Santa Muerte © Jenny Barke
She is given chocolates and marijuana and in return supposedly saves her followers from disaster. The Santa Muerte is passionately worshipped in Mexico – and finds more and more followers. This is a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church.
From the street, Dona Queta's life's work seems quite inconspicuous. Only a few bouquets of flowers on the sidewalk draw the eye to the 62-year-old's store behind white bars. But the impression is deceptive. Hundreds of pilgrims come to Tepito in Mexico City every day. Their destination: the decorated altar of Santa Muerte, before which they kneel devoutly to thank the "saint of death" or to offer their intercessions.
This afternoon, a family of four traveled from as far away as Colombia to visit the deathly saint Santa Muerte. In tears, they mourn their son, who died that morning, in front of the statue. They have taken the first plane to Mexico and will return to Bogota in the evening. The fact that visitors come from Central America or even Colombia is happening more and more often, says Dona Queta: "They come for the faith, nothing else."
Rapidly growing following
Anthropologist and cult expert Antonio Higuera Bonfil has been researching the Santa Muerte movement for years and has observed its rapidly growing following, which already extends beyond the borders of Mexico. "The people believe that the Santa Muerte protects them from illness and misfortune. Yet she is a very tolerant saint. She makes no demands on the faithful. Everyone is allowed to be who they are, whether homosexual or divorced," says Higuera. This puts it in direct competition with the Catholic Church, which condemns its faithful for what it sees as the wrong way to live.
Criticism from the Pope
When Pope Francis visited Mexico last February, he sharply criticized the cult's followers: "I am disturbed by the many seduced people who glorify this fantasy and commercialize death with gruesome symbols."
The decoration seems quite death-glorifying. In the center of Dona Queta's altar is a realistic image of a skeleton the size of a child, the skull framed by long black hair. Dona Queta has lovingly dressed the figure in a golden, loose-fitting dress with a veil. Around the "white child," as the Santa Muerte is also called, angels and death figures line shelves. Offerings such as beer bottles, filled wine glasses and fruit lie at her feet.
Cult symbols resemble Catholic denomination
Many symbols of the cult resemble the Catholic denomination. In Dona Queta's store next to the altar, visitors can buy rosaries and candles. On their knees they sink into prayer. "Before colonization by the Spaniards, a distinct death cult existed in Mexico, which disappeared from the surface due to immigrant Catholicism," says sociologist Alberto Hernandez.
In his estimation, the cult mixes Catholic beliefs with pre-Hispanic elements. "The movement is by no means new. Only it has been lived hidden for many centuries."
Because of the stigmatization by the church many believers would have withdrawn into the private one. So also Maria de Rosario Gomez. The 43-year-old cook from Tepito has been a follower of Santa Muerte for 20 years. But she does not show her faith publicly: "My shrine in the apartment is enough for me. When I leave the house, I ask Santa Muerte to protect me." Most of her acquaintances have a very private relationship with the Santa Muerte, says De Rosario.
The recent success outside their own four walls is probably also thanks to Dona Queta. The resolute woman opened her altar of the Santa Muerte 15 years ago together with the store for devotional objects in the crime stronghold of Tepito. It is thus considered the first altar of the death saints in Mexico open to the public and is accordingly frequently visited. The cult, however, has now established itself throughout Mexico and is lived openly. The festivals and rituals do not have a fixed set of rules, but rather follow regional traditions. On the Caribbean coast the followers dance themselves into ecstasy, in Tepito they pray silently.
Saints of criminals?
The sociologist Hernandez sees another reason for the triumphal procession in the increase in crime in the country: "Violence in Mexico has apparently increased in the past 20 years just as much as the success of the movement."But Hernandez rejects a characterization of the Santa Muerte as a saint of criminals: "The Santa Muerte has received this reputation from the church and the media. I cannot confirm that there are more criminals among the followers. But even they are accepted by Santa Muerte."
In addition, there are many other rumors about the death cult. Santa Muerte punishes the infidels and enslaves its followers because it demands ever greater sacrifices for their goodwill. Critics say cult owes its success only to people's fears. Higuera can't confirm these theories: "Santa Muerte doesn't choose you. You pick them. It can also make your fears come true. If you want a punishment, she'll grant your wish."
The faithful do not care about the rumors. Dona Queta already came into contact with the Santa Muerte in her childhood. She also sees no conflict between the Church and the death saint: "I believe in everything. I dance to the music you play. I believe in the Virgin Guadalupe, in Santa Muerte, but above all in God." For De Rosario, the priority is the other way around: "No one can prove to me that God exists. But death, it is real."