La Madrina. La Flaquita. La Niña Blanca.
The Mexican folk saint of death — an intimidating skeletal figure holding a scythe — goes by many names, most notably La Santa Muerte. Though worship of La Santa Muerte has become inextricably intertwined with drug cartels, she has become an all-purpose deity for working-class and poor mexicanos, not just criminals.
As veneration for Santa Muerte grows, so do the misconceptions about what she represents. Below, read 7 things to know about La Santa Muerte:
La Santa Muerte has unclear roots, though some believe the folk saint emerged as a combination of Spanish Catholicism and Aztec worship of Mictecacihuatl, the queen of the underworld and the afterlife.
Before 2001, devotees of Santa Muerte largely worshiped in private, erecting shrines in their closets or personal spaces. In recent years, adulation has spread like wildfire — especially since Enriqueta Romero, better known as Doña Queta, erected a life-size statue of the saint on the sidewalk outside of her home in Tepito, an impoverished, crime-riddled barrio of Mexico City.
Doña Queta, along with Enriqueta Vargas, have become the two most prominent leaders of the Santa Muerte movement in Mexico. When Vargas's son was murdered in 2008, she inherited his 75-foot, fiberglass Santa Muerte statue and temple. Today, worshipers flock to the temple in Tultitlán, where Vargas performs weddings and baptisms.
While rates of Catholicism continue to decline across Latin America, the number of La Santa Muerte devotees continues to surge. In an interview with Vice, Andrew Chesnut, the author of Devoted To Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint, said that the folk saint boasts between 10 and 12 million devotees.
However, La Santa Muerte doesn't demand exclusive devotion. Many followers also practice other religions, such as Catholicism.
Don't let her name confuse you; the Catholic Church has not canonized or approved La Santa Muerte. In fact, the Church continues to wage war on what they perceive to be a "celebration of devastation and of hell."
In 2013, Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Vatican's Ponitifical Council for Culture, gave an impassioned statement about the folk saint. "It's not religion just because it's dressed up like religion," he said. "It's a blasphemy against religion. Everyone is needed to put the brakes on this phenomenon, including families, churches and society."
Many — though certainly not all — of La Santa Muerte's devotees live on the margins of society. They are poor, disenfranchised, or criminals. “After all, the very origins of the public cult are tied to crime,” wrote Chesnut in Devotion To Death. “Doña Queta’s life-size effigy of the saint, which is the object of devotion to tens of thousands of chilangos (a slang term for residents of Mexico City) was a gift to her from one of her sons to thank the Powerful Lady for his speedy release from prison.”
In a nod to La Santa Muerte's criminal following, the saint made an infamous cameo on Breaking Bad. In an eerie scene at the beginning of the third season, two hitmen for the Juárez Cartel — called The Cousins — pay tribute to a statue of La Santa Muerte, and ask her for the death of Heisenberg.
Like death, La Santa Muerte does not discriminate; everyone — rich, poor, or somewhere in between — will die, and La Santa Muerta will listen to the prayers of them all as well.
Some devotees believe that cutting a deal with La Santa Muerte can be a double-eged sword. In interviews with the Houston Press, several followers said that you must make a promise if you ask La Santa Muerte for a favor. If you don't keep that promise, she can take away a loved one.
Many of the rituals involved in the worship of La Santa Muerte mimic Catholic customs. People use rosaries, candles and prayers in their worship, and you can hardly deny her eerie physical similarity to la Virgen de Guadalupe.
However, many find themselves drawn to La Santa Muerta because of her non-judgmental nature, a stark contrast to attitude often presented by the Catholic church.
Perhaps because La Santa Muerte exists outside the confines of the Catholic Church, many followers feel more comfortable asking her for less honorable favors, such as protection over a shipment of drugs. However, she grants all kinds of requests — not just the criminal ones.
In order to ask for a favor, followers should pray to her consistently, act with gratitude, and present an offering, such as fruit, flowers, cigars, incense, food or alcohol, in exchange for the request.