The commercial district on Florence Avenue in Huntington Park looks like most others in the working-class towns of southeast Los Angeles County: a mix of panaderías selling fresh-baked pan dulce and coffee, mini-markets, pawn shops, party planning and quinceañera photography businesses, and botanicas selling home remedies and other esoteric items to the Latino-majority population.
A short walk away sits a storefront that traffics in a different sort of currency: miracles. At the Templo Mayor de la Santa Muerte, patrons gather daily to pray to the folk saint, whose name translates as “Holy Death.”
Temple leader Profesora Lucila, or Profe Lucila la Madrina, as regulars affectionately call her, mops the tile floors, which are so clean they reflect the images of the flowers that line the feet of the myriad Santa Muerte statues in the temple. Her black cat, Rigo, lies down on a wooden table near the entrance, where Lucila receives guests seeking Santa Muerte’s assistance in matters of love, guidance on legal affairs and protection from harm.
"More people believe in Santa Muerte because we [the followers] are sincere," Lucila says. "We do not judge if you are a cholo or a lawyer. Everyone is welcome, and we do not discriminate."
Lucila credits Santa Muerte with helping her survive four heart attacks and lung cancer. She calls the folk saint an intermediary between God and the people, because according to Lucila, it is death that comes to collect people’s souls when God decides it is time for somebody to die.
“Here I teach everybody that they give a hug and a kiss to their loved ones before leaving our house, because we never know if that is going to be the last kiss or hug that we give to our loved ones,” Lucila says.
In Mexico, the skeleton saint is just as ubiquitous as the Virgin Mary. Miniature altars dedicated to the Virgin Mary dot highways, parks and bus stops. Unlike in Los Angeles, where people are reluctant to discuss the Santa Muerte altars they keep in their homes, devotees in Mexico City walk around showing silver Santa Muerte charms and medals the way people wear Jesus on the cross or medals depicting the Virgin Mary. Maids, businessmen and taxi drivers know of her, even if they do not believe in her.
In Mexico City’s Mercado de Sonora, a large market known for its vast collection of herbs, live animals, candles, books, statues of various saints and other items related to the occult and esoterica — many products related to Santa Muerte are available, including rosaries, on which the bony figure replaces Jesus on the cross. Manuel Valadez Fonseca is known among his fellow Mercado de Sonora vendors as an expert on the cult of Santa Muerte. He says Santa Muerte had a big resurgence in Mexico in the early part of the 20th century, when the country was deep in the middle of a revolution. Death began to play an important role in the armed struggle that transformed Mexico both culturally and socially. “People were looking for a way to survive,” Valadez says. “Many people stuck by religious figures such as the Virgen de Guadalupe, but also people prayed to other saints so that they would come out of battle alive. Among these saints was Santa Muerte. The cult of Santa Muerte is always around people who feel they are in danger.”
Her reach stretches into the Spanish-speaking communities of Los Angeles, where immigrants have brought her from Mexico and a new generation of American-born followers has arisen.
Devotees refer to Santa Muerte affectionately as La Niña Blanca (the white girl), La Flakita (the little skinny girl), La Huesuda (the bony lady) or La Niña Bonita (the pretty girl). With the second-largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico City, Los Angeles is the hotbed of Santa Muerte devotion, says Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Devoted to Death: The Skeleton Saint. Santa Muerte also has reached cities with large Latino populations such as Miami, New York City and Houston.
Yet Santa Muerte is controversial to some devoutly Catholic communities.
“All devotion to Santa Muerte contradicts Christian beliefs,” Chesnut says. “The Christian theological position is that veneration of death is tantamount to satanism because death is the antithesis of Jesus Christ, who offered believers the chance of eternal life through his sacrifice on the cross.”
For some, Santa Muerte also became known in the media as the symbol of narcocultura, or the drug culture. Chesnut writes in his book that Santa Muerte has followers on both sides of the drug war, from police and army officers to cartel members. His book details cases in which narcos were caught with Santa Muerte paraphernalia.
Santa Muerte was mostly underground until making headlines in 2009, when then-president of Mexico Felipe Calderon ordered the military to bulldoze about 40 shrines that were along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The first legal Santa Muerte church in Mexico City opened in 2003, but it was closed by the government in 2005 under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, Chesnut says. (He says that the Santa Muerte temple’s leader, David Romo, is now serving 60 years in prison for being part of a kidnapping ring.)
But followers like Lucila see past the bad press.
She’s been leading the temple for the past five years. Lucila says that her position in the cult comes from a don, or gift, that Santa Muerte spiritual leaders have since birth, but that she is only a guide to help members of the temple.
“I always say, ‘First is God, then La Santa. You do not have to believe in me.’ I am just a guide who can help them raise their energy,” Lucila says. Because of the followers with whom she comes into contact daily, she wears a silver link chain with a Santa Muerte charm to protect her from negative energy.
The trust and confidence devotees have for Profesora Lucila are an example of women’s roles as leaders and importance in Santa Muerte worship, according to Chesnut.
“There’s an angle of women’s empowerment,” he says. “The top leader of [Santa Muerte in] Mexico is a woman. That doesn’t happen in the Catholic Church. Besides the obvious fact that she’s a female saint, you have all this room for female leadership. That’s an important aspect of her popularity.”
Brisa Argelia and her husband, Guillermo Gutierrez, Huntington Park residents in their 30s, are regulars at Profesora Lucila’s Sunday rosarios, or rosary services. Argelia, a housewife, regularly visits the shrine during the week and helps with cleaning. Gutierrez accompanies her whenever he has time off from his day job as a manager for an automotive company. With her blue-and-pink hair, and his all-black clothing and tattoos, they look like the type of people who would be drawn to a robed skeleton folk saint.
On the side, Gutierrez has been tattooing for four years. He says he has done about 15 Santa Muerte tattoos, including a black-and-white portrait of her wearing a white lace veil for Profesora Lucila. (She says she doesn’t allow it to be photographed because it came out of a secret promise she made to the saint.)
“I promised the Santa that whatever design the Profe wanted, that I wouldn’t charge her so much,” Gutierrez says of the tattoo, which Lucila has on her forearm. “For other people the same design would be about $400.”
Devotees get tattoos with her image as promises for miracles she has worked for them. Gutierrez has three Santa Muerte tattoos: one on each arm and one that takes up his whole chest.
He says he first learned of Santa Muerte 12 years ago through a friend.
“I had always been atheist, but at first I was afraid of her because I didn’t really know much about her,” he says. “But through this friend I began learning more little by little.”
Gutierrez became a true believer, he says, after she granted him a big favor. He had about five traffic violations and a warrant was out for his arrest. He didn’t have the money to pay those five tickets, and he was getting nervous.
“It was either pay or stay in jail,” he says. Gutierrez prayed to Santa Muerte, asking her to intervene on his behalf. When he appeared in front of a judge, he was given six extra months to pay off his tickets. “It was incredible. I never heard of anyone getting a six-month extension to pay for all these tickets,” he says.
Since then, Gutierrez has maintained an altar in his home that includes a red, white, green and black Santa Muerte statue, with candy, bread, water and flowers as offerings. He keeps a white candle lit and replaces it when it burns out.
Argelia says she felt a mix of respect and fear of the image of Santa Muerte. When Argelia was pregnant with their first child, her physician told her there was a 70 percent chance that she would lose the baby because of liver disease she had contracted during the pregnancy. Gutierrez suggested that they pray together at the altar.
“I know God exists, but I don’t know if you exist. If you exist show me your power,” Argelia remembers saying to the little statue at their home altar. Argelia returned to the doctor a week later. “The doctor told me, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but your pregnancy is improving even though your liver is the same.’ The tears came to my eyes, and that’s when my devotion grew.”
The baby, Jared, was born in 2013. As a gesture of thanks, Gutierrez designed a Santa Muerte tattoo for Argelia. It is a rosary drawn in black ink, and in place of Jesus on the cross it depicts Santa Muerte dangling from black rosary beads in a robe.
Argelia says she found Profesora Lucila and the Templo Mayor de la Santa Muerte three years ago while driving around Huntington Park. Though she and her husband prayed and maintained an altar at home, Argelia felt the need to find an actual place of worship to feel that Santa Muerte really existed. Upon walking in and seeing the life-size figure of Santa Muerte at Lucila’s temple, she was overtaken with emotion.
“I cried and I said, ‘Finally, I am in front of you,’” she recalls.
Both Argelia and Gutierrez say they like the friendly atmosphere at the temple. The regulars know each other by name, and greet one another with a hug and a smile. Before the rosario begins, Lucila cleanses the temple by burning copal, a resin that comes from trees native to Mexico. (It has been used in ancient indigenous ceremonies and is often burned during Aztec dance performances and during Día de los Muertos observances.)
The thick smoke blankets the room, and Lucila begins to read from La Biblia de la Santa Muerte, or the Santa Muerte Bible, a book that contains prayers, rituals and the rosario. The devotees make the sign of the cross, and the rosary begins with an “Our Father.”
While leading the prayers, Profesora Lucila walks around the room, sometimes laying her hands on the back of one of the followers
“Everyone brings a different energy to the templo,” she says. “I do this to protect the others from any negative energy they might bring into the room. If I were doing the rosario for just one person, I would stand right next to them the whole time.”
The rosario is similar to praying a Catholic rosary, but along with reciting the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary,” the rosario to Santa Muerte includes prayers about her different healing powers: protection, love, prosperity, health, wisdom and purity.
In the middle of the rosario, Lucila stops and has the worshippers choose a Santa Muerte statue to pray in front of for an issue that concerns them at the moment. While she is leading the followers in prayer, she will occasionally stop and kiss one of the statues on the head.
Lucila takes note when one of the devotees begins to mess up the prayer.
“If you are making mistakes, your mind is in another place. How do you expect the Santa to help you if your mind is not with her?” she chides, speaking to all of those in the room. “If your mind is not with her, then neither is your heart.”
On Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. sits a storefront that is only a fraction of the size of Lucila’s temple, the Basilica Santa Muerte. Devotee Angel Suarez is originally from Cuernavaca, Mexico, and comes from a family of believers. Once afraid of death, he recalls an experience he had on the streets of Los Angeles. One evening while walking home, Suarez says, a man with tattoos on his face pulled a gun and attempted to rob him.
“Hijo de la chingada,” Suarez recalls saying to his assailant. “I’m not going to give you anything, so you better shoot me or else I’m going to kick your ass.” Suarez claims that the man then shook his hand and left because nobody had ever stood up to him before.
“I said I was protected by my Santa Muerte, and he told me he kept an altar at home, too,” Suarez says.
Further west, in MacArthur Park, a neighborhood known for its mostly Central American immigrant families, lies the Santuario Hogar de la Santa Muerte. The temple is led by a woman whom followers call Profesora Cielo, who declined to be interviewed. Sunday rosarios are led by a man who calls himself Professor Lucio.
Lucio, a gardener by day, came to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, when he was 15 years old. He says he comes from a family that practices witchcraft. In addition to Spanish, he speaks Zapotec and Latin. As a boy, he spent time at a seminary, but he left the Catholic Church when he came to the United States because he found it to be hypocritical.
“The adoration of death comes many years before Christ,” he says. “The Egyptians and other cultures around the world all worshipped death, but the Spanish didn’t want us to continue with our traditions.”
Santa Muerte’s popularity is also evident in Los Angeles’ botanicas. Juan Perez, owner of the Botanica de Los Angeles in MacArthur Park, had a special altar to San Simon, a Guatemalan folk saint.
“This is a Central American community, so I still get people asking for San Simon, but most of my sales comes from Santa Muerte,” he says.
In his botanica, Santa Muerte shares space with red candles (decorated with a yellow hummingbird to attract love), statues of San Lazaro and the Virgin Mary, and packets of dried herbs. “I added Santa Muerte to stay in business,” Perez says.
Despite her increasing popularity, Santa Muerte and her brand of folk Catholicism are looked down upon by the Roman Catholic Church. In 2013, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi told Aciprensa, a Catholic news service from Peru, that Santa Muerte is a “sinister and infernal cult” that needs to be stopped.
"Most Mexican devotees still consider themselves Catholic even though the Vatican had denounced Santa Muerte and the church in Mexico rebukes her on a weekly basis,” Chesnut says.
In Los Angeles, the church echoes such concerns.
“We are in line with the Vatican, and we will not deviate from those teachings,” says Giovanni Perez, associate director of the Office of Religious Education with the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Perez says folk saints not canonized by the church are not in line with the teachings of Jesus, especially since some, like Santa Muerte, are used by devotees to seek revenge.
“I don’t want to condemn the people. They don’t know any better,” Perez says. “They try to manipulate their luck by doing these rituals, these mandas. God does not want any of that. God’s love and protection will always be there. God doesn’t pick and choose based on who does the most prayers. What happens if you don’t get the favor? Did you light the wrong color candle?”
Perez points out that saints are not meant to be worshipped but rather to set an example of how to follow “the path of God.”
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“These individuals are our heroes, our brothers on Earth, to tell us that it is possible to live our life for justice, love and charity,” he says.
The Archdiocese in Los Angeles has no plan of action regarding Santa Muerte.
But with economic hardship on both sides of the border, author Chesnut says, the cult of Santa Muerte will continue to grow.
“Her scythe is this great leveling scythe that takes everybody, even Carlos Slim, the richest man alive,” he says. “This is really appealing to many people. And increasingly in the United States, we see those kinds of levels of inequality as well."