HOUSTON, TX -- Her image evokes trepidation for many - almost fear. Yet, for a growing number of fervent believers, whose numbers are increasing in the United States, her presence brings them peace due to the “blessings” they claim, she delivers.
She has been called “La Niña Blanca,” “The White Girl,” or “La Flaquita,” “The Skinny One,” but she is better known on both sides of the Rio Grande as “la Santa Muerte” or the “Holy Death,” a controversial deity or “saint” celebrated every year by her devotees during the month of August. Not being recognized by the Vatican as an official saint has not affected her growing popularity as a folk or popular saint.
“For me, she is like a saint," says Cynthia Sanchez, a fervent believer who claims to have offered her devotion to La Santa Muerte. “She is an angel that cares for me and protects me. She is like St. Jude or like the Virgin of Guadalupe.”
But unlike the Virgin of Guadalupe, la Santa Muerte is a controversial figure due to the perceived notion that she is the patron saint of thieves, drug dealers, kidnappers and other criminals. An altar devoted to la Santa Muerte was found in the home of the notorious Mexico City kidnapper Daniel Arizmendi in 1998, furthering the perception that she is a sinister entity.
Clad in colorful robes, which symbolize different types of petitions, la Santa Muerte is depicted as a human skeleton holding a globe symbolizing her power on earth on one hand and a scythe symbolizing her reach on the other.
For Cynthia, however, nothing could be further from the truth. La Santa Muerte is not bad and does not protect or encourage evil deeds Cynthia says. It is the intentions of some of her faithful, she assures, that often give the impression that she is a negative force.
“There are lots of believers who, like me, are devotees to Santa Muerte, and we do not have anything to do with illicit or illegal activity.”
La Santa Muerte, she claims is “bien cumplidora” - always accomplishing difficult petitions that range from obtaining immigration documents to having success in business. Thus, for Cynthia her faith in the folk saint harmoniously co-exists with her Catholic upbringing. On Cynthia’s home altar, a very prominent crucifix accompanies numerous statues of la Santa Muerte.
“I have faith in her, I believe in God. I have respect for God and for the saints, but I am delivered in body and soul to la Santa Muerte. For me God comes first and then comes la Santa Muerte. It is as if both were holding hands in caring and protecting me.”
In most altars, many of them found in private homes or natural medicinal establishments known as “yerberias,” veneration consists of the prayer of a rosary, similar to that of the Catholic faith. It also includes the placement of the offerings comprised ofa colorful display of flowers, foods and even alcohol. Numerous candles are placed in front of the statues to illuminate the journey of each believer. Then, the element of water takes center stage with the placement of glasses. The water, according to believers, symbolizes cleansing. Finally there is the alcohol. It is not strange to see altars of la Santa Muerte, surrounded by bottles of tequila.
For Maria Brir, owner by the Yerberia Santa Muerte in Houston, Texas, it is a matter of devotion but also, national pride.
“Other than flowers to adorn her altar, she loves tequila. She is from Mexico and every time I put tequila in her honor, and she delivers the favors I have asked for.”
When clients come into her store looking for natural medicinal remedies, she immediately notices their unease when they set their eyes on the statues.
“I say to them, ‘just trust her. Don’t be scared, she is an angel for me. Just ask her and she will provide.’”
And sure enough, soon after, the same people who were afraid at first, come back, this time with flowers, candy and of course, tequila.