(Please visit SkeletonSaint.com for more information on America’s growing devotional tradition surrounding Saint Death)
When you stare into the empty eyes of La Nina Blanca (the White Lady) do you feel the resonant warmth of a mother’s love? It’s there, if you look deep enough, at least for those who pay her true devotion. Even those coming from a more objective distance can’t help but notice the prevalence of motherly care that attends Her presence.
At her shrines children run forward clutching icons of Most Holy Death, apples in hand to present her with gifts for blessings She has bestowed their families. Newly weds stand ready with offerings to thank her for their opportunity at future prosperity.
Even gunmen come to her as a mother, heads bowed in respect, offering tremulous thanks to the great matron whose hand has been held another day from executing a final judgement on their actions.These are sights not easily accepted by many in the United States and Mexico, who view such passionate expressions towards an icon depicting death as aberrant and perhaps diabolical.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi during his a trip to Mexico City in 2012 denounced her no less than 3 times in four days, comparing Her tradition to the religiosity common among the organized crime families in Italy. In his most harsh condemnation he decried blasphemy against her devotions while continuing to conflate the entire practice with criminality:
“It’s not religion just because it’s dressed up like religion; it’s a blasphemy against religion…The mafia, drug trafficking and organised crime don’t have a religious aspect and have nothing to do with religion, even if they use the image of Santa Muerte,”
Written from a particular perspective and intent, these statements fall far afield from the silent embrace of Muerte Querida (Beloved Death) as it is known by her devotees. The social degradation inflaming his rhetoric is a systematic failure contingent on social factors beyond the controls of those who suffer its fall out, and from the shadows of this falling edifice La Rosa Blanca smiles on Her children as they overcome their daily struggles and find strength in a powerful devotion to her faithfulness.
Folk traditions like Santa Muerte have done what official organizations have consistently failed to do, giving hope to those who have none, a hope which transcends any ideas of mortality, a true defeat of death in a realization of Most Holy Death. While journalists enjoy portraying Her as a satanic seductress, Santa Muerte is espoused by Her innumerable devotees as a loving mother to Her children, a mother whose judgement is final, all embracing, and given in mercy.
One line of her lineage stretches back to love magic, as a Patroness of married woman whose commanding scythe could keep their errant husbands in line. Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, found in his research for the book that this side is still the most prevalent in terms of sales at Botanicas, Yerberias, and esoteric supply shops in Mexico City and the U.S.
It is in this role of patron to mothers and wives that She emerged on All Saints Day in 2002 when Enriqueta Romero Romero, known to respectful devotees as Dona Queta, erected the first public shrine to her in Tepito. The icon that she and her family erected facing the street was a gift from her son who felt that he had been aided by Santa Muerte during a rough time involving a period of incarceration. Most Holy Death had spared him for another day, and he returned the favor with a gift that lead to his mother becoming one of the leading figures in the more public career of this much beloved Saint.
Another devotional leader, Enriqueta Vargas Ortiz, known as La Madrina, keeps a shrine in Tutilan that hosts the world’s largest statue of Santa Muerte, which measures a towering 75 feet tall. Her story is one of a mother’s love as well, but one with a more bitter beginning. Madrina Vargas’ son, Jonathan Legaria Vargas, was gunned down at 26 not far from the shrine to Santa Muerte that he had helped erect.
Her son had been an outspoken and fiery community leader in the public growth of Santa Muerte’s tradition. When he was murdered he was attempting to raise the public acceptance of Her devotions through radio programs and open public displays such as the 75 ft statue, as well as highlight some of the social problems that have lead to Her popularity:
“People are tired of looking for religion; people are tired of the priests who make off with the donations. What do they ask for now? Faith, which costs nothing more than love.”
At 3 am on July 31st, 2008 unknown assailants filled Jonathan Legaria Vargas’ car with over 150 bullets, his two passengers survived the shooting, he did not. Subsequent investigations became mired in local politics and rumors fostered by tense political relations between rival leaders in the decentralized community faith tradition. In the midst of her pain during the confusion that followed her son’s murder Vargas made a vow:
“Entonces le hice una promesa a la Santa: tú me entregas a los asesinos, y yo voy a tratar de llevarte a lo más alto que pueda.”
The once devout Catholic, who had up to this point been uncomfortable with her son’s fervor, pledged she would devote herself to tending Santa Muerte’s tradition if La Senora Poderosa would bring justice to the murderers that took her son’s life. Events over the coming months transpired such that Vargas felt La Senora had fulfilled her end of the bargain, and since then La Madrina has tended to the Tultitlan shrine with vigor, becoming a popular source for information on Santa Muerte, while continuing to build the community through regular worship services at the shrine and digital outreach on Facebook.
Perhaps it is the strength of these women that really scares authorities and orthodoxies when they come into contact with Santa Muerte’s devotional tradition. From the “degenerate” grounds of poverty and pain that draw disgust in media propaganda seeking to please the powers that be, these mothers have risen up in the full glory of their position as matriarchs and social leaders, and through the performance of their devotions to Most Holy Death, have created community bonds that go beyond all fear and division. At it’s best their ideology speaks to a universal love, as loving as Death who shows no preference in the end. They have fulfilled John 12:31-33:
“Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die.”
Lifting up Most Holy Death these mothers bring judgment on the authorities who have played the game of creating a world to suit their vices. Mexico City is one of the most corrupt cities in the world, and the citizens are often more afraid of the misused authority of police than they are of each other. With the blood of sons and daughters they’ve watched die on their hands, these mothers raise up La Santisima Muerte for the world to see what lies at the base of the wealth, the technology, the scientific progress, and all of the other areas we take pride in as denizens of the 21st century.
These are mothers, and mothers bear children, and a mother’s pain is passed on to her children. If the mothers have begun to take a stand behind a banner of faith, a banner baptized in the blood of the loved ones and friends murdered around them, what authority can stand against them? If authority cannot stand against the mother, what of the child?
A Soldier’s Devotion
An irony in all of this is that an antique icon of Bernard of Clairvaux, which depicts him as a skeleton, is seen by some as one of the original images that inspired Santa Muerte’s devotions. This is the very same man who, in the 12th century, penned the rule for the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, or Knights Templar as they are better known.
One of the Virgin Mary’s most ardent devotees, who wrote an inspirational rule for Christian knighthood, now stripped of flesh becomes a spiritual father of Santa Muerte’s tradition which has become one of the most notable icons for the drug violence raging in the Americas. The same warrior ethos, based on an almost gnostic fatalism, which provided the ideological fuel for the Templar mythos, lies at the heart of Santa Muertistas who take up devotion to La Senora Negra in the midst of violence and civil war.There is no denying a portion of those devoted to Santa Muerte are every bit as dangerous as the media fears. This would be the case with or without Santa Muerte, simply based on the current social climate in the Americas.
Yet these violent adherents do not make up the tradition as a whole by any means, as can be seen by the following excerpt from a message posted on a Facebook community dedicated to Santa Muerte:
“La Santa Muerte es una entidad de LUZ por que llevaria armas en sus fotos,sus imagenes, es evidente que aqui hay algo oculto y diria yo aqui se plasmo el ego del devoto, la inseguridad misma del mismo por utilizar armas en su vida, por no encontrar su verdadero camino como humano de paz,aqui se marco su ego de destruccion,de matar,de que tengo poder con mis armas de fuego,pero a nivel espiritual seguiras vacio sin la compania de la Santa Muerte…”
– Message posted on the Santisima Muerte POZA RICA Facebook Page
While the media likes to portray grim death dealers emblazoned with skeletal iconography, the reality is that, more often than not, devotion to Santa Muerte comes passively, as something almost necessary for those living in the midst of constant violence and social unrest. Many of the stories that surround her miracle working speak of changed lives, release from substance abuse, and a renewed sense of communal responsibility. As a reminder of what is to come She is as potent, if not more so, in encouraging positive change as She is in turning an empty eye to murder. As is demonstrated in the message from the Santisima Muerte POZA RICA Facebook page there is also an active movement to identify Santa Muerte outside of traditions of violence, as a protector, and just judge, rather than violent avenger.
She acts as both Memento Mori and assurance for those that have no experience of an easy night’s rest. Authorities writing from a military and law enforcement perspective should understand this, it’s the reason for so many death’s heads on uniforms and patches, as well as the reason that the government spent millions of dollars trying to figure out how to get soldiers to actually kill people instead of missing out of guilt. It is also why many law enforcement officers, lawyers, judges and prison guards find themselves at Santa Muerte’s altar with offerings in hand.
This is a potent mixture, strong community organization, devotees who are no stranger to extreme violence or living with a lack of resources, a desperate social situation, and devotional attention to a sublime comfort with fatality in the figure of a loving mother whose final embrace is freedom from a living hell. Heightened by the fact that many of her followers come to her when they feel that more orthodox authorities have failed them, Santa Muerte has the potential to usher in a new light of hope to communities that have been failed time and again by more polite avatars of divine providence. Unfortunately for the authorities, La Hermana del Luz has no interest in their laws or money, her scythe is the final arbiter in any discussion with Lady Death, and for devotees, none but God, or Christ who became God through union with Most Holy Death, can say anything about it.
Law enforcement and military analysts are already familiar with what religiously endorsed violence can mean in Mexico, with La Familia and Los Caballeros Templarios, groups which profess a heterodox mystic Protestantism, having committed some of the most violent acts of retribution in recent times. The idea that Santa Muerte’s devotion could turn that way, especially with a lack of any strong central organization, has to fill them will absolute terror.
Santisima Muerte in Perspective
We have to note, however, that neither La Familia, nor Los Caballeros Templarios, developed their heterodox spirituality under the guidance of a mother’s tears. Women like Dona Queta and La Madrina Vargas allow us to see deeper into Santisima Muerte, and put her in perspective outside of the shrill voice of fear jockeying propaganda that is echoing through the media.
“Para todas las madres que como yo han perdido un hijo – “Dicen que ser mama no es llevar a un bbe 9 meses en el vientre, es traerlo en tu corazon toda la vida.” – Feliz Dia de las Madres!”
– A dedication for Mother’s Day posted on Facebook by Enriqueta Vargas,
La Santisima Muerte needs to be seen in the light of a mother’s love, and a soldier’s devotion. Both of which can be deadly when turned bitter by a brutal life, or can be beautiful when they flower amid the waters of true devotion. It is up to the authorities and orthodox leadership to decide which aspect of La Nina Blanca they want to foster.
Those who would call her satantic should remember Christ’s words: “Who do you say I am?” If they continue to cry blasphemy, and ignore the real message behind Santa Muerte’s emergence, they might find that they’ve sparked a fire kindled in the slow vengeance of mothers who have watched for decades as officials look on with greed and lust while their children are slaughtered in the streets and taken advantage of by immoral authorities. In the end, Santisima Muerte’s scythe awaits every mortal who passes through the veil, and her devotees know that justice is not something that we can never truly escape in the end.