s everywhere now, and it’s because of the faith people have in her. It’s almost like a new religion.’
In Mexico, the Catholic Church has spoken against Santa Muerte, saying she is linked to Satanism and is being used to mislead desperate people. Catholic priests leading large Mexican-American congregations in the Chicago area are confronting questions about Santa Muerte and what she represents.
Rev. Esequiel Sanchez, pastor of Mary, Queen of Heaven in Cicero, said parishioners have asked him to bless statues of Santa Muerte.
‘I’m concerned about it because it’s an aberration. It’s a misunderstanding of faith. It’s taking a Catholic concept of the holy death of Christ and personifying it with this skeletal figure,’ Sanchez said. ‘At the same time, I can understand why it’s growing. Many people, especially Mexican immigrants, are feeling that institutions are abandoning them and are grasping for spiritual help wherever they can.
‘When they come to me with Santa Muerte, I’m not interested in why they worship her. I’m more interested in how they got to that point.’
The exact origin of Santa Muerte, also known as Santisima Muerte, remains a mystery but likely predates Christianity, several researchers said.
John Thompson of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center has found references dating to 18th Century Mexico. According to one account, indigenous people tied up a skeletal figure and threatened it with lashings if it didn’t perform miracles or grant their wishes. One source traces the legend to Veracruz, where a sorcerer claimed to have seen an image of death in his dreams. The apparition ordered him to create a likeness of her, promising all devotees a painless death. Other accounts from the 20th Century find Santa Muerte linked to love potions and used with prayers to attract a romantic interest.
Santa Muerte stems partly from a long-standing religious and cultural tradition in Mexico of seeing death as part of life, said Timothy Matovina, associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. During Day of the Dead celebrations, for example, hundreds flock to cemeteries to sing and pray for friends and family who have died.
Children partake in the festivities by eating chocolate or candy-coated skulls.
Matovina also noted that the Aztecs were known to hold monthlong celebrations for the dead. Eventually, that indigenous tradition melded with the Catholic ritual of praying for souls in purgatory.
‘It’s not un-Catholic to pray for a holy death. So, in the mind of some Mexicans, Santa Muerte might be seen as very Catholic,’ he said.
Catholic priests in Chicago link her growth to increased immigration from the south of Mexico, lack of education in Catholic teachings and desperation born of anti-immigrant sentiment.
Rev. Matthew Foley, pastor of St. Agnes of Bohemia in Little Village, said the image has become more prominent in the last five years as more immigrants from southern Mexico came to the Chicago area.
‘We have more people coming from Veracruz, Guerrero and Michoacan,’ Foley said. ‘I believe indigenous religions are stronger in those southern parts in Mexico.’
Rev. Claudio Diaz, director of the Chicago archdiocese office for Hispanic Catholics, said he worries that the anti-immigrant sentiment growing across the nation is pushing some people to unlikely spiritual icons. He said the trend shows the need for religious education.
‘When faith is not strengthened, you look for other avenues to find courage,’ Diaz said. ‘We have a suffering community, so if their faith is not strengthened, if their faith is not fully formed, they might fall into these traps.’
Shops selling Santa Muerte statues supply the image in a variety of colors and styles. Though the one with the white robe is most popular, she is also sold wearing black, red, blue, green or gold. She is usually standing like the grim reaper but also is shown seated on a throne with wide-eyed owls or riding a horse.
To pray to her, many devotees use Catholic rituals known as novenas, nine-day prayers. Her followers say she loves to drink tequila and smoke cigars, so those offerings are often left at her feet. Some warn that Santa Muerte has an evil side. She is very jealous, so devotees are advised never to place Catholic saints near her or suffer the consequences.
James Griffith, also of the Southwest Center, has studied the icon and said it is believed worshipers must pay a price if she delivers a miracle. One Los Angeles follower told Griffith he prayed to Santa Muerte for a job. Later, when he found employment, his child became seriously ill.
‘You see her along the border towns,’ Griffith said. ‘Sometimes people stick lit cigarettes in her mouth or little liquor bottles at her feet. … I’m just not comfortable with it at all.’
Carlos Gonzalez, a baker who immigrated to Chicago from Michoacan, said his mother worshiped Santa Muerte but now fears her.
‘I have heard that if your husband leaves you, you pray to Santa Muerte to get him back,’ he said. ‘It seems like if the Catholic saints aren’t giving you what you need, people are turning to Santa Muerte. She’s not exactly the devil, but I feel like she walks down that same path.’
Ornelas disagrees that she is the devil, saying she is more like a fallen angel in purgatory trying to win back God’s favor, and that is the reason she grants so many miracles.
Some worshipers come to fear Santa Muerte and desire to break away. Ornelas said that to succeed he must perform three spiritual cleansings with holy water and the person must leave a statue in a Catholic Church.
Diaz, of the Chicago archdiocese, said concern over the skeletal icon has not yet reached the level of discussions among church leadership. Until then, priests like Foley said they will try preaching more about Santa Muerte and other images that he believes are preying on his people.
‘I already spoke about this in a sermon, and I’ll probably do it again,’ Foley said. ‘I asked them: Where are you putting your faith? In God? In Santa Muerte? They need to know Santa Muerte is not part of our faith.’
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