Several years ago, I blogged about the adoration of Santa Muerte, St. Death (as in a feminine saint), the hooded skeleton being venerated by Mexican drug lords. But now prayers to this saint and the sale of her images and icons have come into the mainstream, and not just in Hispanic enclaves but throughout the world. You can now find her images in Wal-Mart.
Although the Santa Muerte cult takes the form of the veneration of saints in Roman Catholicism, the Church strongly opposes the practice. Taping dollar bills to her statue and leaving cigarettes and liquor as offerings are thought to cause Santa Muerte to provide good luck and protection. One expert says that worship of “Holy Death” is “the fastest-growing new religious movement.” I suppose it is fitting that a culture of death has a religion of death.
Read about the phenomenon after the jump.
Every morning before opening her shop to customers, Cristina Perez says “buenos días” to a green-cloaked, three-foot skeleton covered in dollar bills — offerings folded in triangles and taped to the statue.
Perez, a 45-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, follows the greeting with a prayer directed to the Mexican folk saint known as the Santa Muerte, or Holy Death.
“In the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit, I invoke your spirit to be present here today. I ask you to bring us abundance, work, health and family unity,” Perez says in Spanish as she stands before an altar inside her folk-medicine and esoteric store, Botica El Angel, in a quiet corner of a shopping strip in Richmond.
The Santa Muerte, it seems, is suddenly present in a big way. She is embraced by a growing number of devotees and has made her mark in Hollywood, too. And she has inspired a booming cottage industry that is filling the shelves of botanicas — small storefronts in Latino neighborhoods — and big-box stores alike.
Perez’s shop offers a glimpse of the variety of Santa Muerte wares: candles, perfumes, jewelry, books and multicolored figurines displayed on a top shelf. A few stand with hollow eye sockets peering from under hooded robes.
Others look something like a skeletal Napoleon Bonaparte sitting atop a charging black horse.
“She makes up half of my sales,” said Perez, dressed in white pants and a white peasant blouse, and wearing a gold pendant of the Holy Death around her neck.
The consensus among botanica owners, scholars, and manufacturers of esoteric and religious products is that the Santa Muerte cult is fast-growing and reaching beyond the large Latino immigrant communities of California, Arizona and Texas.
News coverage has linked the Santa Muerte to drug traffickers on the U.S.-Mexico border, but most of the worshipers are everyday people. Devotees, who often identify themselves as Catholic, pray to the folk saint for the same things that those from other religions seek: a good life, good health, love, steady work and, in the case of undocumented immigrants, protection from deportation.
The Santa Muerte’s popularity has “exploded” in recent years, said R. Andrew Chesnut, a Catholic studies scholar at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He estimates there are more than 10 million followers in Mexico, Central America and the United States.
“Whether you call it a cult or new religious movement, it is the fastest-growing new religious movement, not only in Mexico and the U.S., but in the entire Americas,” said Chesnut, author of the book “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.”
She may look like the Grim Reaper in drag, but her cloak does not signal doom. People turn to her for protection, favors and, in some cases, miracles.
Part of her appeal is that believers see her as a folk saint who is nonjudgmental and accepts all followers regardless of race, economic status or sexual orientation.
The Roman Catholic Church has publicly denounced the Santa Muerte, but her devotees remain faithful. . . .
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