Arely Gonzalez’s bedroom in Jackson Heights, Queens, was once a garage. Occupying the wall that was the garage door is an altar, and at the center is a statue of a skeleton draped in jewelry and dressed in a sparkling jade gown. She is La Santa Muerte, the Holy Death, and she is the object of Gonzalez’s affection, a powerful ally in a precarious life, a source of comfort—even miracles—when nothing else helps.
Also known as La Flaca, the Skinny Lady, and La Huesuda, the Bony Lady, Santa Muerte has been worshipped in Mexico since the early 20th century. Her origins are murky, perhaps a merging of Aztec or Mayan death deities with European Catholic culture. Her popularity has exploded in the past ten years. Today, millions of Mexicans call themselves devotees of Santa Muerte, and her cult has crossed the border into the U.S.
“She’s seen as a powerful multi-tasker,” explains Andrew Chesnut, Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte the Skeleton Saint. “Lots of times saints have very specific themes and miracles they can perform. Santa Muerte is for all seasons, all kinds of miracles.” Many even see her as “basically second to God. People go to her if they need their miracles to work fast.”
The Catholic Church is not happy about Santa Muerte’s rise in popularity. The Catholic hierarchy of Mexico condemns her as blasphemy or devil worship. The Mexican state and the media highlight the popularity of the “sinner’s saint” among drug-runners and in Mexican prisons. And it is true that for those living outside of official society, Santa Muerte is in their corner. “Who better to ask for more time, for a few more years, than death itself?” says Chesnut. “She’s seen as the great protectress, so for those who have so much that they need protection from, she is very powerful.”
Arely Gonzalez is an immigrant and transsexual. In Mexico, she suffered discrimination and was kicked out of Catholic churches. In the U.S., she has become a leader in the community of devotees to Santa Muerte. Each August, she organizes a large celebration for her saint. This year, she expects over 500 attendees, and has already booked one of New York’s most prominent mariachi bands. Devotees at Arely’s celebration come from all walks of New York’s Latino immigrant community—proof that Santa Muerte’s reach has expanded.
Written and Co-produced by Adrian Fernandez Baumann
** Note: Location on map is approximate **