Soraya Arredondo describes herself as a witch, shaman and curandera (healer) of Santa Muerte. She resides in Hidalgo, a central Mexican state that sprawls north of Mexico City. I normally seek to translate and transcribe extracts from what is usually a long conversation to form a whole article that stands on its own. I usually mute my own voice, but this powerful testimony would not be complete, and nor would I escape censure, without describing the backdrop of death and deconstructing the discourse of demonisation of Santa Muerte, and the fact that Soraya works in tandem with, as she calls him diplomatically, “the Other being”: Satan.
If Soraya works with what some might call “the powers of darkness” then it is hardly a surprise, for as she relates in this interview, perhaps only the deepest darkness can fight the blackness that Soraya has seen around her. The witch has a distinctive, rich and mysterious voice. It is layered with innumerable nuances, from sweet to sombre and pensive to powerful. When her voice falls into the deep, dusky tones she favours, her undertones transmit through a wordless language, the shadows of the many secrets she must keep and the darkness she has seen. As Soraya spoke to me of her beloved folk saint, the strength that she brings to her and to the women who turn to her for the fortitude requisite to survive suffering, rape, abasement and violence, a woman was about to be murdered in Hidalgo, where Soraya lives.
Dr. Beatriz Hernandez Ruiz was 29, young, intelligent and beautiful. She had selflessly cared for those with COVID in a local hospital ward and was known as la Doctora Corazón, Doctor Heart, for the care and kindness she tended to the ailing with. She was involved in a car collision. After the good doctor had tended to the wounded, the police violently arrested her and brought her to the station for questioning, even though they had no reason to, and she was not at fault. Soon after being locked up by the police in a cell, Beatriz was found strangled. Her father who had come to see why on earth his daughter was incarcerated found her dying on the floor. She could not be resuscitated. The police alleged it was a drunken suicide. The shocking death of an innocent female doctor who had only sought to do good in her life, allegedly at the hands of those who should be upholding justice, seemed tragically timed with Soraya’s impartation to me of the deep fear women have of being raped and murdered and how they turn to Santa Muerte for protection.
The other backdrop to this article was my posting of an image of Soraya with Santa Muerte and Satan on Facebook. For anyone familiar with the media narrative on Santa Muerte, she has long been demonised as satanic and devotees have fought hard to rectify this erroneous image of her as a force of evil, seeking to promote a more accurate portrayal of the folk saint of death. After posting these pictures, a devotee castigated me for making the association of Satan and Santa Muerte public on my page. Yet while I agree that Santa Muerte should not be labelled as satanic, as an academic I follow on from the award-winning, controversial anthropologist Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Like her, I am not ever willing to censor, mute, or suppress the voices of devotees to suit other people’s agendas, nor will I hide the fact that some devotees combine supplication of la Santa with Satan, even if this might frighten some. As an anthropologist, it is not my job to judge, it is not my job to say what is good or what is bad, it is my job to record what is.
Many devotees, in a polytheistic fashion, turn to Santa Muerte and other saints and entities, be it St. Jude, Jesus Malverde or even Orixas, such as Yemanja. A small minority supplicate Satan alongside the Skeleton Saint. While for some, this clearly links to the more nefarious aspects of the practice, Soraya suggests in this interview, that she turns to Satan not to bring darkness to the world but to fight the ebony abysses of evil that she encounters in it.
While most devotees will tell you that Santa Muerte is la Mera Mera (the big boss, the head honcho), Soraya’s thanatology features demonology. She describes how there are times when she judged that even the Skeleton Saint was not powerful enough to fight evil and that it was necessary to work with Death and Demon.
Soraya is not alone in her practice, her eight year old niece, who she told me also has the gift, dispenses healing through her hands, and uses fire, candles and other tools to bring light to the sick, the wounded, the drug addicted and the suffering. I have said enough and prefer to let Soraya explain her faith in her own words.
“I am a witch, shaman and curandera dedicated to Santa Muerte and spreading the word of her greatness. Through her I found my spirituality. She is beautiful, incredible but above all she taught me humility which should be the beginning of everything.
I have been a devotee of Santa Muerte for over twenty years, even before the chapel of Doña Queta was started. I do not pray to God, I have asked him many times for help, to manifest himself before me, to send me even the smallest sign, he never has. He has never helped me, in fact the inverse, I have asked him for aid in the past and at that time things actually got worse for me, so for me he does not exist. If he exists then why does he allow people to be assassinated, children to be raped, women to be murdered? For me there is nothing greater than Santa Muerte.
When I first started praying to her she was not well known, indeed, I first heard of her as associated with robbers, criminals and other malefactors. This was during a time in my life that I hit rock bottom. It was a time of intense emotional, familial, financial crisis when I thought I would not be able to go on. I turned to those around me for help, I went everywhere asking but no one would come to my aid. During that time, La Santa Muerte manifested to me in dream. Dressed in a black gown, she had no face, only the skull of death. She touched my forehead with her bony hand and delivered such a powerful miracle to me such that I survived that time of great hardship.
Till this day I have never looked back. There is a very strong connection between her and me. She comes to me often. She visits my home which is her home, not only in my dreams, but during my waking hours. I have often seen her and sensed her presence in front of me, behind me and even at my side. She does not walk, she floats. She talks to me, she touches my shoulder, my hand, my forehead, with her bony hand and tells me all will be well, she comes to help me heal others too. My children have seen her in my house, her black gown blowing in the wind but there is no fear, my children, my grandchildren are her devotees too. She brings peace and tranquility. People have told me that it is madness to see her, to speak to her, or hear her, but I believe that if everyone had the right energy everyone would be able to see, hear and speak with her.
I have a special connection with la Niña Negra as she is the one who always manifests to me. But it does not matter what colour she is: white, red, they are all Santa Muerte. I love la Negra as black is power, force and given the path I have chosen I need these. This why my chapel is called Angel de Alas Negras (Angel of Black Wings) and is dedicated to la Niña Negra. I help people with very serious problems. I carry out all types of sorcery and witchcraft, from white to black magic. My patients often present with health and other problems due to witchcraft attacks. Many arrive at death’s door, even children and babies. Once a five-month-old baby was bought to me. It was as if it was dead, it barely moved, it would not open its eyes, it would not smile, nor even cry or babble. I worked on the baby through the power of Santa Muerte with my hands and this tiny precious being that seemed dead suddenly came alive, it opened its eyes and started to laugh. It was beautiful.
I also see other witches, videntes (seers) who require cleansing from all the work they do in the spiritual realm, as well as drug addicts, alcoholics, and sex workers. These women who work in the sex industry often come with very low self-esteem, and need help to value themselves as women, as human beings, not to be merely objects. They may have had sorcery performed upon them by other jealous women, or need help to leave their dangerous conditions because their lifestyle means that they are constantly at risk.
Some people come to me with such deep issues that I have to ensure they lose consciousness during treatment so that no harm comes to them. Using my hands, I put them into a trance-like state and heal them. Sometimes I use black magic to remove extreme pain, and sorcery from people but sometimes there is such darkness that I must resort to another being that I work with to tap into even more power, force and energy. That is how I have received so many clients because my work is so deeply powerful. I work with Santa Muerte and also this other being. I never publicise my work, not on Facebook or elsewhere, I only thank Santa Muerte and the other being. It is only through word of mouth that I have acquired my clients.
The other being I work with is Satan-Lucifer. One should not fear Satan. People tremble before him and Santa Muerte because we are taught by the Church that they are bad, that anyone who worships them is corrupted, that they are drunks, drug addicts, criminals etc. We are far too influenced by what people say, instead we should investigate for ourselves. My clients are surprised when they first visit my shrine, they see Santa Muerte and Satan side by side but soon they realise all the good that they bring to the world, especially once they understand his gifts. They no longer fear Satan, they even bring offerings, which are the same as for Santa Muerte, tobacco, wine, marijuana, flowers.
One has to have incredible respect to work with Satan as he is the most powerful spirit belonging to the deepest depths of underworld. Through Satan I have learnt to love myself and be myself, with him I have learnt that I am my own temple, that I do not need to go to a church or a priest and that we are all powerful, we are all leaders and that no one can limit us. That is his most powerful teaching. He has helped me to remove the most darkest witchcraft from people.
I work with candles, incense, aguas, oils and sacred circles of fire purification to purge people of evil spirits. I also work with a pendulum. But magic does not depend on all these items, whether it is candles or sprays, my strongest tool is my hands and this is because magic comes from within the witch, the shaman, the curandero, not from external things. You can light as many candles as you like, if you do not know how to work with energy, nothing will happen. This is why I work with very little paraphernalia. I work hands on with people but can work from a distance too with people all over Mexico and even beyond.
I have had the gift of sorcery since I was a young girl. I would see things that others did not, but when I told my parents they said this was madness. So as I grew up I learned to hide these gifts, but when Santa Muerte came to me, she opened me up to work with my gifts. I needed no one to guide me, only her and Señor Satan. Initially I started with nothing, just a tiny altar, where I offered limpias, despojos and other services. I helped a few people and they told others about me, who told others about me and so on, and slowly my clientele grew. And as they gave to me for my services, I gave back to them and my Saint, so that I could have a temple to tend to people and honour la Niña Negra as a Queen.
I am not the only woman who works with Santa Muerte, my close friends, Yuri Mendez, as well as Adriana Llubere and other women form a powerful network to promote and spread the word of Santa Muerte. As witches we work with la Madrina to cease pain and suffering. Women are more called than men to work with the Bony Lady because we suffer more and thus there are more female devotees. We women are the ones that are pushed the most by others, we fall the furthest, but we also are the ones who lift ourselves up the most rapidly.
Women suffer from so many things in Mexico. We face rape, violence, humiliation, mistreatment, infidelity, racism, and murder. There are periods here when not one woman is murdered, not two, but innumerable women are raped and murdered during femicidal killing sprees. That is why many women turn to Santa Muerte to ask her that the same does not happen to them. They pray to her with much devotion, from their heart and with much humility.
As a witch, I treat many women that have suffered deeply, in my role I am a healer, a therapist, a psychologist, a shaman, I even must massage some wounded women to rid their bodies of pain. I use a wide range of tools. Women must be lifted up and see how beautiful they are, no matter what anyone else thinks or says, and for those that have suffered violence at the hands of male partners or family members, I heal them so that never permit any man to beat them, trample on them, or humiliate them ever again.
While some women who have suffered turn to the Virgin of Guadalupe and she has offered them a miracle, she is not for me. Santa Muerte is. The Virgin is maternal, she is a being in pain with much compassion for others, but Santa Muerte is a warrior and she teaches us how to fight as women and lift ourselves up despite everything we must deal with. She does not have a face upon which there is suffering, nor even compassion. She has a skeletal cranium that emits immense power and when you look upon her she gives you the fortitude to survive any situation no matter how bad. With her, we women find sisterhood, where there is no discrimination, no sexism, where all skin colours and walks of life are welcome, whereas in other faiths this is not the case. While women have led the faith, men too are being drawn and children.
Children come to my shrine because they too suffer, from illnesses, suffering and are victims of witchcraft from adults. It is sad to see this. The first time they come they are frightened. But the second time they come running in, smiling, they hug me and kiss me, they bring candies and gift them to Santa Muerte and Satan. They do not fear them, they have not been brainwashed into being terrified of them, rather they see them for their healing powers and the protection they offer in a place where some would hurt children. My job is incredible and my ultimate mission is to keep children safe and help them however I can, to be free of illness and suffering.
My granddaughter is 8 years old. She does not live with me but with her parents twenty minutes away. She is a “pequeña bruja” (little witch), as she also has the gift and works alongside me to heal. Nobody told her to, nor obliged her to become a witch. She would often come to visit and her parents would tell her, “let your grandmother work in peace” but she did not want to, she wanted to help, she constantly wanted to be at my side. She started coming more and more often to visit the temple and developed her skills alongside me, watching me, and now she too has much power and force in her hands, which for her, like me, are her most powerful tools.
When she arrives at the temple, she sits down and begins talking to Santa Muerte and Satan. She has a deep connection with them. Then she will tell me “granny, I feel wonderful. I had such a beautiful conversation with la Santa.” Fernanda works with me to heal people, whether it be children or adults. She knows how to use candles, aguas, the pendulum, fire circles and has much respect for the beings she works with. Some patients ask specifically for her and if she is not there, they ask when she will next be available for healing.
Many little girls, like women, turn to Santa Muerte. More than young boys, they form a bond with the saint because females suffer more, whether they are children or adults, they experience so much more pain and hardship. For this reason, little girls are more conscious and aware than boys because of everything they must face due to their sex. I have seen how girls work harder, with more focus with Santa Muerte. Imagine if all girls could start learning to heal at a young age, we would have an incredible world.
It is beautiful to see children worshipping Santa Muerte. To see that they do not fear her but respect her, because this is everyone’s path, this is everyone’s final destination no matter who we are, we are all on our way to Death.
Written by Dr. Kate Kingsbury, who obtained her doctorate in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford, where she also did her Mphil. Dr. Kingsbury is Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta, Canada. Her current research and forthcoming book focuses on the female followers of Santa Muerte. Dr. Kingsbury is a staunch believer in equal rights and the power of education to ameliorate global disparities. She also works pro bono for a non profit organisation that aims to empower and educate girls in Uganda, Africa. Contact Dr. Kingsbury for further information on how to support this work on Santa Muerte, the community of female followers, or for media inquiries: drkatekingsbury (at) gmail.com