Underworld saint becoming more popular in US

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 4, 2013 at 6:37 pm •  Published: March 4, 2013

"She's my queen," said Arely Vazquez Gonzalez, a Mexican immigrant and transgender woman who oversees a large altar inside her Queens, New York apartment. Against one wall of her bedroom altar is a tall, sitting Santa Muerte statue in a black dress surrounded by offerings of tequila.

Gonzalez, who sports a tattoo of La Santa Muerte on her back, holds an annual event in August in the saint's honor, with mariachis and a feast.

"All I have to do I ask for her guidance and she provides me with what I need," she said.

The origins of La Santa Muerte are unclear. Some followers say she is an incarnation of an Aztec goddess of death who ruled the underworld. Some scholars say she originated in medieval Spain through the image of La Parca, a female Grim Reaper, who was used by friars for the later evangelization of indigenous populations in the Americas.

For decades, though, La Santa Muerte remained an underground figure in isolated regions of Mexico and served largely as an unofficial Catholic saint that women called upon to help with cheating spouses, Chesnut said.

It wasn't until 2001 when a devotee unveiled a public La Santa Muerte shrine in Mexico City that followers in greater numbers began to display their devotion for helping them with relationships and loved ones in prison. Economic uncertainty and a violent drug war against cartels that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives also are credited for La Santa Muerte's growth.

Oscar Hagelsieb, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso, said agents have found that most members of the Gulf and Zeta Cartels mainly pray to Santa Muerte while those from the Sinaloa and Sonora Cartels honor folk saint Jesus Malverde.

"Altars are very intricate. We have found some with food and others with blood from animals," Hagelsieb said.

The association with cartels and denunciations by some priests has resulted in some non-devotees destroying makeshift roadside altars. Recently, assailants smashed a life-size statue of La Santa Muerte in a South Texas cemetery. Police in Pasadena, Calif. recently found human bones at a home with a Santa Muerte altar outside. The owners say they bought the bones online.

But the vast majority of devotees aren't crooks.

Kiko Torres, owner of the Masks y Mas art store in Albuquerque, said sales of La Santa Muerte statues, incense, and oils have skyrocketed in recent months.

"Most people who buy the stuff are regular people who just recently found out about her," he said. "Some probably have no idea about her connection to that other world."

One such devotee is Steven Bragg, 36, who said he was introduced to La Santa Muerte in 2009 and began praying to her for a variety of different reasons, including a plea for a life companion. Recently, the New Orleans man built a public chapel to her and holds rosary services that attract around a dozen people.

He also just formed a nonprofit to support the "New Orleans Chapel of the Santisima Muerte," the official name of his public altar.

"It's something I decided to do after all that La Santa Muerte has provided," Bragg said. "She has never failed me."

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Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras