La Santa Muerte [2007]

In Mexico, there is an offshoot of the Catholic faith that pays homage to a saint that is the manifestation of the ancient Aztec death goddess. The cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death) is a fascinating phenomenon that speaks to the fluidity of faith, the spirituality of the disenfranchised, and the strength of regional culture. Santa Muerte is portrayed as a grim reaper, bearing scales of judgement and her ready scythe, and accompanied by an owl, traditional symbol of occult knowledge. Her role as the inevitable figure at the end of life makes her a comforting figure for people who feel hopeless and rejected by mainstream religion–if Death comes for everyone, then she will not ignore the pleas of even the most destitute, alienated and powerless. In addition to being an unsanctioned saint, a large portion the controversy surrounding Santa Muerte’s stems from the fact that her devotees are frequently found among Mexico’s underclass: poor people, homosexuals, substance abusers, and criminals.

La Santa Muerte
La Santa Muerte
In her documentary “La Santa Muerte,” director Eva Aridjis visits the Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito, a crime- and poverty-stricken barrio where one of the most active Santa Muerte shrines is located. Through interviews with Santa Meurte’s worshippers, Aridjis crafts a fuller picture of the reasons why a cult with such deep roots has blossomed over the span of a relatively short span of time and why its adherents believe what they do. Aridjis deftly avoids the kind of simplistic crime/occult narrative that might emerge in a more sensationalistic portrayal of the topic and instead allows her subjects to speak for themselves. The world these people describe is violent, frightening and dangerous–it’s easy to see why an alternative to the passivity encouraged by the Catholic church would be appealing.
La Santa Muerte
Depictions of Santa Muerte range from foreboding to frilly. While many images are repurposed drawings and statues of the grim reaper, other effigies are dressed in elaborate gowns reflecting traditional styles (wedding dresses, capes and crowns, cowgirl get-ups, and event Apache dance costumes). In addition to providing spiritual fulfillment to the faithful, the Santa Muerte cult has spawned a thriving cottage business. Statues, candles, paintings, and accessories are demanded by those who seek special boons from the saint. Altars to Santa Muerte are prevalent in Mexican jails, with some estimates indicating that forty percent of inmates participate in worship of the saint.
La Santa Muerte
At the center of the Tepito shrine is the charismatic figure of Enriqueta Romero Romero. She is a no-nonsense woman whose son gave her the Santa Muerte effigy that is the located in a glass case outside her home. Enriqueta welcomes thousands of worshippers a month who pay homage to the saint with gifts of candies, apples, cigarettes, tequila and marijuana. These devotions are similar to those of Hatian Vodou, and while Enriqueta makes no claims as a spiritual figure, her role in bringing the worship of Santa Muerte into the public eye is undeniable. Prior to her establishing the shrine in 2004, worship of Santa Muerte existed in private, and her shrine has served as a locus for the faith.

La Santa Muerte
It’s no secret that much of the success of Christianity is that faith’s ability to appropriate symbols of indigenous religions. It’s interesting to watch these same indigenous cultures repurpose elements of Christianity to better fit the realities of their lives. As the cult grows, so does condemnation of its practices, with no sign of official sanction from the Catholic church on the horizon. In providing a non-judgmental look at a divisive cultural phenomenon, Eva Aridjis’ “La Santa Muerte” is a fascinating documentary that raises as many questions as it answers.
La Santa Muerte
UPDATE: “La Santa Muerte” is screening at Observatory in Brooklyn on February 24, 2011 with the director present. Click here for more information.

11 thoughts on “La Santa Muerte [2007]”

  1. A few months ago there was an article in National Geographic about non-sanctioned saints in Latin American countries, and as I recall Santa Muerte was a large focus of the article, though I think it focused more on the gang and criminal-related worshipers. Fascinating stuff, and the letters to the editor that came in later were just as entertaining and revealing about the tension between orthodoxy and the repurposing of belief.

    Love the photo of the luchador toting the effigy of Santa Muerte. Makes me wonder if there are any adherents to a cult of Santo Santo! 😉

  2. This looks morbidly interesting, I’ll make sure to look this up later. I love reading about all this macabre Mexican/Aztec stuff.

    And for off topic movie advice, have you seen Drums of Fu Manchu and if you have, could you recommend getting it over Blood and Castle?

  3. Vicar, there has been a LOT of Santa Muerte coverage over the past couple of years, with a frustrating amount of it peppered with words like “bizarre” and “criminal.” Fact of the matter is, there are a lot of incredibly dangerous places in Mexico (thanks in no small part to America’s short-sighted and draconian War On Drugs), which have whole segments of the population forced into criminal activity as a survival mechanism. Watching the people speak in this documentary was tragic and enlightening–many of them spoke of robbing/being robbed with the same kind of attitude as unpleasant weather. It’s just something that happens and has to be dealt with, an unfortunate reality of life. But yeah–the luchador moment was one of my faves 😉

    Chris, I highly recommend seeking this doc out! It’s far more open-minded than others on the topic. As to “Drums of Fu Manchu,” I’ve not seen it, but a quick Google reveals Dwight Frye’s involvement, so I am willing to deem it watch-worthy…! I really like the psychedelia of “Blood” and “Castle,” though others seem to think them to be tacky throw-aways. As in all things, your mileage may vary!

    Thanks, Phantom! It’s going to be interesting to see how the worship of Santa Muerte evolve–definitely a story worth following.

  4. Fascinating! I will have to find this DVD!

    Where can I get some of those statues being sold in the shops?

    I know this is shameless, but they would make a great addition to my ever-growing death collection.

  5. I really–REALLY–wish this documentary was more widely available. I was fortunate enough to watch a borrowed copy, and it looks like it’s fairly collectible on the secondhand market. Maybe keep an eye peeled for used copies on eBay? But yes–if anyone involved in the distribution of this movie happenstances upon discussions like this–PLEASE reissue! I’d love to own a proper copy, too!

    Cranky, I think Santa Muerte devotional statues/candles/medals are probably available in areas with a higher concentration of people of Mexican descent. It sounds like the LA area has a lot of botanicas with Santa Muerte shrines (maybe we should take a road trip).

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