Devoted to La Santa Muerte
These photographs were made over a month-long period in late fall 2015 in the neighborhoods of Tepito and Tultitlán in Mexico City. The project originated as an assignment for Refinery 29, to document devotees and women leaders of the Santa Muerte, a female folk saint most often depicted as a skeleton wearing lavish robes and holding a scythe and a globe.
Despite being denounced by the Catholic Church, La Santa Muerte ("˜Saint Death') has become one of the fastest growing religious movements in The Americas, with an estimated 12 million followers in Mexico, Central America and the southwest of the United States, according to religion scholar Andrew Chesnut.
One of the most famous shrines to the Santa Muerte was founded over a decade ago in Mexico City's Tepito barrio by Enriqueta Romero, known to most as Doña Queta. On the first day of every month, thousands of worshippers carry their own adorned statues of the saint and pray to her during hour-long rosary services. Doña Queta seeks to offer a space where the devotees, many of whom live on the margins of society, feel strengthened by faith and a sense of community. The main slogan on her shrine is "Fear not wherever you go, for you shall die where you must."
Another important leader/chaplain is Enriqueta Vargas, who presides over a shrine in the barrio of Tultitlán, Mexico. This place of worship was started by her son, but after he was assassinated in 2008, she took over his duties. Every Sunday she leads emotional ceremonies for the devotees of the Santa Muerte. Pagan purification ceremonies are a common sight at her shrine. She even officiates at baptisms and weddings.
Over the years that I have been documenting the violence of Mexico's drug war, I have often come across shrines to Jesus Valverde and the Santa Muerte. Because of their portrayal in the media, these well known folk saints always seem to be associated with the drug trade, and in the popular imagination they are intricately linked with criminal behavior.
When I was asked late last year to document two important "˜madrinas', or female chaplains of shrines for the Santa Muerte, in Mexico City, I contemplated how I could surpass superficial treatment of the subject to really get to know people. The shrines are often located in conflict-ridden neighborhoods that do not necessarily allow outsiders. I imagined some challenge, but instead, I was welcomed by both "˜madrinas' who accepted my proposal. They wanted me to witness people's extreme faith firsthand and show that they were not the devil worshippers or witches that they were rumored to be.
As I spent time with them and the devotees of their Santa Muerte statues I was quite surprised to see people of all walks of life come and worship. Yes, some people had tattoos and were sniffing glue or smoking marijuana, but the scene was dominated mostly by families and laborers, many of whom had traveled long distances to ask sincere favors of the skeleton saint to grant them health, work, protection and love.
The connections I witnessed between the devotees and the statues were intense and heartfelt. Doña Queta explained that one reason some people connect with the Santa Muerte is because she is accesible to everyone. Some who might feel a distance from traditional religions such as Catholicism feel they can pray to the Santa Muerte, in a different, more open way than they can pray to Jesus on the cross, or even Maria, and they will not be judged. In addition, a gender hierarchy does not exist in Santa Muerte. Many leaders are women.
I plan to continue with this project, to explore the reasons behind the movement's increased popularity. I am fascinated by this first opportunity to experience a faith that I had never understood, a faith that is much maligned by outside observers, but which has intense meaning for many of its devotees.