During Halloween in Mexico, an increasing number of Catholics pay homage to the skeleton folk saint known as “Santa Muerte” (Holly Death)
Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, is celebrated on 31 October, the day before the Christian feast day All Saints Day, which commemorates all the religion’s saints. That day is followed by All Souls Day, during which people pray for the dead.
During this time Mexico celebrates Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead – where families and friends gather together to pay homage to dead relatives. The celebration takes place from 31 October until 2 November.
Death has a unique place in Mexican culture, according to Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Speaking to IBTimes UK, he defined the Day of the Dead as “a festive commemoration, with Aztec roots, of deceased loved ones.
“Celebrations include colourful altars with the favourite food and drink of the departed, all night vigils at the cemetery and special foods such as pan de muerto [bread of the dead] and miniature skulls made from sugar.”
Halloween and Santa Muerte
Mexican people worship several saints associated with death. One of the most famous is Santa Muerte, or Bony Lady, a female skeletal saint believed to deliver healing, protection, love and safe delivery to the afterlife to her followers.
She was first mentioned in the Mexican historical record in 1793, when the Inquisition received a report of indigenous people in central Mexico venerating a skeletal figure they called “Saint Death”.
“The cult of the Bony Lady is now the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas with an estimated 10 to 12 million devotees in Mexico, Central America and the US,” said Fabiola Chesnut, who is the author of the book “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint”.
“Devotees of Santa Muerte tend to be flexible and eclectic so many of them incorporate the skeleton saint into their Day of the Dead commemorations, and since Halloween is increasingly popular in Mexico, many also participate in Halloween on 31 October.
“Over the past few years I’m seeing more and more Europeans, especially Britons, Italians and Americans wearing Santa Muerte costumes for Halloween,” he continued. “An Italian artist cooperative is holding its second annual Santa Muerte Halloween party this weekend [from 31 October until 2 November] in Rome.
“An even more popular costume in Europe, the US and even Mexico is that of Catrina Calavera, the Skeleton Dame, often fashioned in Frida Kahlo style. The Dame is an iconic skeleton dressed in early 20th-century finery, created by the great graphic artist José Guadalupe Posada as a satirical caricature of the Mexican elite of the time.”
Santa Muerte, the Day of the Death and Catrina Calavera are part of what Chesnut calls “the trinity of death: the three main cultural manifestations of mortality in the land of the Aztecs”.
The Dark Side of “Santa Muerte”
On the other hand, there has been an increasing traction of the Santa Muerte Cult in Europe, saying that while the cult “is unmistakeably Mexican, death itself is universal and thus knows no borders or boundaries.
“German devotee, Michael Caleigh, who lives in Brighton, UK, told me he never really felt comfortable in the Catholic Church or in any organized religion for that matter. Santa Muerte, he says, offers him spiritual comfort and strength without the judgmentalism of many churches.”
The Vatican and both the Catholic and Protestant churches in Mexico have condemned the cult of Santa Muerte as satanic and anti-religious.
“Denunciations have increased in frequency and intensity since the president of the Pontifical Council of Culture, Cardinal Giancarlo Ravassi condemned [Santa Muerte] on three separate occasions on Mexican soil during a four day visit there last May. Last October the archbishop of Oaxaca even threatened excommunication of Catholics who venerate the skeleton saint,”
Many devotees of Santa Muerte’s, often defined the “narco-saint”, have been linked to prostitution, drugs, kidnappings and homicides.
“Former Mexican president Felipe Calderon viewed her as a narco-saint venerated by many cartel members so he launched a military assault against some 40 of her shrines on the US-Mexico border in March 2009”, Chestnut said.
“Some high-level cartel members have been discovered to be devotees, which has received ample press in Mexico, the US and increasingly in the UK and Europe. Her appeal to narcos can be understood as an overarching attraction to those who feel like death might be imminent, which in Mexico with more than 70K dead in the past 7 years, is a lot of people.
“Who better to ask for a few more grains of sand in the hourglass of life than death herself? Moreover, since she is not a canonised saint, devotees are free to ask her for things that wouldn’t be acceptable within a Christian context, such as protecting a load of methamphetamines on its way from Michoacan, Mexico, to Chicago.” Chesnut concluded.
Santa Muerte Shrines
Santa Muerte devotees often build shrines to worship the lady of death. The shrine of Enriqueta Romero, also known as Dona Queta, is the most famous of the thousands that exist today.
“As gratitude for her faithful visits in prison, Dona Queta’s son gave her a lifesize statue of Saint Death, which she installed in the tiny kitchen of her home where she made quesadillas to sell to neighbours and passers-by in one of Mexico City’s most notorious barrios, Tepito,” Chesnut said.
“The six-foot effigy could be seen by customers, many of whom began to spontaneously regale the saint of death with offering of flowers and tequila.
“No longer able to accommodate all the offerings, Dona Queta and her husband Ray decided to move the statue outdoors, via a glass case built on to the exterior wall facing the sidewalk.
“On Halloween of 2001 they held a small inaugural ceremony, which marks the transformation of what had been an occult devotion unknown to 99% of Mexican to the burgeoning public cult that it is today.
“Doña Queta is thus the pioneering godmother of the cult”.
However, Enriqueta Vargas, leader of the most popular temple in Mexico City and owner of the gargantuan 22-meter tall effigy is quickly becoming the new national spokesperson for the cult.”
By Ludovica Iaccino
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