In Mexico, the macabre success of the « Santa Muerte » cult

Kneeling on a prie-dieu, the young man counts the small rosary that he holds between his fingers. At the end of his prayer, he makes the sign of the cross and quickly slips away from the place. In front of the now empty prie-dieu, a statue, such as could be found in all churches.

But here, no Virgin, Saint Rita or other saint of the calendar. Scythe held by a skeletal hand, body completely covered in a long black robe and head hidden under a hood, there is no doubt: the young man praying must have been a representation of death.

Like him, several people meditate in front of various representations, each more macabre than the other in this international temple of Santa Muerte, the “holy Death”. In the suburbs of Mexico City, the place is also proud to have the most imposing representation of the “grim reaper”. 22 meters high, it is visible from afar.

« We pray the Santa Muerte because we believe that loving death makes life even more valuable”explains Luna Martinez, who introduces herself as one of the « collaborators » of the place – she is in charge of selling candles which will be placed in front of the various representations of the Grim Reaper. “Death is pure love, like a mother she protects her children”she enthuses.

A “strange, dark, gloomy” cult

At first suspicious, Luna Martinez finally agrees to confide, after asking permission from the one she calls the “madrina”that is to say the godmother, the main manager of the place. “One day, I made a request to Santa Muerte and I was granted: to have a son”says the almost forty-something.

More than two decades later, she maintains this devotion more than ever. Even against his mother’s advice, “very catholic”. “I simply ask her to respect this belief which makes me happy”, she argues. Before adding with a sigh: “But she doesn’t really…”

Very present in Mexico and increasingly gaining ground in the Hispanic world and in the United States, the devotion to Santa Muerte is indeed firmly condemned by all Catholic authorities. “She is not a saint, praying to her cannot do any good”thus scolded an American bishop a few years ago, who saw in it « the antithesis » of the gospel message.

« We do not share this cult, so strange, so dark, so gloomy adds Father Juan Jesús Priego Rivera, spokesman for the Mexican diocese of San Luis Potosí. “As Christians, we definitely reject this cult. »

Not enough, however, to put an end to the devotion. “I am Catholic, I go to mass every Sunday”, insists Alma. Creoles in her ears, tattoos protruding from her clothes, she came with her teenage daughter to pay homage to the one who “give many favors”. “I think there is no incompatibility”she hammers. « I sometimes go to Catholic mass », assures a young man. His hands holding a bouquet of red roses which he will place in front of the giant statue of the Santa Muerte are covered in tattoos of skulls.

« Death is the enemy »

In fact, all the people crossed in a temple of this devotion seem to have the skin inked in many places. Should we see in the devotion to the Santa Muerte a sign of “narco-satanism”an accusation often made by the Church?

In Mexico and Central America, tattoos are indeed often equated with drug trafficking, as they can be markers of recognition between gang members. Followers of the cult brush off the accusation, highlighting the visibility of places dedicated to the Santa Muerte.

In Mexico: the imprint of the narco-culture

Be that as it may, « narco-satanism » or not, the Catholic authorities definitively maintain the impossibility of any devotion to the Santa Muerte. Because, as Father Priego Rivera explained last year at the beginning of November, marked by a more marked practice of this cult, « death is precisely what Jesus Christ came to conquer, he came to conquer death by his resurrection: death is the enemy ».


A growing cult

The cult of Santa Muerte has an ever-increasing practice since the middle of the 20th century, with even an explosion since the 1990s.

For its followers, this devotion to Santa Muerte is a legacy of pre-Columbian religions. The celebrations of the Santa Muerte around the month of November would thus be the result of a syncretism with Christianity.

The cult grows in theall of the Americas, sometimes under various names. In Argentina, in the city of Corrientes, a temple is dedicated to the “lord of death”.


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