Cult of Santa Muerte Grows in Queens

Santa muerte altar in the home of Arely González in Queens (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Santa Muerte altar in the home of Arely González in Queens (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

In Mexico and cities such as New Orleans, it is not rare to find public altars to Santa Muerte (Saint Death). In New York, however, those devoted to the skull-faced saint are satisfied with worshipping at the private altar owned by Mexican faithful Arely González in her own bedroom.

The improvised chapel located in Corona, Queens, displays some 80 statues of various sizes of the “white child.” The largest one wears a crown and is dressed in a luxurious red gown.

“The faithful who travel to their native countries bring me their own Santísima. It is a tradition,” said González, a 36-year-old transgender woman.

“God makes miracles. But people come here to ask the white child for more earthly favors.”

An offering of tobacco, bread, fruits, tequila and even jewelry is given to the saint to accompany the petitions, which can be as mundane as stopping a spouse’s infidelity.

“When you worship her, you must give to get something in return. You offer to her, and she grants you your favor,” said González.

There is a Santísima figure for each type of favor. The one dressed in dollar bills guarantees good earnings, the one in white grants healing, the green one offers harmony, and the red one, love. The black one is associated with outlaws and petitions for vengeance.

González – who started out in Santería, but considers herself a Catholic – said that Mexicans, Central Americans and a few Spaniards are among the most common devotees of “the white child” in New York.

In spite of the stigma she has earned thanks to the devotion of drug dealers and criminals, in New York, Santa Muerte is mostly venerated by working-class families.

“Even though my offering is small, she has given me abundantly,” said 34-year-old Salvadoran Emilio Cedano, a believer who says that a glass of water suffices to keep “the skinny one” happy.

“Death does not discriminate; she is the only one that is truly fair. She takes the rich and the poor equally,” said the construction worker. “She is the saint of the poor, the one who does not have blue eyes. She looks more like us.”

González also said that, for LGBT believers, the Santísima acquires both a female and a male shape, which makes her cult more inclusive.

“The white child can wear earrings and long hair, or she can look more manly, or both. There is no judgment. She does favors to all, without exceptions,” said González.

Out of the shadows

Born into a Catholic home, González has pioneered a tradition that brought the cult of the Santa Muerte out of the shadows in Queens. Her faith was sparked nine years ago. “I was very sick and was facing a risky surgery. I promised her that I would organize a big celebration for her if she kept me safe,” said González.

Arely González (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Arely González (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Two years after a first modest gathering at González’s apartment, right after her surgery, the ceremony has become a community event. It attracts over 300 faithful every year, hailing from all five boroughs and the metro area.

Every second Saturday in August, the believers pray to Santa Muerte and fulfill the promises they made to her in exchange for her favors. The ceremony, held at an event space in Jamaica, Queens, includes mariachis, rosaries and food, resembling the celebrations traditionally held for Catholic saints.

Cult elements

The myth popular in some Mexican towns that the song of a nocturnal bird heralds death is present in the image of Santa Muerte. In New York’s altars, this myth is represented by an owl, while an hourglass symbolizes the beginning and the end of a life.

A celebration that crosses borders

In Mexico, August 15 is the official Santa Muerte Day. Arely González seeks to recreate in New York the fervor seen in that country, the second Saturday in August, which falls on August 16.

Santa Muerte figurines and prayer cards are already the best-selling articles in botánicas along Roosevelt Avenue.

Tattoo artists also cash in on this cult, and they state that the demand for tattoos with the image of Santa Muerte has soared in the last decade.

Growing devotion

Last year, when Andrew Chesnut, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, presented his book “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” he described the increase in the cult for this unofficial saint in the U.S. as extraordinary.

“[Santa Muerte] has a massive appeal. The favors she concedes are farther from the divine and closer to what is human,” said the professor during the presentation, held in New York. “Her cult is paradoxical: while death is the end, she represents life and healing. She is an atypical feminine figure, and has great influence.”

4 Comments

  1. Ignorant devil worshipers.

  2. Pingback: Santa Muerte, the Alluring and Controversial Folk Saint of Death | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

  3. Let me know where it takes place celebrations

  4. Please text me Gonzales location so I can speak to her

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