Santa Muerte: The Enigmatic Allure of the Beautiful Girl by David Metcalfe, The Revealer, New York University
With an iconography drawn from the 14th century plague fields of Europe, where she walked behind the name La Parca, and with an ever growing number of devotees drawn from societies marginalized and dispossessed, la Nina Bonita, the Beautiful Girl, has become one of the fastest growing spiritual powers in the 21st century. To some she is known as la Poderosa Señora, the Powerful Lady, an untiring miracle worker and healer helping them to escape the ravages of poverty, sickness, violence and addiction that have become hallmarks of our time. To others, she is Nuestra Señora de las Sombras, Our Lady of the Shadows, an amoral and unflinching companion in their choice to pursue profits and power in the bloody worlds of drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and murder. For those tied to orthodox religious groups and judiciary organizations she is a satanic usurper, a dark and vicious deceiver leading her millions of devotees down the fast road to hell.
Who is this alluring, conflicted and mysterious woman? If you have been paying attention to the news you might know her by her most common name – la Santa Muerte, Saint Death.
One can find signs of her cult in the Americas from the earliest days of the colonial period, with Inquisition reports mentioning local groups dedicated to Saint Death. Her first 20th century appearance in 1940’s anthropological reports show that Santa Muerte was largely sought out in issues of love, serving as a patroness of maligned wives and lovers seeking recompense from abusive or unfaithful men. Even today, her role as a love-magician still runs strong, and the red candles associated with Santa Muerte’s love magic remain top sellers in the spiritual supply market.
Like many cults, Santa Muerte’s tradition has never had a central or overarching organization to perpetuate her following. It is this decentralized and amorphous persona that has allowed her to move through history, taking on the needs of the time for those who seek her favors. Her ability to serve in such varied roles – fostering devotion among mistreated wives alongside kidnappers, gunmen, narco-traffickers and other criminal groups – means that we must be very cautious when asking how and why people use her image…