Cancun, Mexico’s premier tourist destination, might be one of the last places one would imagine to have Santa Muerte temples and myriad devotees.
But in the midst of the white sands and azure waters of the Caribbean that attract millions of international and Mexican beachgoers stands an impressive temple to Mexican death saint founded by Yuri Mendez 15 years ago.
I had known Yuri on Facebook for some 10 years and was always impressed by her entrepreneurial zeal and originality in dressing and coifing her statues of the Skeleton Saint.
I first saw the White Girl (one of Santa Muerte’s many monikers) as a blond and ginger in photos of Yuri’s Caribbean house of worship.
I had always wanted to meet the charismatic Saint Death witch and tour her temple and even more so after my research partner, Dr. Kate Kingsbury’s recent visit.
The constellations finally aligned in late May of 2021 and I packed my bags for Cancun.
I had last been to Cancun in 2007 and, as luck would have it, my return to the Mexican Caribbean serendipitously coincided with Yuri’s monthly rosary service which she generously invited me to.
Pioneered at the historic Santa Muerte shrine of Enriqueta Vargas in the notorious Mexico City barrio of Tepito, the Santa Muerte rosary is essentially the same epic Catholic prayer dedicated to Mary substituting her name for that of the Skeleton Saint.
But before the rosary service started I had some time to informally interview the Santa Muerte pioneer in Cancun who is originally from the Gulf Coast state of Tabasco.
Curiously, Yuri became a devotee in the US, while she was living in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. Incarcerated for battery against a woman who denigrated her for being Mexican, the spunky Tabasqueña found out about Santa Muerte from fellow Mexican inmates who encouraged her to entrust herself to the saint’s bony embrace.
Fighting back tears, Yuri related how it was the Powerful Lady, who appeared to her in a dream one night, that empowered her to endure 18 months of solitary confinement, which was the result of a prison brawl that she said broke out after yet another racist incident. Upon release from prison she dedicated herself to the folk saint fervently.
Wearing Covid-19 masks, dozens of devotees joined Yuri in a spirited rendition of the rosary. Afterwards the charismatic devotional leader invited worshipers to give testimony of their faith in the Lady of the Shadows.
In a Cancun hard hit by the pandemic and subsequent decline in tourism, the great majority of the devotees who stood up to share their testimonials focused on two major themes – health and wealth.
I first explored the Mexican folk saint’s paramount role as supernatural healer in my book, Devoted to Death, and more recently Dr. Kingsbury and I analyzed Santa Muerte as both a protectress from and healer of Coronavirus in a Mexico that has been one of the hardest hit countries on the planet.
In this vein, most of the female worshipers who gave testimony shared stories of how the Santa Sanadora (Holy Healer) had cured them or a family member from Covid-19 and other maladies.
In accord with patriarchal cultural norms, women are responsible for the collective health of the family and many devotees are single mothers.
In contrast, most of the men who approached the altar to give testimony related how the White Girl (another popular nickname) had found them a new or better job or had allowed their small business to prosper.
The city is only now starting to recover from the massive layoffs resulting from the precipitous decline in the number of tourists since the pandemic started.
That health and wealth were the two major themes of testimonials of the death saint’s supernatural power and efficacy jibes with the findings of my 12 years of research.
Absent from the testimonials in Cancun was Santa Muerte as love sorceress, mending and breaking Mexican hearts, though many of Yuri’s statues were dressed in red, the color of love and passion.
One of the few testimonials that didn’t focus on healing and employment was a gripping account of how the Powerful Lady had a freed a young man from kidnappers unharmed.
Mexico ranks second in the world in kidnappings, behind Nigeria which is notorious for terrorist group Boko Haram’s mass kidnapping of school girls.
Cancun, long exempt from the narco-violence that troubles much of the country, has recently been plagued by cartel violence as several crime syndicates compete for control of the Mexican tourist mecca.
Since Santa Muerte is the folk saint who never judges, both victims and perpetrators of kidnapping and other dark deeds petition the Skeleton Saint for help with their situations.
Indeed what is curious and of note, is that no doubt at the rosary both kidnappers and the kidnapped, drug dealers and mothers who have lost children to drug addiction, stand alongside each other, and although divided by their roles in the drug war, they are united in their faith to Santa Muerte.
All photos and text by Dr. Andrew Chesnut with much gratitude to Dr. Kate Kingsbury for proofing and providing rich detail on the Cancun temple here.