Santa Muerte, a misinterpreted icon

One of the representation of Santa Muerte

Hood and crown, sickle in one hand and a globe in the other one – or an hourglass as variant. And an infinity of tunics of different shapes and colors above all. Santa Muerte, half Virgin Mary half grim reaper, half Christian and half heathen: she recently became an icon, famous all over the world, because of the erroneous association with Mexican narcos. Her worshippers swing between 5 and 10 millions, there are 1500 altars only in Mexico City and this cult has deep historic and socio-cultural roots.

The evangelization imposed by the Spanish conquerors created a syncretism between Catholicism and pre-Columbian liturgies since the XVII century. Santa Muerte, also known as Niña Blanca, Niña Bonita, Reina, Flaquita, Dama Poderosa (White girl, Pretty Girl, Queen, Skinny Girl, Powerful Lady), takes Medieval elements such as representations of death used in Good Friday’s processions and combines them with pre-Christian costumes. During the building of the Mexican State, the government of Lázaro Cárdenas wanted to create a specific national identity which merged tradition and modernity, affecting culture, religion and even cuisine.

Many artists contributed to the iconography. José Guadalupe Posada, in between XIX and XX century, made Calavera Catrina, Diego Rivera is the author of Sueño de una tarde dominical, which depicts many historic and political figures of Mexico. Among them we can admire a close-up of a skeleton in a female apparel.

“Sueño de una tarde dominical” by Diego Rivera. Among storic and political figures of Mexico we can see Santa Muerte

The Church always opposed to the worshipping of Santa Muerte, far from the established standards. Adoring death is absurd, it goes against any principle! Even if, for believers, death is God’s work, as well as life. So the cult went along in semi-secretive conditions, until in 1998 there comes an excuse to make Santa Muerte look bad. A statue of the Dama Poderosa is found in the house of a dangerous kidnapper known as Mochaorejas, which means ear cutter.

The link between Santa Muerte and crime becomes like a verdict plus, in few years, the war among drug cartels is waged. Many narcos has this simulacrum, obviously. Almost every Mexican does.

It doesn’t matter that Mochaorejas has also Our Lady of Guadalupe. It doesn’t matter that Santa Muerte is a cross cult, which involves rich and poor, young and old, good and bad people, workers and unemployed, who turn to her like they turn to San Juda Tadeo or… Pancho Villa. It doesn’t matter that, for example, the houses of mafia members are filled with Catholic symbols – crucifixes, rosaries, prayer cards or whatever. But we don’t think that this religion and mafia are (necessarily) connected.

santa muerte Calavera Catrina Podada

Calavera Catrina by José Guadalupe Posada, an iconography which recalls Santa Muerte. Artists like him and Rivera had a significant role in building Mexico and its new cultural identity

In 2005 there is a demonstration against the decision of the office of Migraciòn y asuntos religiosos (Migration and religious issues) to deny Santa Muerte the dignity of a religious association. 30 thousand people march in the streets of Tepito, epicenter of this creed. CNN shoots a documentary spread all over the world – not in Italy, where the Vatican influence is really heavy. Paradoxically, the result is not the hoped one. The juxtaposition Santa Muerte – narcos becomes stronger, as the celebrations are illegal.

The requests of the prayer aren’t that particular either. Believers give custody of their lives to Santa Muerte, just to return home safely. The best part of this cult is that it doesn’t have rules. “Everyone asks for whatever he or she wants”, Doña Queta from Tepito explains. She is famous all over Mexico for having one of the most popular altars, therefore she is a symbol of cultural resistance. Alcohol and tobacco are well accepted as offers to the deity.

In her representations, Santa Muerte can have yellow clothes, if the problem is envy; black or violet for economic issues and money; red for love; white for the spirit and multicolored for the complete package. “The mind can move everything”, Doña Queta says. “If you feel that something is true, it will be. If you think it’s false, it will be”.

Doña Queta and her famous altar for Santa Muerte

Of course is full of crooks, or better “none of us have powers”, Doña Queta continues, but the business around Santa Muerte is pretty small and innocent. The market of Sonora is probably the most famous one, you can find whatever needed to make your own altar. Nothing to do with healers, fortune-tellers or swindlers of any kind, though.

Santa Murte is now more popular than ever, even outside Mexico. Maybe thanks to globalization, maybe for the unfair sinister halo above itself. You can tell it also from the fade trend of tattoos with this subject, which carry on a lot of stereotypes. They look dark, but she is benign; someone adds skin and flesh, that aren’t there; someone else think it’s tough style, like a narcos. That’s what the U.S. Government must have thought, when it denied the visa to the Mexican citizen Josè Leonardo Diaz for having that tattoo, in 2012.

We like to think that Santa Muerte is enduring that with the infinite patience of those who got all the time ahead of them.


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