On a wall in one of Mexico City’s toughest, poorest, most crime ridden neighborhoods there is this graffito: “Tepito Exists Because It Resists.”
Which is, I think, a perfect socio-political expression of the old adage: “Opposites attract one another.”
Since 2001, Tepito has been the home neighborhood of the cult of Santa Muerte, the lady of Holy Death, the ecclesiastical opposite of the Catholic Church.
“‘Saint Death,’” says a Catholic priest from California, “is an oxymoron. God,” he says, meaning the God of his religion, “is a God of the living, not the dead.”
His scorn was ignited by the sudden growth in his and neighboring parishes of the Santa Muerte cult, which its leading American scholar, Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University calls the fasting growing new religious movement in the Americas.
“She was unknown to 99 percent of Mexicans before 2001, when she went public,” says Chestnut, but Now, he says, “I estimate there’s some 10-12 million devotees, mostly in Mexico, but also tens of thousands in the United States and Central America,”
Pope Francis has noticed. During his visit to Mexico in late 2015, the pontiff told a council of Mexican bishops, said that he was “particularly concerned about those many persons who, seduced by the empty power of the world, praise illusions and embrace their macabre symbols to commemorate death in exchange for money.”
For years leaders of the Catholic Church in Mexico have been denouncing Santa Muerte, while their counterparts in the United States have ignored the growing appeal of the cult. But just a few weeks ago, that changed.
The Archbishop of Santa Fe, NM, John Wester, and 2 Texas Bishops Mark Seitz of El Paso, and Michael Sis of San Angelo publically urged Catholics to avoid honoring Santa Muerte and called her “antithetical” to the teachings of Jesus.
“She’s not a saint. There is nothing good that can come out of praying to her,” Wester said. “We have a lot of saints who represent the teaching of Jesus Christ. This is an aberration.”
Defining the folk-saint of Holy Death as the opposite of the True Faith is Father Ryan Kaup of Lincoln, Nebraska: “What we venerate as saints are real people who have chosen this life to follow the will of our Lord and have done great things with their lives, so taking this devotion and this practice …and twisting it in such a way as to invoke this glorified image of death,” Fr. Kaup says, “is really a distortion of what we believe.”
Of course, many of the devotees of Santa Muerte embrace her because they see themselves as the opposites of the faithful, as outcasts, as the least equal in a society of inequality. Santa Muerte has attracted poor people, and marginalized people like sex workers and transgender people, and outlaw people, especially narco-people.
What these people say they love about Santa Muerte is that she does not judge. You can ask her to intercede for things you couldn’t even speak about with your parish priest.
Russell Contreras is a law enforcement and immigration reporter/photographer/videographer at The Associated Press in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Before moving back to New Mexico, Contreras worked for the Associated Press in Boston where he helped with coverage of the death of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and wrote about DREAMers and Iraqi refugees. Contreras teaches composition at the University of New Mexico-Valencia. He has worked at the Boston Globe and the Albuquerque Journal, and he has been an active member of the Native America Journalists Association.