House of Holy Death – The Santa Muerte Shrine of Michoacan

The Santa Muerte shrine in the tiny Michoacan town of Santa Ana Chapitiro is one of the most impressive in Mexico and a testament to the dynamism of the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas.

Built by a recently deceased devotee from Mexico City, it contains hundreds of exquisite handcrafted images of the skeleton saint. Some of the statuettes and portraits of the White Girl reflect the influence of the local Purepecha, the largest indigenous group in Michoacan, who successfully resisted Aztec efforts to conquer them.

Devotees come from all over Mexico and the United States to leave offerings of thanksgiving and also to ask the saint of death for all kinds of favors but usually those relating to health, wealth and love.

In late September of every year the proprietors of the shrine hold an annual feast over three days in which devotees come from both countries to celebrate their devotion to the Bony Lady. I took the photos below during a visit in late December, 2016.

Andrew Chesnut

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¿Es Santa Muerte – el Nuevo Movimiento Religioso de más rápido crecimiento en las Américas – Institucionalizando?

Tanto las fotos como la traduccion del ingles fueron realizadas por la Dra. Fabiola Chesnut, Jefa del Departamento de Lenguas Extranjeras y Bellas Artes de la Escuela Secundaria Huguenot, Richmond, Virginia, y nativa de Morelia, Michoacán. Texto por el Dr. Andrew Chesnut.

El día 28/12/16 asistí a la celebración del 9º aniversario de la fundación del Templo Santa Muerte Internacional en el barrio bravo de Tultitlán.Fundada por Jonathan Legaria Vargas, también conocido como Comandante Pantera, el mayor complejo de templos de Santa Muerte, es ahora dirigido por su madre, Enriqueta Vargas, que fue la anfitriona de las fiestas.

El Comandante Pantera fue asesinado por sicarios que dispararon unas 200 balas en su Cadillac Escalade mientras conducía a casa despues su programa nocturno de Santa Muerte en julio de 2008. Recientemente se convirtió en el primer santo auxiliar de la Flaquita con sus bustos y estatuillas disponibles para compra en Tultitlan.

Su madre, Enriqueta Vargas, ha demostrado ser una líder natural, habiendo incorporado en SMI (Santa Muerte Internacional) otros 12 santuarios y templos. Ya sabía que se había expandido a Nueva York, Brighton, Reino Unido, Dallas y Atlanta, pero en la fiesta de aniversario anunció unas nuevas afiliaciones en Costa Rica y Colombia.

En el ámbito de la investigación, finalmente pude conocer a Lucino Morales, el ex-Profesor Sisyphus, fundador del primer templo de Santa Muerte en los Estados Unidos, en la Avenida Melrose, en Los Ángeles. Había hecho varios intentos fallidos para conocerlo en la Ciudad de los Ángeles, así que estaba feliz de poder conversar con él durante la fiesta.

Estaba allí como invitado de honor y para formar una alianza con Enriqueta Vargas con el objetivo de denunciar a los charlatanes y obtener el reconocimiento legal en México. Desde 2005, ninguna organización religiosa que incluya la veneración de Santa Muerte será reconocida legalmente por el gobierno federal en México. Los devotos, por supuesto, ven esto como una discriminación religiosa inconstitucional diseñada por la Iglesia Católica en México, que sigue siendo una de las más influyentes en el mundo.

Alrededor de 500 devotos, con un gran contingente del estado de Veracruz, asistieron a la animada celebración, que incluyó oraciones, música techno y comida y bebida para todos. Lo que realmente me impactó fue el tema neo-azteca que predominó en muchos de los murales e imágenes de la Flaquita. Lo más impresionante es que Enriqueta Vargas estaba vestida como una reina azteca. Lo unico que le faltaba para llevarla a Mictecacihautl, la diosa de la muerte azteca, era una pintura esquelética.

Más que cualquier otro prominente líder de la Santa Muerte, Enriqueta Vargas ha optado por destacar la supuesta herencia azteca del santo esqueletico. Santa Muerte como la última encarnación de Mictecacihuatl compagina con la expresión hegemónica del nacionalismo mexicano que exalta el pasado azteca y maya mientras rechaza la influencia española.

Vargas también reemplazó al desacreditado ex líder, David Romo, como portavoz principal del movimiento religioso creciente en las Américas, que incluye la defensa bragada de las condenas católicas al culto emitidas casi semanalmente en México

Hasta ahora, el distanciamiento del catolicismo es mucho más evidente en la iconografía de la santa muerte que en las oraciones y la liturgia, que continúan dependiendo de las formas católicas de culto.

El desacoplamiento completo de las formas católicas de culto es una tarea difícil en un país que alberga a la segunda población católica más grande del mundo y sigue siendo uno de los paises menos diversos religiosamente en las Américas, con el 81% de los mexicanos que siguen reclamando identidad católica.

Mi socio de investigación David Metcalfe y yo hemos estado en las trincheras con la presentación de informes y el análisis del crecimiento de SMI, mientras que muchos otros han permanecido miopicamente enfocados en el santuario histórico en Tepito.

En una reciente conferencia sobre la Santa Muerte en la Universidad de Groningen (Holanda) me sorprendió que ninguno de mis colegas académicos habia oído hablar de Enriqueta Vargas o SMI!

Como jefa de Santa Muerte Internacional, Enriqueta Vargas esta lidereando el primer intento serio de institucionalizar el movimiento religioso que sólo se hizo público hace 15 años.

Aquellos con un interés en nuevos movimientos religiosos harían bien en observar a SMI, la organización pionera del movimiento devocional más dinámico de haber surgido en el panorama religioso mundial en las últimas dos décadas.

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Is the Fastest Growing New Religious Movement in the Americas – Santa Muerte – Institutionalizing?

All photos were taken by Fabiola Chesnut, Chair of Foreign Languages and Fine Arts at Huguenot High School, Richmond, Virginia, and native of Morelia, Michoacan.20161228_123519On 12/28/16 I attended the 9th anniversary celebration of the founding of Templo Santa Muerte Internacional in the gritty Mexico City suburb of Tultitlan.20161228_123802Founded by Jonathan Legaria Vargas, aka Comandante Pantera, the world’s largest Santa Muerte temple complex is now run by his mother, Enriqueta Vargas, who hosted the festivities.20161228_123920Comandante Pantera was murdered by hitmen who pumped some 200 bullets into his Cadiallac Escalade while driving home from his late-night Santa Muerte radio show in July, 2008. He recently became the first auxiliary saint to the Bony Lady with his busts and statuettes available for purchase in Tultitlan.20161228_124204His mother, Enriqueta Vargas has proved to be a natural leader, having incorporated some 12 other shrines and temples into SMI (Santa Muerte Internacional). I already knew she had expanded to New York City, Brighton, UK, Dallas and Atlanta, but at the anniversary party she announced new affiliates in Costa Rica and Colombia.20161228_124723On the research front, I was finally able to meet Lucino Morales, the former Profesor Sisyphus, founder of the first Santa Muerte temple in the U.S., on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. I had made several unsuccessful attempts to meet him in the City of Angels so was happy to be able to talk with him at length at the fiesta.20161228_124805He was there as a guest of honor and to form an alliance with Enriqueta Vargas aimed at calling out Santa Muertistas viewed as charlatans and at gaining legal recognition in Mexico. Since 2005, no religious organization that includes veneration of Santa Muerte will be granted legal recognition by the federal government in Mexico.20161228_125832Devotees, of course, view this as unconstitutional religious discrimination engineered by the Catholic Church in Mexico, which is still one of the most influential in the world.20161228_12594720161228_125957About 5oo devotees, with a large contingent from the state of Veracruz, attended the spirited celebration, which included prayers, diatribes, techno music and food and drink for all. 20161228_130127What really struck me was the Neo-Aztec theme predominating in many of the murals and images of the Bony Lady. Most impressively, Enriqueta Vargas herself was dressed as an Aztec queen. All that was missing to take her for Mictecacihautl, the Aztec death goddess, was skeletal face paint.20161228_130710More than any other prominent Santa Muerte leader, Enriqueta Vargas has chosen to stress the putative Aztec heritage of the skeleton saint. Santa Muerte as the latest incarnation of Mictecacihuatl jibes with the hegemonic expression of Mexican nationalism which exalts the Aztec and Mayan past while rejecting Spanish influence.20161228_131231Vargas has also replaced disgraced former top leader, David Romo, as the leading spokesperson for the fasting growing new religious movement in the Americas, which includes energetic defense from Catholic condemnations of the cult issued almost on a weekly basis in Mexico.20161228_131247So far the distancing from Catholicism is much more apparent in the iconography of the death saint than in prayers and liturgy, which continue to be predicated on Catholic forms of worship.20161228_131752Complete decoupling from Catholics forms of worship is a tall order in a country that is home the world’s second largest Catholic population and still one of the least religiously diverse in the Americas with 81% of Mexicans still claiming Catholic identity.20161228_131906My research partner David Metcalfe and I have been on the front lines of reporting and analyzing the growth of SMI while many others  myopically remained fixated on the historic shrine in Tepito.20161228_133337At a recent conference on Saint Death at the University of Groningen I was shocked that none of my academic colleagues had never heard of either Enriqueta Vargas or SMI!20161228_133436As head of SMI, Enriqueta Vargas is leading the first serious attempt at institutionalizing a religious movement that has only been public for 15 years. 20161228_13363020161228_134657Those with an interest in new religious movements would do well to keep an eye on SMI, the trailblazing organization of the most dynamic devotional movement to burst on the global religious landscape in the past 2 decades.20161228_14041220161228_142318_00120161228_14244420161228_14301320161228_14332620161228_14564420161228_145908_00120161228_14593520161228_15000520161228_17265020161228_174010

Santa Muerte Internacional Expands to Dallas and Atlanta

 

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A key element to Santa Muerte’s rise on the global stage has been her tradition’s distinct lack of central coordination. The power of her skeletal iconography to emerge among devotees of all walks of life has allowed her to move from the backwoods to the barrios of Mexico and from the streets to the highest levels of power. She has captured the hearts of millions around the world, and she’s done it without a propaganda office or a building fund – but all of that is starting to change with the global growth of Santa Muerte Internacional, the Tultitlan-based organization, on the gritty outskirts of Mexico City, led by pioneering devotee Enriqueta Vargas.

The death of Vargas’ son, Jonathan (aka Comandante Pantera), launched her on the path to become one of the leading figures in the centralization of Santa Muerte’s devotional tradition – with a prison outreach program, weekly prayer services, exorcisms and a global network of shrines that have come under the organizational label of SMI. Other pioneering devotees like Arely Vasquez in Queens, New York, and Michael Caleigh in the United Kingdom have joined SMI, helping it to become an important driver in the development of Santa Muerte’s public tradition. This week it has been announced that two more devotional leaders have joined SMI – Alicia Garcia in Atlanta, Georgia, and Selena Hernandez in Dallas, Texas – making SMI the only public organization associated with the skeleton saint to now have a presence in multiple countries around the world.

In contrast to the devotional norms at Enriqueta Romero’s historic shrine in Teptio, which are more anchored in folk Catholicism, SMI offers devotees a range of ritual services. Weddings, baptisms and now even funeral services are conducted on regular basis at the Tultitlan temple and at many of its affiliates. Resentful of both Catholic and Protestant denunciations of her mushrooming religious movement, Enriqueta Vargas stresses Santa Muerte’s indigenous roots, with many depictions of the skeleton saint as Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld.

Another important innovation at SMI is the “canonization” of Comandante Pantera (See The First Saint of Santa Muerte,) the founder of the Tultitlan temple as the first auxiliary saint to Santa Muerte. Some devotees ask the slain devotional pioneer to intercede with the Bony Lady on their behalf. We will continue track this fascinating new development in the fastest growing new religious movement in the Western Hemisphere.

 

David Metcalfe and Andrew Chesnut

The Enigmatic Allure of the Beautiful Girl

ct4xppmvuaafrsn-jpg-largeA recent meet-up at a home temple in Dallas, Texas between top Mexican Santa Muerte leader Enriqueta Vargas of Santa Muerte Internacional and Padre Sisyphus Garcia, pioneering founder of the Los Angeles Templo Santa Muerte, provides a perfect portrait of increasing centralization in Santa Muerte’s multifaceted public devotional tradition. Vargas’ diplomacy has extended the presence of SMI from its base in Tultitlan across the Americas – including groups as far north as Queens, New York and as far south as northern Colombia – she has even reached out across the pond where UK devotee Michael Caleigh (who Andrew Chesnut interviewed for SkeletonSaint.com) is now working under SMI’s interpretation of Saint Death’s iconography.

While the growth of Santa Muerte International and Enriqueta Vargas’ influence has strengthened the popular devotional tradition as a contemporary faith beyond the stigma of narco-cultura, it also highlights the fact that the tradition as it existed prior to la Nina’s association with either the contemporary popular cult, or the obscured variants on the margins of the law, is quickly becoming more illusive than ever. A comment posted by Geronimo Garcia on a YouTube interview conducted with SkeletonSaint.com‘s David Metcalfe draws this into focus:

“…my two cents. as someone who was raised in a family of devotees that go back generations literally. It’s offensive to see where all these…supposed “devotees” have taken her. it’s either a bunch of…charlatans or people that refuse to be accountable for they’re own actions and lives. people who really have no clue as to why she is involved in magic and have instead listened to all types…that have associated her with traditions and practices that have no place in the worship of her.

all this colored candles and figures and that each one has a certain aspect is bullshit. and if that’s what was told to anyone it’s because they heard from (someone) that was trying to take your money. 15 years ago you couldn’t purchase a figure of her anywhere. they didn’t exist. and for those of us that followed her, we had effigies made for our homes, or made them ourselves. and technically, it’s wrong to even sale all that…you should be given a figure of her not be able to go down the street and get one.

it shouldn’t be a money making scheme. and you definitely shouldn’t be killing people and using that as an initiation rite. that’s a fucking disgrace to her and everything she is about. it’s like everything else. as soon as a bunch of heathens get there hands on anything, they bastardize it.”

With her popularity having now grown irrefutably beyond her Mexican roots and guarded oral tradition, Santa Muerte will continue to adapt and change to the needs of her new international devotees. As she adapts, however, the allure of an ‘authentic tradition’ lying behind her silent skeletal form will continue to haunt the rising stars and charismatic leaders heading up Santa Muerte’s developing public presence.

As always Saint Death continues to elude classification and even with the development of a media friendly public face there are still those who seek favors from her that are better spoken of in whispers – for more on her complicated persona and a look at some of the darker elements that still surround her, head over to The Revealer, the online review hosted by NYU’s Center for Media and Religion, for:

Santa Muerte: The Enigmatic Allure of the Beautiful Girl 

‘My Lady Saint’ – Reflections on devotion from Asher Meekins

UK writer Asher Meekins represents a growing number of individuals outside of the Americas who have been drawn to Santa Muerte’s devotional tradition as a solution to the contemporary drift away from organized religious institutions. The following reflections offer a very personal picture of his journey with the Bony Lady:

meekins2I just wanted to share with you the new unexplainable things that have happened lately, concerning all within my household. I have for a couple of years been interested in Santa Muerte and was fascinated with the book “Devoted to Death” by Andrew Chesnut. For once I found something that seemed to resonate within me and looking at the skeleton figure I felt peace and connection.

In the Closet

Coming from an active reborn Christian family, I was in the closet with my fascination and dedication with the skeleton saint. Slowly I found myself connecting stronger and stronger and missed not communicating with her. Slowly my faith in the Christian movement bored me and felt no connection, so after asking God for permission to invoke the boney lady (Sorry Andrew it’s your phrase I know), I found my prayers where almost every time answered. Just one small example if I didn’t put the lottery ticket next to her statue I would lose, but next to her I would win, or get a lucky dip, never big amounts but just enough to help.

Things changed, my ninety-six-year-old my grandmother was very ill in hospital and to be honest dying. Being surrounded by my family, I was again subjected to the firm pressure of reborn Christian faith. I started to feel scared and took my Santa Muerte pendant off and my face of Jesus pendant back on, I didn’t feel comfortable but had to do this for my family, they never knew and I wanted to keep it that way.

When I came back from the hospital a parcel was waiting for me, I opened it, and it was a small pewter statue of the skeleton saint – I hid it away and wished I never ordered it from eBay. Nine days went on and Jesus took over, pictures were back and where my skeleton saint stood, now stood Jesus.

She was now almost removed from the house and the light of Christendom had taken over. Everything started to go wrong, my nan died, which in all fairness was expected. My sister attempted to kill herself after a long couple of years fighting depression over her dead son, she survived but again more bad news; My dog had a cyst removed from his leg, the blood stopped circulating and resulted in the leg being amputated.

Santa Muerte Back With Me

meekins4I had enough; I kept feeling something is wrong, and my life was so good when Santa Muerte was here. I was running a bath, and the cover of my iPhone fell off and a card I put in there ages ago, fell out, I picked it up, and it was my lady saint, Santa Muerte, prayer card. I looked at the card and read the writing; it was a prayer card to banish curses and hexes from your life. That was my sign; she is back in my life, the Christian pressure has all been removed, and her statue sit’s back where she belongs.

Tonight I lit the three candles, left some sweets blew a cigarette into her face, which I will admit seems so rude, but she appears to like this and left a can of coke. I said my prayers and asked the almighty God permission to invoke Santa Muerte and converse with her.

I sat and quietly spoke with her in my head, and felt as though she was listening. Straight away the house feels happier and warmer, my dog which is off his food for a while has just eaten masses of ham and looks more like himself, and for the first time has walked out into the kitchen to have a drink of his water from his bowl. I feel like she is back home and back with me.

I just look forward to all the negativity removed, and the bad luck that seems to have attached its self to the house shattered and gone. I just wanted to share with you, my experience as the devotion to her gets such bad press and used in the positive way she is a caring, helping, can do saint and welcomes everyone. I send all of you that read this my blessings, and I hope she helps you as much as she has helped me.

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Asher Meekins is a writer living in the United Kingdom. His first novel, Pascal, was recently published via Amazon Creative Services.

“La Flaca” A New Film on Santa Muerte in NYC

20160820_212203Co-directors Thiago Zananto and Adriana Barbosa have released the trailer for their forthcoming film, “La Flaca,” which features NYC Santa Muerte pioneer, Arely Vazquez. Filmed on location in Queens, “La Flaca” (or Skinny Lady, one of the skeleton saint’s main monikers) focuses on the 9th anniversary fiesta of Arely’s devotion to Saint Death. Top Mexican devotional leader, Enriqueta Vargas, the head of Santa Muerte Internacional on the outskirts of Mexico City, also features prominently in this riveting hybrid of fiction and reality.

As the person who introduced Arely and Enriqueta to each other a few years ago, I serve as research consultant to the directors. “La Flaca” will be screened at international film festivals in 2017.

CLICK HERE to watch the trailer.