As you’ll know from a previous blog, I’m fascinated by the folk traditions and roadside shrines to popular saints in Argentina.
When taking guests on private tours in Argentina, heading north towards the Quebrada de Humahuaca, famous for its coloured hills and gateway to the Salinas Grandes salt flats, my first stop along the old mountain road is often at a shrine to Gauchito Gil: a folk hero from the Paraguayan war of the 19th century.
Close by is another altar, to San La Muerte, or “Saint Death”: though far from being a recognised Catholic saint, legend has it that this chilling skeletal figure in a black hooded cloak was actually a Jesuit priest from Misiones in north east Argentina. He is one of the many popular figures in South America’s folk traditions.
Since I first moved to Argentina 15 years ago, while the single Gauchito Gil shrine has remained intact but alone, the original San La Muerte shrine has been surrounded by others, mostly celebrating his hooded skeletal figure in different guises.
Though normally depicted wearing a black cloak, one figurine is multi-coloured, which I thought at first was an inclusive LGBT+ version; but apparently the different colours represent love, purity, justice, health, bounty and protection.
The centrepiece of one of the new shrines is a female death: a woman sitting in a throne-like armchair, all dressed in white.
I always imagined it was bride who had been jilted on her wedding day, who remained in Miss Havisham-like isolation for the rest of her days.
But No, this is La Santa Muerte, a popular folk saint in Mexico, sometimes also known as “Niña Blanca” (white girl) o “Virgen de los Olvidados” (Virgin of the Forgotten Ones).
She has been compared to the Hindu saint Kali, often depicted with a garland of human skulls: La Santa Muerte is revered by many Catholics alongside the patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the difference being that La Santa Muerte is “one of us”, with all her faults and sins.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to have a popular figure so identified with death in Mexico, where the Day of the Dead and All Soul’s is so knitted into the traditions.
Santa Muerte dates back to at least 1795, when she showed up in records of the Spanish Inquisition: connected with the Aztec goddes of death, Mictecacihuatl: indigenous folk worshipped a skull the dubbed “Saint Death”.
The traditions were driven underground for two centuries, but La Santa Muerte re-emerged, exploding into popularity (perhaps unsurprisingly) during the Mexican economic crisis of 1995. (Remember that the Grim Reaper, very similar to Argentina’s San La Muerte, first emerged as a figure in public consciousness during the Black Death in Europe.)
Suddenly, private worship that had been carried out in people’s homes was out on the street: perhaps the most famous shrine being in the poor barrio of Tepito in Mexico City, where the home of Enriqueta Romero, or “doña Queta” as she is affectionately known, became the focus of thousands of devotees.
Around the same time, other followers of La Santa Muerte in Mexico City founded the Iglesia Católica Tradicionalista mexicana-estadounidense (“Traditional Mexican-US Catholic church”), and placed Santa Muerte in the centrepiece of its ceremonies.
When Felipe Calderon was elected President in December 2006, he declared war not only onthe drugs gangs plaguing Mexican society, but also on Saint Death herself, claiming she was the “patron saint of narcos” (wrong, it’s Jesus Malverde of Sinaloa).
This was a complete misrepresentation of a figure who attracted devotees from all walks of life, but particularly those in dangerous lines of work, like members of the army and police.
Believers pray to La Santa Muerte that when their time comes their final moments won’t be painful or violent: it’s about a good Death, as Death is part of life and comes to us all.
Calderon ordered the destruction of public shrines which had mushroomed over the previous 10 years: as American academic and journalist R Andrew Chesnut remarks: “One can imagine that more than a few soldiers who were ordered to raze the sacred sites were themselves devotees of Saint Death. Given their patron saint’s tremendous powers of vengeance, some of those soldiers must have been scared to death.”
Also banned was the Iglesia Católica Tradicionalista, whose leader, David Romo Guillén, claimed had five million followers.
In 2011, Romo was jailed for 66 years for kidnap, extorsion and theft: though as Chesnut points out, perhaps not coincidentally, he was also becoming a political force to rival Calderon’s ruling National Action Party (PAN), so heavily allied with the Catholic Church.
Romo had always claimed his movement was a means of integrating marginalised members of society (yes, including criminals) into the Catholic church, but his acceptance of gay marriage, birth control and pre-martial sex was heavily frowned upon by the conservative Catholic hierarchy.
Says Chesnut: “Between his public denunciations of both the PAN and the Catholic Church, Father Romo… created a corresponding media image of his patron saint as anti-Catholic and anti-PAN.
Judging by the continuing reverence for folk saints like San la Muerte in Argebntina and Paraguay, and La Santa Muerte in Mexico and beyond, I think it’s safe to say this battle over traditions and beliefs continues…
- A good article on the cult of La Santa Muerte (in Spanish) by the anthropologist Carlos Garma in El Universal.
- The Templo Santa Muerte website continues to peddle huge amounts of religious regalia.
- There are some great photos of San La Muerte followers at doña Queta’s shrine in Tepito by the American photojournalist and documentary film-maker Janet Jarman (English Text).
- For further reading, I recommend Chesnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.