By Abby and Kate Kingsbury
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As an anthropologist of religion, I had the good fortune to stumble upon a beautiful and devotionally rich chapel to Santa Muerte while I was visiting rural Oaxaca, a region known for its Indigenous populations and their strong religious and thanatological traditions, which include, as this piece explores, Day of the Dead celebrations that have become a time when devotees celebrate Santa Muerte’s birthday. I subsequently returned to Oaxaca upon numerous occasions to do fieldwork. I have been doubly blessed, not only to find a place so full of rich traditions from which are developing new religious praxes, but also to be accepted into the family of Santa Muerte devotees that founded this shrine. I want to begin by thanking them for sharing so much and caring for me throughout our time together, and also to thank Dr. Ruth Gruhn whose support and care made all of this work possible. Care is a theme that runs deep through this tale, told by Abby, who describes how she watched, initially a non-believer herself, as not only her father’s family, which includes her granny, but the whole community came together to care for a statue of Santa Muerte during a hurricane. The desire to care for this effigy resulted in the creation of a chapel that now stands three times as large as the original iteration. The family and community continue to this day to tend to it with love, care and tenderness, honouring the statues with ceremonies and above all a grand celebration during Day of the Dead, a time during which as Abby relates she learnt that ” from death you can never escape, not even if you hide.”
As this tale reveals, in Mexico, devotees are dedicated to Death herself not only during times of fair-weather and merrymaking, but come together during great hardships whether hurricanes or more recently Covid-19 with fervent faith. As Abby details, devotees fork out hard earned cash to pay for celebrations, whether it is her family taking on debt to celebrate the Skeleton Saint’s Birthday, or attendees paying the band to play for longer at celebrations during Day of the Dead. While paying $50 (1000 pesos) for the musicians to play another hour for Santa Muerte may not seem much to the well-to-do in EuroAmerica, in Oaxaca, where $10 a day is considered a decent wage and opportunities to earn more are limited, this is a great deal indeed. Meanwhile, the reader should note that inflation has been constant in Mexico and wages have not risen accordingly. The cost of basic foods -such as tomatoes, chilis, eggs and tortillas- has increased. Gas and water have doubled. Around 55% of the population farm in this region, growing produce such as corn, coconuts, bananas and other fruits on their ranches. But much of life centers around the sea. Many fish in this region. Abby’s father and boyfriend are both fishermen spending much of their time in small groups of men who go out on the high seas for long hours, seas that may be rough and turbulent and upon which, every time they set sail, they and their loved ones are aware that they may not return. Abby thus sent this tale to me, and asked me to share it, as a sort of textual ex voto to thank la Santa Muerte for keeping her and her loved ones safe, and as she says herself to ask la Santa to “always bring back my boyfriend back safely from the sea”.
If you believe in God, faith or timing, you will understand why I only began to believe in la Santa after 10 years of my first encounter with her. The first time I saw la Santa I was seventeen. I had just arrived in Mexico after living far from my family for half my life. I was coming to stay, but there was a chance that I would have to live in another state different from my family, so before I left again I wanted to see my dad and my granny who lived together on a piece of land in another town. The last time I saw him I was probably twelve and upon my arrival I was told that he had a new wife and a two-year-old daughter, whom I wanted to meet.
I headed to the hut where they lived without announcing my arrival, wanting to surprise them. No one was there. I walked through the yard searching but didn’t find anyone there, I went into the corridor of the house to wait. It was then that I came across la Santa. At the time, all I saw was a statue. She was a little bit taller than myself, I’m 5’4. She was adorned in a golden gown and a white sash lay across her waist. Her hands were posed in the same way I posed mine each time I went to mass and prayed to the Holy Father. Her face, as well as her hands, were those of a skeleton. In one hand, she had a globe and in the other a scythe. More than afraid, I was curious. At that time, I had never heard of or seen anything like her. But having just arrived from California, a state full of diversity, ethnicities and religions, I grew accustomed to not asking certain questions as to people’s beliefs or families.
By the time my granny got home, I let go of any questions I had about the statue as I focused on her and my family. We had years to catch up on. The joy of seeing my family exceeded my curiosity, and even on my frequent visits back to see my dad, granny, new stepmom, sisters and cousins I didn’t ask about the statue.
It’s funny to think back and now understand that the first to welcome me at my granny’s house was la Santa Muerte. As time passed, my visits became more frequent. I was told that the statue was a saint purchased by my father years back. He began believing in her after being aided by a curandera who worked with la Santa. My curiosity about la Santa was displaced by the strong beliefs instilled in me since I was a child. My parents separated when I was little, and I had grown up with my mother. She and her family ensured I had a strict Catholic upbringing and la Santa Muerte seemed somewhat unholy.
I started attending college close to my mother’s hometown. My visits to my granny’s house, and therefore la Santa, became less frequent each time. I was absorbed by the school’s full time schedule, helping my mother out with her food business, and my social life. It was only during summer, when I had a three month break, that I would travel back and forth between my mother’s and father’s town. During this time, I got to know more about La Santa as well as the people that believed in her. If at the time my mother and her family would have known the impact that this statue was going to have, as well as the shrine that was going to be made for her, they would have done everything possible for me to not visit my other family.
After attending a rehab center, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, my father came back with change on his mind. Among those changes were his beliefs, and behavior. It seemed, at least to me, that he doubted La Santa, although he wouldn’t admit it. For some time, I think my father denied her existence. I don’t know what exactly changed in him, but by the next time I went to visit, the statue that had been inside was out in the open close to the sidewalk, facing the highway.
I have long wondered if placing the statue by the highway was an attempt to give her away after certain doubts, or if it was him asserting his faith and our family letting everyone know what they believed in. What came after, was a surprise to everyone. Many devotees that would travel the highway, which was a main thoroughfare, would stop by the house and ask for permission to leave flowers and other offerings. I respected my father’s beliefs, but I didn’t consider them my own, anything to do with la Santa was none of my business.
The first time la Santa really piqued my interest was after a few years of returning to Oaxaca. A hurricane had just hit the area, and had left the town without electricity, with massive amounts of debris and damage and impassable roads. After tending to my mother’s family and knowing they were all fine, I started to worry about my father’s family. They lived far from me, and also in an area that to this day has no phone coverage, only occasional Wi-Fi signal. I couldn’t get in touch with them, and there was still no public transport due to the impassable roads.
Upon arriving, I realised my worries had been in vain. The property was teeming with men and women that were helping pick up the garbage that the wind had carried, along with restoring the hut where my father’s family had lived. All of them were strangers. I only recognized a couple from neighboring towns, but still knew that none had a direct blood relation to my granny or father. All of them, were devotees of la Santa Muerte. Their devotion to La Santa was so fervent, that right after the hurricane, people arrived at the property out of the blue to aid my family with their needs. At the time, there was no other public Santa Muerte altar in the area. So those devotees came to aid my family because as many told me, it was the first place they were able to come and be open about their faith in la Santa. They were worried that the statue or anyone that cared for her was hurt. This was not the case. My amazement was not in their beliefs, but the amount of people that believed in la Santa.
Mexicans are known for their unity in catastrophes, but I had just come from another damaged and more populated area, where no one was helping to restore the damaged Catholic chapels and churches. We had all been hit, so even if someone’s house had not been damaged, a relative’s could have been and I thought that people would be helping their families. Yet, they were there, cleaning. Not only that, but there was also a group of people carrying sand and concrete. It seemed that they had come together and pitched in to build what was to become the new chapel of la Santa Muerte.
I recall how a while back, at the invitation of a friend to create a youth group that would help with the expenses of my hometown’s church, I attempted to support the local Catholic Chapel. But no donors stepped forward, there were fundraisers and auctions that managed to raise a small amount but yet it was a struggle and we were not even able to paint a wall. But here I was, at my father’s house seeing the help that he and my granny were receiving. He hadn’t asked for any of it, yet there they were ready to build the first chapel to la Santa Muerte. I wasn’t even able to get help sweeping the Catholic church in my town sometimes, a town twenty times bigger than the one of my father’s. Their faith affected me.
When the Santa Muerte chapel was finished, I was back at college, so I only got to see it a few times. Once more my visits were occasional. I still didn’t believe in her. Often when I would arrive and would find my family there. My granny would be sweeping it and tending to offerings. I often found my cousins or father, making improvements to the wall or surrounding areas. Each time, it was bursting full of flowers and candles. To this day, there are no visits where I have seen a Santa Muerte without offerings of flowers.
It wasn’t long before word spread that there was a new chapel of La Santa. My mother’s family knew who it belonged to. So many comments were made, and unfriendly comments directed towards my father’s side of the family. To halt the gossip I stopped visiting them.
My visits to my granny’s changed a year and a half before graduating. During that time changes occurred that no one expected, least of all myself. I fell in love. The summer prior to my last years in college I started dating my present boyfriend. Within six months of dating I moved in with him. The moment I took that decision my family’s financial support on my mother’s side ceased to exist. Mostly, because at that time, for some, he didn’t seem like a suitable match for me. He was only a fisherman. Yet, he covered my expenses until I graduated. That period was when I got to spend more time at my granny’s and with my father’s family who had no issue with my boyfriend since my father too is a fisherman.
Although my boyfriend had grown up and lived in my hometown, he was born in a town close to my granny’s community. Each Sunday, we would travel to his hometown to visit a few relatives. On the way back, we would stop by my granny’s and we would even stay overnight.
My boyfriend was a non-believer like myself. But the closeness that grew between my father’s family and him, led us to spend more time together at my granny’s. What we saw as bonding periods led followers to think that we lived there. Therefore many assumed that we were devotees. Our interactions with the chapel began when visitors would ask us for help when no one else in the family was around. This help included giving them water and vases to place their flowers in, for example.
Since the chapel had been made with the help of devotees, it was always open to everyone, even overnight. I won’t deny that there were times we would find disturbing items. A sacrificed black chicken with some soiled underwear, and other nefarious items that seemed to have been part of some sort of black magic ritual. They had to be thrown out the following morning after finding them. My granny and father discouraged such rituals. As they would always say, their belief in la Santa started because she was the only one that had been able to take away the black magic casted upon him years back. Therefore they didn’t wish the same for anyone else, and were not going to allow those types of objects to be left in the chapel.
My father for some time had lost touch with reality, he had gone mad due to witchcraft. My memories of that are scarce. I wasn’t there for part of those years. But I do know that one of the reasons I was taken to California as a child was to be away from my father. As I recall, as a child, my mother’s family didn’t want me to see that “Loco” (crazy). So, as my granny told you, she searched into her beliefs to heal her son. She had come from a long line of curanderos and knew what had to be done. She took him to a curandera, who was deeply devoted to la Santa Muerte and who cured him.
The chapel had been the result of that gratitude. I watched and saw how deeply devoted my granny and father were to La Santa Muerte and I couldn’t understand it. I was rejecting her because I was afraid to be eternally damned. When the talk of celebrating her came up I was doubtful. But I enjoyed spending time with my family and so did my husband. So when the first celebration to Santa Muerte was organised, we told them they could count on us to help them.
The choice to help in Santa Muerte’s celebration was to thank my Dad’s family. Financially, I was dependent on my boyfriend, and although we had plenty, I still had college fees pending. My father and his new wife aided us with loans to pay these fees when we didn’t have enough. I was thankful, and so was my boyfriend. Besides, his birthday was on the first of November, and he saw it as a two day celebration. My family, knowing that we were non-believers, only asked us to decorate, so we did. I aided in setting up the altar with my sisters and women in the family. Although the celebration was on the second, the altar had to be ready before the first. This included cleaning the chapel, the statues and setting up the altar to receive the spirits of those that had passed away. On the first, all the angels, or babies and children, are received, and on the second everyone else.
I saw no harm in setting up the altar. It was something I had been doing for years at my mother’s. From picking the Cempazuchitl (marigolds), to tying the peanuts and making the arches for the Cempazuchitl to be placed, I loved doing all of it. The only difference that year was that instead of setting it up at my mother’s, I was placing it at the entrance of the chapel. Instead of placing my great grandparent’s picture, I was placing photographs devotees had taken to Santa Muerte. People had been coming all day long so we lost track of time. The altar was finished close to midnight.
It was around 5:00 a.m. when we were woken up by a series of fireworks blasting outside. We knew it was time for the mañanitas (Happy Birthday) to Santa Muerte. To our amazement, when we reached the chapel we saw over fifty people there, despite it being so early in the morning. Someone had hired a band to come play the mañanitas. In my hometown I often attended la mañanitas of the Virgen de Guadalupe with my boyfriend, never had there been a Banda in the mañanitas as hiring a band was extremely expensive. For two hours of music, their fees went ranged $300 to $500.
La Santa for her first celebration had the band play in the Mañanitas and Rosario (rosary) in the afternoon. Meanwhile many more people had arrived. Not only did Santa have a Banda but there was also a small live music group setting up w. Both Banda and the music group had been hired by devotees that were thankful to La Santa.
When it was time to serve the food, my boyfriend and I acted as waiters while the rest of the family was attending to the guests and overseeing other details of the celebration. Serving almost every single guest we got to see all of those that came. Many we had met in previous visits, others, to our amazement were people from our hometown or close by, whom we never guessed had faith in la Santa.
We ate until there was no more food. By then, the music group was about to finish playing. There was only an hour left, and my family wanted to thank everyone for attending as well as their contribution. Yet, no one wanted to grab the mic and make a speech. Everyone was too shy. Up until a few years into college I had been an occasional freelancer as a tour guide with a tourist company in the region and my dad knew I was good at public speaking so told me I should make the speech. I couldn’t argue that I was too shy, nor that I lacked experience . Even if I didn’t believe in la Santa, I had spoken in front of strangers many times. This time I just had to be the spokesperson for my family.
I can’t recall what I said. I just remember thanking everyone, from donors to my family and telling them to enjoy the last few minutes of music and that we hoped, as my father had told me, to have another celebration the upcoming year. Within minutes of leaving the mic, I had a devotee in front of me asking what fee the group had for extra hours. The fee was 1000 pesos ($50) per hour. He wanted an extra hour of music for everyone, so he paid for it. Other devotees saw this and started handing me change and bills that they had with them, and in total ensured three extra hours of music.
Once more, I was amazed. There had been no problems, nor opposition to the celebration. Those that arrived were not there for the free food and music. With their last minute contribution they showed me they had attended for Santa Muerte and their faith. After that celebration, my perception of la Santa changed. While in previous years I saw no more than a statue, after that celebration I began to see her as someone, another member of my family. I was still doubtful about her, but compared to other years this time I understood that she had power, and whatever it was, it made many believe in her.
When the second year’s celebration came, my boyfriend and I were there once more to help. Having attended two years in a row, my boyfriend and I got into trouble. My mother’s family were not happy about it but couldn’t do anything to stop it. I was an adult and had not been living with them for years. My boyfriend however faced a lot of criticism. His family, who disliked Santa Muerte, started saying that I had bewitched him. When they found out that I had made the speech during celebrations they began saying that I believed in la Santa and practiced brujería. I did neither.
That year my grandfather fell ill and I had to take turns with my relatives to take care of him. My boyfriend helped me. He would cancel his family visits, not letting them know for what reasons. This secrecy made his family turn on me more than usual. I couldn’t stand the pressure and he couldn’t stand the comments. So by the end of the year we ended up breaking up. I took a job in another town, moving out of his house and out of my town. Once more, I had no time, or perhaps no interest, to visit my granny, father and la Santa.
Although months had passed from my break-up, my boyfriend and I had been in touch. So when my grandfather was in his last hours, he was one of the first to reach out to me to give me the news. I had been working and couldn’t get to my grandfather in time, I was hours away. His death devastated me. He had not only been my grandfather, but also the only father figure I had in my childhood. His death was full of sorrow but also brought with it a lot of revelations. For years, I had wondered how and why people would visit Santa Muerte, I saw nothing more than a skeleton. But after various visits to my grandfather at the cemetery I understood everything.
My visits to the cemetery were close to nightfall, I would arrive after work and it would be growing dark with the moon starting to slide her way gracefully into the salty seaside skies over the bodies of the dead. And the only thing that would come to my mind when seeing how late it was, was a saying the devotees of la Santa had when asked about death. ‘A los muertos no hay que tenerle miedo, los únicos que nos pueden hacer daño son los vivos’. (We should not be afraid of the dead, the only ones who can harm us are the living).
After remembering that, I would head to the cemetery to see my grandfather, regardless of the time. I was never alone, there was always someone at the tombstones, some with flowers, others taking candles, and others just present for their dearly departed. Each, took their time to have their personal talk with their relative or beloved one. Like them, I did the same. I sometimes visited my grandfather to ask for forgiveness, sometimes I just came to pray, and at other times I asked him to help me find a better job or have better relationship with my parents.
We were all there, with the faith that those that had passed away could hear us. They were no longer alive, and some had probably been there for decades. Yet, we were there for the love we had had for those buried. That’s when it hit me. We were doing the same thing la Santa’s devotees did. We were talking to skeletons. On those visits I understood how my father, my granny and devotees could go to the chapel and talk to La Santa. I had to experience it myself to understand what they were doing even if their reasons or perception were different. Yet, I kept that understanding to myself. I didn’t want to get involved in more gossip.
My boyfriend and I reconciled after my grandfather’s death. Our time apart had helped each other understand how much we wanted to be together, so we wanted to make things go differently. We didn’t want to get involved in gossip or misunderstandings that would involve la Santa. Even though in our separation we had both had revelations that would lead us to her. While I came to understand the faith devotees had during visits to my grandfather, my boyfriend had had dreams that included Santa Muerte. Dreams during which la Santa told him of personal, and family problems that eventually ended up happening.
We decided for the upcoming celebration, that we didn’t want to participate. He didn’t want his family to say that he had returned to me because of my brujería, and they had already made such comments. So, he decided we would visit his family in Chiapas and use his birthday as an excuse. Our visit to Chiapas only ended up reinforcing our belief in la Santa. For months we had been struggling about accepting la Santa in our life. She represented to my mother’s family and his, everything they had taught us to not believe in. She was also rejected by the Catholic church in our hometown as well as by many people we knew.
We arrived in Chiapas. His family’s town was smaller than our own, but had the peace we wanted from all our chaos. It was my first time there, and I was awed by the beauty of their landscape. It seemed like the best decision had been made. We were away from everything we had known.
Everyone was getting ready for Day of the Dead. Many were cleaning and cooking what would be taken on November second to the cemetery. We had already seen the whole town, and had nothing to do. My boyfriend’s cousin asked if we could help her set up her aunt’s Day of the Dead altar. We agreed.
We immediately started cleaning and seeing what we could use to make the arch for the altar. My boyfriend’s cousin had gone into the bedrooms to bring out her pictures and items the lady had asked for her altar before parting. I remember that day so well. Among the items his cousin started taking out were various Santa Muerte statues. The lady was a devotee. As soon as we saw the Muertes, my boyfriend and I just gazed at each other wordlessly. We had traveled so far, to avoid problems with our families, and to avoid decorating at the Santa Muerte celebration at my granny and father’s chapel, yet, once more we were decorating for la Santa. I remember the lady’s sons words after we told him our reasons for being there. ‘ De la muerte no te escapas, ni aunque te escondas‘. (From death you can never escape, not even if you hide). Those words might sound threatening but to us it just reaffirmed our belief in la Santa and dispelled our doubts.
That trip changed our whole perspective of everything. On our return we told my father that we were ready to learn about la Santa. He took us to visit a few curanderos he knew. This was not meant to convince us of Santa Muerte’s reality, but as a way to understand and accept the beliefs his family had had for years. My granny’s father had been a curandero. It was also a way to understand that there is malice in the world, and that we need to be aware that we can rely on traditional beliefs to defend ourselves. Furthermore, my granny has always had the gift of sight and to be able to see people’s true intentions, and she knew which curanderos to take us and my father to, usually the ones for whom Spanish was the second language and Zapotec their mother tongue.
From that trip until today I have not missed any of la Santa’s celebrations. I have seen years in which donations are abundant, and also others where money is lacking and my family has taken on debt to carry it out. Last year’s was the only one where I didn’t participate in the decoration. A devotee paid all the expenses for special decorations. Even with Covid, last year seems to have been the year when there were the most donations. It seems everyone was grateful to be alive.
It has taken me years to understand La Santa, what they are, as well as what they represent. Sometimes, she has been the representation of all my ancestors, all of those who made sure I would arrive to fulfill my purpose (whatever that is). At other times I have seen her as Azrael the angel no one can persuade, and the one who will carry out God’s last judgment. For others in my family, like my father, she represents the woman no one talks about in church. The one that can hold our life for so long, and take it when asked to, by God or Goddess. Stereotyping La Santa as a Narco-Saint is belittling to those that believe in her, for nefarious people can be found in any religion. In Islam there are similar prejudices whereby all believers are deemed to be terrorists, even though they clearly are not.
Given the years of knowing devotees to Santa Muerte I have come to understand that many have turned to La Santa because they haven’t found succor elsewhere. Outcasts from church such as those that belong to the LGBT community
as well as fortune tellers are among those that visit La Santa. They all believe in God, or a higher being, but thanks to la Santa instead of rejecting their gifts, they have accepted these and their selves, regardless of public opinion or taboos.
For years I have heard that you should never pray to La Santa, or ask her for any favours, as in exchange she will take what you hold dearly. The way I see it is that if there’s a heaven and hell she will be the last to accompany us on that journey and therefore has to be impartial. If in life we ask for wrongdoing she might grant it, and as a messenger she is not condemning us, we’re condemning ourselves. If on the contrary, we ask for goodness we will receive that as well, abundantly.
My personal request to la Santa has been to bring back my boyfriend safely from the sea. Even through the different circumstances, she has. And this is my gift to her.
To support this research and have your name included in the forthcoming book “Daughters of Death: Female Followers of Santa Muerte” by Dr. Kate Kingsbury, please donate here