Santa Muerte

Mexico City, Mexico – May-June 2011

The religious cult of Santa Muerte is a syncretic fusion of Aztec death veneration rituals and Catholic beliefs. The religion of Santa Muerte was born in the middle of the 20th century in lower-class neighborhoods of Mexico City and has always been clandestine and closely associated with crime. However, in the past decades, original Santa Muerte's followers (such as prostitutes, pickpockets, thieves and street drug traffickers) have merged with thousands of ordinary Mexican Catholics who had become disillusioned with the rigid behaviour of the Catholic Church and its insufficient reflection of life in the modern Mexican society. The Santa Muerte veneration, offering a spiritual way out of hardship, has rapidly expanded. The number of believers has grown to approximately two million followers and the new religion has crossed the borders.

Santa Muerte, known by a number of names such as La Flaca (“The Skinny One”) or La Niña Blanca (“The White Girl”), usually appears as skeletal figure covered most often in a white or black robe and carrying a scythe and a globe. The scythe can symbolize both prosperity (as a harvesting tool) and the moment of death (as a cutting tool), while the globe, held in her hand, represents the Death's dominion over the world. Other objects that may appear together with Santa Muerte's icon include scales (justice - we all have to die), an hourglass (the limited time of life on the earth) and an owl (wisdom).

Although the Roman Catholic Church has denounced the worship of Saint Death, considering it as a black magic and the Santa Muerte's followers as devil worshippers, the devotees have never given up their Catholic faith. Santa Muerte figurines often stand near the statues of Jesus Christ or the Virgin of Guadalupe because the devotees to Santa Muerte do not see any contradiction between the Catholic faith and the worship of Santa Muerte. In many ways, a ritual dedicated to Santa Muerte is very similar to a Catholic rite, including procession and prayers for power healing, protection and favors.

On the first day of every month, crowds of believers in Santa Muerte fill the streets of Tepito, holding figurines of Holy Death and praying at the altar established in a window at the home of Enriqueta Romero. Some worshippers make the last part of the pilgrimage to the shrine on their bloodied knees, many of them smoke marijuana that has a strong relation to Saint Death. Before the rosary is prayed collectively at the end of the day, they leave offerings (money, candies, tabacco, flowers and candles) and make petitions to ‘La Santísima Muerte’, who is reputedly a very powerful saint and can make life-saving miracles.

Photography by Jan Sochor
Sound recorded by Jan Sochor

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Copyright © 2014 Jan Sochor. No photographs and text may be used or reproduced in any form.