Investigating the Saint of Death

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Time Magazine has a profile feature on the cult of Santa Muerte, which looks at how the controversial syncretic religion has spread from Mexico and into the United States.

“Santa Muerte began appearing in U.S. neighborhoods with large Mexican populations only in the last decade. Walk down 26th street here in Little Village, one of Chicago’s largest Mexican neighborhoods, and notice the tiny shops, or botanicas, selling statues, candles and palm-sized prayer cards bearing Santa Muerte’s image. Notice references to Santa Muerte in Spanish-language newspapers. Young Mexican-American men are marking their bodies with Santa Muerte tattoos to prove their devotion. Middle-class, suburban-bred Mexican-Americans are snapping up black tee-shirts bearing Santa Muerte’s image to reconnect with what they perceive to be part of their heritage. Last weekend, a Chicago art gallery opened an exhibit showcasing images from Tepito – with Santa Muerte figuring prominently. And Santa Muerte may gain even more credibility: the famed Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal narrates Saint Death, a new documentary about the phenomenon.”

Time hints that part of the popularity of Saint Death is a Catholic Church riddled with scandal and hypocrisy. One devotee in the article says outright that she worships Santa Muerte “because of everything you hear with priests”. What started out as a small splinter cult mixing attributes of indigenous religion, Santeria, and Catholicism is evolving into a far more mainstream concern that is advocating for legal rights and adopting friendlier imagery for its ever-growing body of followers.

“A small religious group that worships the grim reaper and is fighting for government recognition unveiled a softer image of their so-called Death Saint on Sunday: a woman with a porcelain face, brown, shoulder-length hair and long thin fingers … “This image is one of justice, of freedom, but above all one that reveals the face of God,” Romo said. Believers say the Death Saint kills only on God’s orders.”

The growth of Santa Muerte shows that there are religious needs that the dominant monotheisms are no longer meeting, and that Paganism and other new religious movements aren’t isolated to Europe and the “first world”. Religious diversity is basic human impulse, and attempts to get everyone worshiping the same God (in the same manner) are ultimately doomed to failure as the needs and wants of individuals, groups, and societies stray from entrenched dogma and doctrine.