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Saint Of Death Gains Loyal Following In Mexico

MICHEL MARTIN, host: But first, today is Halloween and, by midnight tonight, most trick-or-treaters will be fast asleep in a sugar haze or still trying to hide their candy. But south of the border, the celebration will just be getting started. People throughout Latin America will be celebrating Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. This is the time of year when stores in Mexico will be overflowing with images of skeletons adorned in flowers of all colors.

But there's another more sinister skeleton figure, robed like the grim reaper or holding a scythe. That is Santa Muerte, or the Saint of Death, and according to the Catholic Church, it is no saint. But somehow, for the last quarter century, that hasn't stopped drug dealers, the elite and poor housewives from worshipping it.

We wanted to know more about Santa Muerte, so we've called on Robinson Herrera. He's an associate professor of Latin American history at Florida State University. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ROBINSON HERRERA: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: First of all, who is Santa Muerte?

HERRERA: It's sort of a mystery and it's not really clear how she comes about. There's a sort of argument that alleges that she starts in the pre-colonial period tied to Aztec gods. There's another side that claims that she starts in the colonial period in the tradition of a different Catholic saint, San Pasqual, who comes to be known as the king, San Pasqual King.

And yet, other explanations argue that she gets started in the early 1960s in the Mexican state of Hidalgo and part of what her interest does, is this mystery that no one really knows when she comes about, but clearly, in the last 25 to 30 years, her cult has spread throughout Mexico.

MARTIN: The Day of the Dead is very traditional, but it's my understanding that this popularity of Santa Muerte has really exploded in recent years. Why do you think that is?

HERRERA: I think that, to a large extent, it's the sort of state of violence that Mexico's going through. According to the Los Angeles Times, from 2006 to 2009, over 10,000 died as a result of violence tied to the drug trade. It's a sort of chaos and disorder. People really don't find refuge in either the state or in established religions, and thus are looking for a way to find reasons for the violence that afflicts them. Santa Muerte offers that explanation.

MARTIN: What's the explanation?

HERRERA: That violence oftentimes befall those that aren't worthy of protection, and thus you could ask a Catholic saint for protection, but Santa Muerte offers it directly. After all, she is the guardian of the gates of death. She is the person that assure life and she's also the person that can offer you a quick and painless death, something that's important when we hear news of people that are kidnapped, brutally tortured and die a very, very painful death.

And thus, Santa Muerte becomes a sort of refuge in this world of chaos. It is this particular saint of death that offers her believers protection, if you will, from any ills that might afflict them.

MARTIN: You can understand why people who are connected to narco trafficking would be attracted to Santa Muerte because they're just very involved with death, which makes sense. Right? But why do other people who are not directly involved? Why is Santa Muerte increasing? If I have this right, that it's spread beyond the people who are involved in drug trafficking.

HERRERA: Truth be told, Santa Muerte's adherence comes from all social levels, from all social classes, but by and large, the majority seem to come from the marginal classes. That is people involved in the informal economy to a housewife from a poor neighborhood. And thus, over time, this ability of her to protect from violence has sort of spread into her ability to grant wishes of seduction, her ability to grant health, her ability to land somebody a job or provide food. And I think that it's a sort of wider umbrella of Santa Muerte's powers, if you will, that make her attraction extend far beyond a small group of people that might be involved in the particulars of the international drug trade.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the folk saint, Santa Muerte, meaning Saint of Death. Our guest is Latin American History Professor Robinson Herrera.

How do people relate to the saint? I mean, you could see where somebody would pray to the saint for - if they know they're going to be involved in a raid or something dangerous, you could see where they would pray for protection or they would pray, if they are killed, for a painless death. But how would people incorporate worship of the saint or veneration of the saint into their lives on a day-to-day basis if it's not that?

HERRERA: People outside of any sort of illegal activity that look to Santa Muerte and turn to a negotiative relationship with her. They sort of ask for very specific things and promise a very specific thing in return. I'll give you an example from here in the North Florida area, a woman that I interviewed who had been imprisoned. She was trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. She was arrested and it was alleged that she was involved in the human trafficking, which she wasn't.

So here she is in prison. She's praying to all manner of different saints. She's praying to St. Jude. She's praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe and she's not getting anything done. Other women in the prison advise her to go forth and seek Santa Muerte and to pray to Santa Muerte. She did. She made a promise and she was released. In her own words, over the weekend, a judge vacated all charges against her and now, miraculously, she's free from jail, and she went through with her promise to Santa Muerte.

I think that's one very extreme example. Others are a lot more quotidian.

MARTIN: But what was her promise?

HERRERA: Well, your thoughts are supposed to be secret and so she made it public that she was going to get a tattoo of Santa Muerte on the back of her neck, which she did. But the fact that she made the promise and she sort of broke the vow of Santa Muerte that she had to find a different way to go ahead and make good with her, if you will.

MARTIN: And to that end, though, is this the kind of belief or practice that people are inclined to keep secret? You know, is it the kind of thing that, if you were praying to Santa Muerte, you probably wouldn't be talking about it?

HERRERA: Absolutely. In fact, when people are interviewed and you sort of ask them, you know, what was the promise that you made, it's very, very rare that people will actually give you the promise. You know, they'll sort of smile or laugh and say, well, you know, that's the thing that I can't tell you. That's between me and de Nina. That's between me and the girl, if you will.

MARTIN: And is that the kind of thing, then, that could be part of the violence? And I mean, not to simplify it, but could it be part of the violence in Mexico right now? Could it be part of the drug trafficking trade to say that, in exchange for my life, I have to take other people's lives? Is that part of the deal, too?

HERRERA: No. Actually, the vast majority of followers of Santa Muerte reject that and they actually reject asking Santa Muerte to be a sort of vengetive (ph) spirit. What is acceptable, however, is if a family member, for example, has been murdered, has been killed and the person who undertook the killing is clearly understood to be evil, is clearly understood to be malevolent, then you're asking Santa Muerte to sort of set the scales of justice. Here, an evil person took a life. That person should also be killed.

But the vast majority of adherents reject the idea that you would then pray to Santa Muerte for evil to befall someone else; if you're trying to expand a business, if you're trying to grow your criminal activity, that is unacceptable to them.

MARTIN: And finally, we mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that the Catholic Church frowns upon this practice. Why is that?

HERRERA: The Catholic Church rejects Santa Muerte because they see it as abandoning Christ. After all, Christ defeated death in Catholic theology and to worship death is to sort of reject the power that Christ managed over death. And it's seen as something satanic, as something dark that falls completely outside anything to do with Christianity or Catholicism.

MARTIN: OK. Now, you know, I'm going to ask you. Do you?

HERRERA: No. Actually, I don't, and the reason that I don't is because once you engage in the reciprocal relationship, it's something that you need to maintain for life. So that if start with the worship of Santa Muerte and then you leave off for whatever reason, bad things could happen to you. So I'd rather not even begin on that road.

MARTIN: All right. Good advice. Robinson Herrera is an associate professor of Latin American history at Florida State University. He was kind enough to join us from the studios of member station WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. Professor Herrera, thank you so much for joining us.

HERRERA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.