Holy Death on the US/Mexico Border by Lois Ann Lorentzen

Lois Ann Lorentzen

May 28, 2009

In the days just before Easter, the Mexican government bulldozed nearly forty shrines to La Santisima Muerte (Holy Death) along the US/Mexico border.  The shrines, according to the military, formed an integral part of the "narco-culture" that the government is determined to wipe out.  Does devotion to Santa Muerte reflect the "death cult of the drug lords," as a US military intelligence website suggests? 
The chosen saint of the marginalized,Santa Muerte holds a globe in one hand and a pendulum in the other.  She wears a robe covering her arms down to her wrists; there her fingers are exposed as bone.  Over her skeletal head rests a halo.  Santisima Muerte, a symbolic representation of death blended with Catholic characteristics, surfaced in Mexico's religious landscape to much popular acclaim.  Very little is known about the Holy Death's origins; her followers and scholars promote divergent theories.  Some claim that she first appeared to a healer in Veracruz in the 19th century, and ordered him to create a cult.  Others claim that the strong cult of death practiced among the ancient Mexicas merged with Catholicism in the form of SantaMuerte.  Other devotees claim that Holy Death came from Yoruba traditions brought by African slaves to the Caribbean and passed to Mexico through Cuban Santería, Haitian Voodou, or Brazilian Palo Mayombe; these religions merged with Christian practices to create Santa Muerte.  Other Mexican scholars insist that Holy Death's origins can be traced back to medieval Europe; she is an archetype of death commonly seen in religious art.  Most scholars do agree however, that Santa Muerte should not be confused with the more well known Day of the Dead.  Although Holy Death may be venerated on that day, as Kevin Freese points out, she "appears to be a distinct phenomenon emerging from a separate tradition."
Devotion has grown dramatically since 1965; Santa Muerte boasts nearly five million followers in Mexico.  Santa Muerte is particularly popular among drug traffickers, police officers, gang members, prison inmates, and sex workers; in short, those who live close to death.  She also has a following among some artists, intellectuals, politicians, and actors.  Her largest social base, however, is among the most marginalized sectors.  Her principal sanctuary is found in the barrio, Tepito, among the poorest and most dangerous sectors of Mexico City.  Her popularity among migrants has also skyrocketed.  In markets in Tijuana and other border towns, artifacts related to Santa Muerte outnumber those for the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Thousands of shrines to Santa Muerte are found throughout Mexico, but they are especially concentrated along the northern border.

The rapid growth of the movement over the last decades has led to conflict between devotees of Holy Death, the official Roman Catholic Church, and the Mexican government.  Archbishop David Romo Guillen, founder of the Mexico-US Apostolic Traditional Catholic Church, created the Sanctuary of Holy Death in Mexico City in 2002, and registered the church as a religious organization in 2003.  The archbishop promotes condom use for men and women and the doors of the church are open to gays, lesbians, transvestites, and transgendered.  Priests are allowed to marry, women can become ordained, and divorce is not censured.
These practices, in addition to the worship of Holy Death herself, place the church in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church - and, increasingly, to the government.  In April 2005, the government revoked the church's status as a religious organization.  Now the government is making the claim that worship of Santa Muerte is a threat to national security.  The government is partially right, although not because of alleged links to drug traffickers.  The author of a military intelligence website devoted to Santa Muerte concluded that as long as exclusion, isolation, and political despair characterize life for the marginalized in Mexico, we can expect that the cult of Santa Muerte will prosper.  Most devotees feel that both the government and the church have failed them.  Thus, they turn to folk saints such as Santa Muerte, who does not judge but reflects the excluded - in other words, much of Mexico.  The political despair characteristic of much of Mexico's population poses more of a threat to national security than a small border shrine visited by poor and working class people and migrants.  Some of La Santa Muerte's devotees do indeed happen to be drug lords, but she is also the patron saint of the dispossessed, acquainted with death as they are.
Kevin Freese. "The Death Cult of the Drug Lords: Mexico's patron of crime, criminals and the dispossessed."fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Santa-Muerte/santa-muerte.htm -
Cymene Howe, Susanna Zayarsky, and Lois Lorentzen. "Devotional Crossings: Transgender Sex Workers, Santisima Muerte and Spiritual Solidarity in Guadalajara and San Francisco" in Lois Ann Lorentzen, Joaquin Gonzalez, Kevin Chun, Hien Duc Do, Eds. Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana; the intersection of faith, politics and identity in new migrant communities. Duke University Press, forthcoming.

Lois Ann Lorentzen is Chair of the Theology and Religious Studies Department and Director of the Center for Latino Studies in the Americas at the University of San Francisco.

Lois Ann Lorentzen