The Mexican folk saint La Santa Muerte has the appearance of the grim reaper, but for many marginalized Mexicans she is a source of miracles and hope — an object of intense veneration. Along with her mortal devotees, La Santa Muerte now has migrated to the U.S., finding a special place in the home of Arely Gonzalez, in Queens.
Gonzalez’s has built an enormous bedroom shrine to Santa Muerte, and for the last five years she has organized a celebration for the saint’s feast day each August. Gonzalez is a devout Catholic and a male-to-female transsexual. Although she hasn’t been accepted in the Church, she is a leader in this community of Santa Muerte worshippers. Along with fellow devotees, she raises several thousand dollars each year to rent a hall in Jamaica, Queens where worshipers bring their own idols creating a resplendent shrine. Attendees are mostly Mexican immigrants and their children, but an increasing number are from Central and South America.
Hundreds of followers of “The Bony Lady” eat, drink and dance to mariachi music. Between the music and the dancing, the crowd gather for a solemn recitation of the rosary, specially tailored to honor their unrecognized saint. No priests preside, only the unofficial leaders of this organic spiritual community. Devotees stand before the shrine and thank their patron for another year of employment, health and security. Then the band starts up and they dance until morning.