'Saint Death' comes to Chicago
Some Mexicans put their faith in the skeletal icon Santa Muerte. But Catholic clergy say their belief in the icon should die.
'Saint Death' finding home in Chicago
By Margaret Ramirez
September 29, 2007
* Original Chicago Tribune article: 'Saint Death' finding home in Chicago
Inside a botanica in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, she stands on the counter in all her glory: a smiling skeletal woman dressed in a long robe and veiled like a virgin.
In one hand the statue holds a globe, while the other clutches a scythe. She is known as Santa Muerte , Holy Death or Saint Death, but the people devoted to this religious icon are praying for a better life. They visit her at this storefront spiritual shop to ask for favors or seek protection, laying offerings of money, cigars and sweets at her bony feet.
Eduardo Ornelas, a spiritual adviser and owner of the Botanica San Miguel Arcangel, said he tells them the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize Santa Muerte. Even so, for many in the Mexican community she has emerged as representing a dark, less-traveled path ultimately connected to God.
'People ask her for many things. Some want to be cured from an illness or are looking for a job or want protection of their business or family. You make a contract with Santa Muerte and devote yourself to her,' said Ornelas, 33. 'She is not a saint, but people see her that way. They have faith in her and are apparently seeing results.'
'The thing about Santa Muerte that frightens people is that she gives and she can also take away,' he said. 'Leaving her is more complicated.'
For decades Santa Muerte has been present in the tough neighborhoods of Mexico City, where prostitutes and drug traffickers worshiped her mostly in secret. Last month, a group devoted to the icon made her over, giving the figure long, brown hair and a rose to hold in an attempt to change her image and win Mexican government recognition.
But as Mexican immigrants journey north, devotion to Santa Muerte has grown immensely in Chicago, Los Angeles, Tucson, Ariz., and other urban areas. In one of the more unusual religious phenomena to cross the border, statuettes, candles, charms and medallions of the skeletal figure are sold in supermarkets, dollar stores, malls and flea markets.
Often, Santa Muerte stands near statues of Catholic images of Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Peter or St. Lazarus. Moreover, followers are no longer limited to the lowest sectors of society. In the Chicago area, young people, housewives and grandmothers purchase the icon and speak openly about her power and their faith.
'I respect her,' said Brenda Alfaro, 25, who works in a Chicago store where Santa Muerte items are sold. 'She represents death, and that's something we are all going to face one day. She's everywhere now, and it's because of the faith people have in her. It's almost like a new religion.'
In Mexico, the Catholic Church has spoken against Santa Muerte, saying she is linked to Satanism and is being used to mislead desperate people. Catholic priests leading large Mexican-American congregations in the Chicago area are confronting questions about Santa Muerte and what she represents.
Rev. Esequiel Sanchez, pastor of Mary, Queen of Heaven in Cicero, said parishioners have asked him to bless statues of Santa Muerte.
'I'm concerned about it because it's an aberration. It's a misunderstanding of faith. It's taking a Catholic concept of the holy death of Christ and personifying it with this skeletal figure,' Sanchez said. 'At the same time, I can understand why it's growing. Many people, especially Mexican immigrants, are feeling that institutions are abandoning them and are grasping for spiritual help wherever they can.
A figurine of Santa Muerte is on display at a dollar store in Chicago's Little Village. The saint, dedicated to death, is not sanctioned by the Catholic Church, but is very popular in the Mexican community. (Tribune photo by Abel Uribe / September 12, 2007)