La Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death
Vocabulario al capítulo
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Adjetivos y otras
The Saint of Death- La Santa Muerte
Around 2001 the danish anthropologist Regnar Albæk Kristensen became aware of a phenomenon in Mexico City that spread rapidly to several districts of the Capital and later to the entire country. An altar with a saint figure, a 'Santa', beautifully adorned with candles, flowers, incense and tequila, was worshiped by followers.
The Catholic Church has a large number of saints who 'specialize' in protecting specific community groups such as musicians or sailors for instance, so that in itself didn’t seem that special. However, what sets La Santa Muerte apart from other ‘Santos’ and ‘Santas’ is partly that she is portrayed as a skeleton with open skull and bared teeth, and partly that she is nameless and not, like the other Catholic saints, based on historical persons.
Besides from La Santa Muerte, which means The Holy Death, or The Saint of Death, her worshipers call her a number of other names, and as is the case with the way that Mexicans relate to death in general, the relation to La Santa Muerte is likewise personal.
Doña Queta and many other followers of the cult are both Catholics and ‘devotos’ and see no contradiction in that.
Fernando Sandoval, who for several years worked as a photographer at the Devoción a la Santa Muerte (see next page), explains that many go to La Santa Muerte to ask for smaller services that they do not want to bother La Virgen de Guadalupe with.
The rituals held for La Santa Muerte with candles, smoke, incense, and offerings draw inspiration from both the Catholic Church, Cuban Santería, and Mayan rituals as practised in certain places in Chiapas and Guatemala.
The devotees create their own rituals and prayers, Mandas, or get inspired by the many books of prayers that are on sale along with a large selection of merchandise in Doña Queta's shop.
The diminutive ending -ita / -ito, which is included in many of La Santa Muerte’s names, expresses in Spanish a loving relation to the person in cuestion, however, according to the linguist Almandina Cárdenas, it’s also likely to derive partly from Náhuatl, where the ending is used to express respect.
The great variety of names for La Santa Muerte equals the number of images you find at the shelves of the store. Several of the statues are depicted as half skeleton half living, and according to anthropologist Regnar Aalbæk Kristensen, duality or ambiguity is a basic feature of La Santa Muerte. She is both good and evil, holy and human. Incidentally, several of the characters bear a strong resemblance to La Calavera Catrina, the cartoonist Posada's illustration (see also chapter 3 about Satire and humour in Mexico)
The candles are an important part of the rituals and they come in many colours. According to Doña Queta, which colour you use is of no importance, however, in Chiapas and Guatemala where candles are also used for rituals, it’s a general agreement that red is used for love, yellow to ask for money, blue when it concerns education etc.
See the video for an example of how the candles are used in rituals.
For years Doña Queta held Catholic-inspired prayer meetings in Tepito in front of the altar of La Santa Muerte once a month, and when the cult was at its peak, up to 5,000 worshipers would come to pray together and have their own Santa Muerte statues blessed to make it more powerful in the company of other followers.
After Doña Queta's husband died in June 2016 prayer meetings are no longer held at the altar in Tepito, but Doña Queta still receives daily visits from worshipers who come from near and far.
Here an ofrenda, a house altar, in honor of the deceased husband adorned with candles and delights.
How much did you understand?
1)Doña Queta compró la figura de la Santa Muerte
No la compró: le regaló su hijo
2)Doña Queta siempre sabe lo que los devotos piden a La Santa Muerte
Doña Queta dice que nunca les ha preguntado
3)Sólo se puede usar las velas de la tienda
Doña Queta dice que lo importante es darle luz a la Santa Muerte, no tiene que ser una veladora de la tienda
4)La gente tiene una relación muy personal con la Santa Muerte
5)Cada mes asistieron a los rosarios para La Santa Muerte..
6)El marido de Doña Queta murió...
More about the worshipers and the historical perspective: Devoción a la Santa Muerte
About La Santa Muerte in an antropological perspective:
Kristensen, Regnar Albæk:
- How did Death become a Saint in Mexico? Ethnos, 26 May 2016, Vol.81(3), p.402-424
- La Santa Muerte in Mexico City: The Cult and it's Ambiguities ; Journal of Latin American Studies, 2015, Vol.47(3), pp.543-566
- Kristensen, Regnar Albæk og Adeath, Claudia: La Muerte de tu lado. Colección Libros de la Meseta, Casa Vecina, México 2008