Boo: "Santa Muerte" Spooks US Church
To weightier things -- and with All Souls Day (known in the Spanish-speaking world as the "Day of the Dead") at hand -- the arrival of the Mexican cult of the Grim Reaper has sent something of a chill through the pastoral ranks in Latino Catholicism's emergent hotspots north of the border.
TIME takes a look at the rise of "Santa Muerte":
In a small shop in one of this city's largest Mexican neighborhoods, Laura Martinez scans rows of candles bearing the images of Saint David, Saint Raphael, and Saint Jude. But she overlooks those and grabs two candles featuring Santa Muerte — Saint Death. "She's my patron saint," says Martinez, 24, who arrived here from a town outside Mexico City about six years ago. "You worship her," she says of Santa Muerte. "It's my religion."...only when the real estate was at stake, of course.
Now appearing in New York, Houston and Los Angeles: Santa Muerte. The personage is Mexico's idolatrous form of the Grim Reaper: a skeleton — sometimes male, sometimes female — covered in a white, black or red cape, carrying a scythe, or a globe. For decades, thousands in some of Mexico's poorest neighborhoods have prayed to Santa Muerte for life-saving miracles. Or death to enemies. Mexican authorities have linked Santa Muerte's devotees to prostitution, drugs, kidnappings and homicides. The country's Catholic church has deemed Santa Muerte's followers devil-worshiping cultists. Now Santa Muerte has followed the thousands of Mexicans who've come to the U.S., where it is presenting a new challenge for American Catholic officials struggling with an increasingly multicultural population.
Santa Muerte's precise origins are a matter of debate. Some experts say its roots lie with Aztec spiritual rituals that mixed with Catholicism during Spanish colonial rule. What is clear, however, is that Santa Muerte developed a large following only in the last quarter century among Mexicans who had become disillusioned with the dominant Church and, in particular, the ability of established Catholic saints to deliver them from poverty. Residents of crime-tossed neighborhoods like Mexico City's Tepito began revering Santa Muerte more than Jesus Christ, experts say. Some of its devotees eventually split from the Catholic church and began vying for control of Catholic buildings. That's when Mexico's Catholic church declared it a cult.
Santa Muerte began appearing in U.S. neighborhoods with large Mexican populations only in the last decade. Walk down 26th Street in Little Village, one of Chicago's largest Mexican neighborhoods, and you'll notice the tiny shops, or botanicas, selling statues, candles and palm-sized prayer cards bearing Santa Muerte's image. There are references to Santa Muerte in Spanish-language newspapers. Young Mexican-American men are marking their bodies with Santa Muerte tattoos to prove their devotion. Middle-class, suburban-bred Mexican-Americans are snapping up black T-shirts bearing Santa Muerte's image to reconnect with what they perceive to be part of their heritage. Recently a Chicago art gallery opened an exhibit showcasing images from Tepito — with Santa Muerte figuring prominently. And Santa Muerte may gain even more credibility with the release of Saint Death, a new documentary about the phenomenon, narrated by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal....and in Mexico itself, the hierarchy of its primatial see is battling the emergence of the hot import from the north: Halloween, itself.
"It's become commercialized," observed Isabel Montalbo, manager of a botanica here. On a recent afternoon, Montalbo stood behind rows of oils with names like gota de amor (oil of love) and across from several jars of herbs, like epazote, cuassia chips and anise. Not far away were several large statues of Santa Muerte, some costing as much as $300.
Nearly 40% of the Chicago Catholic archdiocese's 2.3 million members are Latino, most of them Mexican. Catholic officials here have certainly taken notice of Santa Muerte's growing popularity: the archdiocese has encouraged priests with large Mexican populations to address the so-called saint's rise from the pulpit.
"Those who celebrate Halloween are worshipping a culture of death that is the product of a mix of pagan customs," the Archdiocese of Mexico published in an article on its Web site Monday. "The worst thing is that this celebration has been identified with neo-pagans, Satanism and occult worship."A senior Vatican official once gave a memorable reaction when he first learned what Wicca was...
The archdiocese urged parents not to let their children wear Halloween costumes or go trick-or-treating — instead suggesting Sunday school classes to "teach them the negative things about Halloween," costume parties where children can dress up as Biblical characters, and candy bags complete with instructions to give friends a piece while telling them "God loves you."
The church suggested holding these activities Nov. 1 — the Catholic All Saints' Day — but didn't endorse the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday that also appears to have "pagan" roots.
Pre-Hispanic cultures celebrated a similar holiday in August, but after the Spanish conquest, historians say the date was changed to Nov. 1 to coincide with the Catholic holiday.
Meanwhile, the conservative Internet magazine Yo Influyo called on teachers to "eradicate" Halloween and "defend our culture."
"Halloween has not only invaded our daily lives, but what's worse, our workplaces," wrote columnist Roger Aguilar, referring to the Halloween decorations that are now common in offices and schools.
If only we could publicize that, maybe our lives could be a good bit easier.