A 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: