Tucked away in the small Mexican town of Santa Ana Chapitiro is a grim, yet endlessly festive temple devoted to Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, the dead saint.
A personification of death, Santa Muerte is associated with healing, protection, and safe delivery to the afterlife by her devotees. Despite opposition by the Catholic Church, her cult arose from popular Mexican folk belief, a syncretism between indigenous Mesoamerican and Spanish Catholic beliefs and practices.
Since the pre-Columbian era Mexican culture has maintained a certain reverence towards death, which can be seen in the widespread commemoration of the syncretic Day of the Dead. Elements of that celebration include the use of skeletons to remind people of their mortality. The worship is condemned by the Catholic Church in Mexico as invalid, but it is firmly entrenched among a small percentage of Mexican culture. Unlike “Dia de los Muertos,” which is widely celebrated and is part of Mexican culture. Santa Muerte and Dia de los Muertos are two different and separate things, not to be confused or lumped together.
Santa Muerte generally appears as a female skeletal figure, clad in a long robe and holding one or more objects, usually a scythe and a globe. Her robe can be of any color, as more specific images of the figure vary widely from devotee to devotee and according to the rite being performed or the petition being made. As the worship of Santa Muerte was clandestine until the 20th century, most prayers and other rites have been traditionally performed privately in the home.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, worship has become more public, especially in Mexico City after Enriqueta Romero initiated her famous Mexico City shrine in 2001. The number of believers in Santa Muerte has grown over the past 10 to 20 years, to encompass several million followers in Mexico, the United States, and parts of Central America.
At the shrine in Michoacán, large sculptures of the la Santa Muerte and thousands of pictures fill the church. Some people may find this place a bit creepy, but few will fail to find it fascinating. Two nearby shops sell sculptures, magical candles and incense for various magic spells, and it is recommended that you leave a donation.
Know Before You Go
Easy to find by the side of the road.