Inside A Cult That Worships Death

Photographed By Janet Jarman.
This article was originally published on November 11, 2015.

The cult worship of Santa Muerte (typically translated as "Holy Death" or "Saint Death") is a misunderstood — if culturally prevalent — phenomenon. Though the practice is likely rooted in pre-Columbian Aztec culture, it's most strongly associated with the recent rise of narcotics-related violence in Mexico. (Many U.S. folks were first exposed to Santa Muerte through a Breaking Bad plot wherein the murderous Salamanca cousins make offerings to the saint before undertaking assassinations.)

Santa Muerte is often confused with La Catrina, the playful, political, face-painted skeleton costume favored by many Mexicans when celebrating Dia de Los Muertes (Day of the Dead) festivities. La Catrina originates from a satirical cartoon from the turn of the 20th century, while Santa Muerte's origins are less clear; many believe her current form to be a mixture of an early Aztec death goddess and "La Parca," the female European Grim Reaper.

Since Santa Muerte is a folk saint, not one who was canonized by the Catholic church, worship of her has been condemned by Cardinal Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. And while the Catholic priesthood remains open solely to men, two major figures in the worship of Santa Muerte are women. Indeed, her female characterization is unusual even within the cult worship of death. "While folk saints abound in the Americas, and other supernatural skeletons work miracles in Guatemala and Argentina, Santa Muerte stands alone as the sole female saint of death from Chile to Canada," writes Andrew Chesnut, PhD, in his book Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.

One of the most visible individuals in Santa Muerte is Enriqueta Romero, 70, better known as Doña Queta, who has offered a public shrine to Santa Muerte since 2001 in Mexico City’s Tepito barrio. She believes in death's essential feminine qualities, explaining that "for centuries, Death has been feminine. Ever since the Aztecs." At her shrine, Doña Queta provides a special rosary service on the first day of every month, but worshippers are free to pay respects to Santa Muerta (or, as Queta calls her, “La Flaquita” — "The Skinny Girl") any time.

Just on the border of Mexico City, another woman, Enriqueta Vargas, also known as La Madrina, presides over The International Temple of Santa Muerte altar. She overtook leadership of the temple in 2008, following the shooting and death of her founder son, Jonathan Legaria Vargas. Initially, Enriqueta Vargas encountered skepticism in her leadership role, because of her gender: "People would not accept me because I was a woman, and I told them that I was so much more than that — that I was a lot smarter than them, and I was going to prove it," she told Refinery29. Now, Vargas' temple draws scores of devotees to worship the saint and receive spiritual blessings.

Both Enriquetas allowed Refinery29 an intimate look at the people, spiritual cleanings, and offerings that make up the worship of Santa Muerte. They both urge the observant to live life without fear of death, but to remain reverent towards her. Indeed, the sign above Doña Queta's shrine echoes this sentiment: "Fear not wherever you go, for you shall die where you must."

Ahead, 35 photos show the many sides of the worship of Santa Muerte.

Reporting and Spanish translation provided by Janet Jarman.
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Photographed By Janet Jarman/Redux.
A woman prays at one of several individual chapels at The International Temple of Santa Muerte, located on the border of Mexico City. The temple was inaugurated in December of 2007 by Jonathan Legaria Vargas, who was gunned down in July 2008 while driving nearby. His mother, Enriqueta Vargas, also known as La Madrina, eventually took over leadership of the temple, hoping to carry on his mission.

Hundreds of devotees worship at the temple each Sunday. The temple is open during the week also, offering a place where Santa Muerte followers can pray, receive a cleansing or “limpia,” or purchase an array of religious ephemera, including elaborate replicas of Santa Muerte.
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Photographed By Janet Jarman/Redux.
A 22-meter statue of Santa Muerte towers over The International Temple. Although the practice of worshipping Santa Muerte has been denounced by the Catholic Church as Satanic, the cult has seen a marked increase in followers in Mexico during the past decade.
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Photographed By Janet Jarman/Redux.
Various offerings of flowers, statuettes, fruit, alcohol, and tobacco products at the International Temple of Santa Muerte.
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A devotee prays while performing a ritual to help her father.
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Inside The International Temple of Santa Muerte, a devotee of Santa Muerte prays.
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Photographed By Janet Jarman/Redux.
Maritza López Santiago performs an integral part of a spiritual cleansing for a devotee inside The International Temple of Santa Muerte. López is originally from Mexico’s Oaxaca state and comes from a family of spiritual healers. She assists the temple’s leader, Enriqueta Vargas.

“Through the reading of the egg, we can see what the person might have...if the person has been worked on with Santeria, from the Santeros, or if they’ve been worked on with black magic,” López said. "We try to rule out any type of physical illness they might have before we start this type of cleansing,” she explained.

López believes Santa Muerte saved her life one night, when she survived a shootout during an armed robbery of the liquor store where she worked.
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Jasmine Amaro, 26, receives a spiritual cleansing or “limpia” from López. Amaro said she has been coming to the temple for about a year to ask for good things.

During the cleansing, López used a variety of items: an egg for diagnosing the problem, limes to reverse the damage being inflicted on Amaro, and cigar smoke to ward off any unwanted clinging spirits — in particular, the person Amaro believes is trying to hurt her.
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In front of two Santa Muerte figures, Amaro receives a spiritual cleansing or “limpia” from Maritza López Santiago.
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Amaro displays her Santa Muerte tattoo while she receives a limpia.
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Gloria Franco, 45, undergoes a limpia. Franco came to the temple out of desperation, following the disappearance of her daughter, whom she believes was taken by the girl’s father in-law.
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Gloria Franco undergoes a limpia ritual.
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Fernando Valdez Garcia displays an elaborate tattoo on his back, depicting La Santa Muerte.
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Hundreds of candles used in rituals and prayer collect on the ground.
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A small window containing a two-foot-high statue of the Santa Muerte.
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Enriqueta Romero, 70, greets neighbors passing by the Santa Muerte shrine she created in Mexico City’s Tepito barrio, long regarded as one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
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Men pray and make offerings to Santa Muerte.
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A worshipper with one leg and an injured eye prays at one of the most famous Santa Muerte shrines in Mexico.
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Devotees arrive at a rosary service. Many followers believe that Santa Muerte can perform miracles. For Dona Queta, Santa Muerte represents light. And what matters most in her practice is that people arrive with faith and leave with even stronger faith. Whereas some temples perform spiritual cleansings called “limpias,” weddings, and even offer a mass, Doña Queta believes these types of ceremonies would be inappropriate at her shrine.
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A devotee blows cigar smoke to symbolically “cleanse” figures of the Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, a Mexican folk hero associated with the drug trade.
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Devotees listen during a monthly rosary service.
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Photographed By Janet Jarman/Redux.
Filling the street for an afternoon, devotees listen intently.
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Dona Queta offers the rosary service with the aim of providing a setting where people can express their faith in Santa Muerte.
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A statue of Santa Muerte.
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A Santa Muerte necklace hangs on the neck of a life-size Santa Muerte figure, against the colors of the Mexican flag.
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A tall Santa Muerte figure stands in an elaborate, enclosed neighborhood shrine.
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A Mexico City man who is known as McGiver sits on the steps of his home in Valle Gomez. After spending nine years in prison and receiving numerous gunshot wounds, he is convinced that he is still alive because the Santa Muerte has been protecting him. Out of prison at last, McGiver said he prays fervently to the Santa Muerte to help him stay on the right path. He asks her to help his younger sister, who is also serving time in prison.
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Enriqueta Vargas leads a Sunday prayer service at The International Temple of Santa Muerte.
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Vargas leads a prayer service.
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Devotees pray to Santa Muerte.
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A service at The International Temple of Santa Muerte.
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Photographed By Janet Jarman/Redux.
Devotees eagerly surround Enriqueta Vargas, waiting for her to douse their various possessions (small statues of the saint, photos of loved ones, wallets, Santa Muerte necklaces, etc.) with holy water.
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Dinora del Carmen Turado Alvarez, 32, proudly displays her tattoo of Santa Muerte while attending a spiritual service at The International Temple of Santa Muerte.
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Fernando Valdez Garcia receives a cleansing from David Valencia.
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Karla Campos Castillo receives a cleansing from David Valencia.
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Mia Isabela Aguilar receives a cleansing.
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