Death Becomes Her

Controversial saint La Santisima Muerte embraces Utah's outsiders

Salt Lake City Weekly/October 22, 2014

By Stephen Dark

Late one mid-September Sunday afternoon, in a store at 900 South and 300 East in Salt Lake City, a group of women is gathered in prayer. Their devotion is focused on a large altar draped with fabric and garlands, where three skeletal statues stand surrounded by flowers, gently flickering vigil candles and offerings of food. Working their rosary beads between their fingers, the women, wearing dresses embroidered with colorful Aztec-style designs, chant Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

The store is a botanica, a spiritual supply store that sells candles, herbs, amulets and statues. But this evening, Botanica San Antonio is home to a "spiritual mass," an event held monthly for the past seven years, says owner Alvina Tavera in Spanish, translated by her daughter Rakna. The women are praying rosaries for the Mexican folk saint Santa Muerte—aka La Huesuda (The Bony Lady), La Flaca (The Skinny Lady) and La Santisima Muerte (Most Holy Death).

A grinning skeleton in a nun's robe, Santa Muerte is depicted with a variety of objects: a globe (symbolizing her universal presence), an hourglass (a reminder of life's inevitable end), an owl (representing that she sees and hears all), and a set of scales for justice. And she's almost never seen without a tall scythe that she clutches in one bony hand. She brings her scythe with her, Tavera says, "for everybody who seeks to betray others."

Seen as vengeful by some, a kindly grandmother by others, Santa Muerte has many faces even among her believers: a saint for the end of days, a New Age deity, or a spiritual guardian for those who can find no place in mainstream Utah culture.

But all of Santa Muerte's faces reflect the power of death. Her favors do not come without a price: You make a contract with her, and if you do not fulfill that contract, then, sometimes, she will seek recompense.

In the past decade, botanica owners say, Santa Muerte has gained a considerable presence in Utah among Latinos and Anglos, and statues and candles bearing her likeness now dominate most botanica shelves.

And in contrast to the peaceful, spiritual ambiance in Botanica San Antonio, Santa Muerte is most typically known as a bloodstained symbol of death and power, a "narco saint" that drug dealers and the Mexican underworld use for justification for their activities and to intimidate their rivals. Law enforcement and critics in the Roman Catholic Church say that Santa Muerte's recent popularity has its roots in Mexican drug cartels' grip on the distribution of heroin in Salt Lake City.

But many Latinos and Anglos on the margins of Utah society argue that what draws so many to Santa Muerte is that the deity welcomes all with open arms.

The embrace of Most Holy Death, Tavera says, knows no prejudice. All are welcome to the blessings, protection and good fortune she can provide with the keen edge of her scythe and her scales of ultimate justice.

All that matters, Tavera says, is that those who petition Santa Muerte do so with sincerity. "She likes that when you are devoted, you give your heart to her with faith."

City Weekly Music Editor Kolbie Stonehocker first encountered La Santisima Muerte while getting inked at a Salt Lake City tattoo shop. The tall statue repeatedly drew her gaze with its quiet power. Kolbie asked the tattoo artist who the statue was, and he told her it was La Santisima Muerte, the female patron saint of drug dealers, criminals, tattoo artists—outsiders.

His statement struck a chord with Kolbie. If there were patron saints for astronomers, firefighters, seamstresses and even cat lovers, why couldn't there be a saint who accepted all people, no matter their occupation, background or lifestyle?

After the tattoo session, Kolbie wanted to show Santa Muerte a gesture of respect. Seeing coins placed at the statue's base, she dug into her purse to find a suitable offering. After stacking three coins by Santa Muerte's feet, Kolbie looked into her eyes and felt her staring back.

Seven years later, Kolbie—now a devotee of Santa Muerte—and City Weekly News Editor Stephen Dark set out to explore Santa Muerte's presence in Salt Lake City, talking to believers, botanica owners, cops who encounter her on altars in drug "stash houses" and in the tattoos of drug dealers they arrest, and Catholic priests who are concerned about parishioners petitioning her for help.

But even though she's not a saint in the Catholic definition of the word—someone who had an earthly existence and led an exemplary Christian life—her followers believe that she possesses a power that places her second only to God. Santa Muerte is "muy cabrona, muy macha," Tavera says. "If you do everything right, if you are a believer, she'll protect you."

Into the sanctuary

La Santisima Muerte and the practices surrounding her are "not something you can just talk about," Tavera's daughter Rakna tells us, as Tavera disappears into a back room to pray before the interview she's agreed to. While we wait, Rakna explains that it's a common misconception of Santa Muerte that if "you work with her, she'll take away one of your loved ones." But she says that if a devotee doesn't keep his or her promise to Santa Muerte, then everything that she's done for that person will unravel. "I've seen it happen a lot," Rakna says.

Ten minutes later, we're ushered into a small room with a black marble-like table in the center, behind which Tavera sits, her hands clasped in front of her, her eyes cast down. The light in the room is tinted violet by a colored tube in one of the fluorescent lights. It shines coolly upon several elaborate, immaculately maintained altars devoted to innumerable Catholic saints and various deities, their statues surrounded with glowing candles and generous offerings of food, tobacco and liquor. The air is heavy with the scent of camphor—a cube of resin sits on the table in a bowl of water—and fresh herbs.

Behind Tavera stand three Santa Muerte statues. She speaks in Spanish—with Stephen and Rakna both translating—in melodic tones that are soothing yet firm.

Tavera tells of how she grew up with her grandmother, a bruja (witch) who's now 105 years old. The Tavera family has prayed to Santa Muerte over many generations, and Tavera's grandmother conducts healing ceremonies with herbs in a northern Mexican town with 13 other women. Every seven years, the women in her grandmother's group donate braids to a resin statue of La Santisima. Hair, Tavera says, "is the connection with Mother Earth."

Tavera has worked with herbs and done spiritual cleansings since she was 9. After she was married, she immigrated to Texas, and then, in 1999, to Utah, she says, where she opened Botanica San Antonio. She describes herself as a spiritualist who communicates with both the spirit world and Santa Muerte.

La Santisima, she says repeatedly while motioning with her hands, is "a very powerful señora. Everything you ask, she does, and you are never afraid." Santa Muerte takes those struggling with drugs or alcohol and puts them on healthier paths of life. And as the dispenser of death, she can also choose the moment to take a life.

Santa Muerte, Tavera explains, is about fairness and justice, not about protecting drug dealers. She protects women against abusive husbands, and commands with her scythe errant partners to return to their spouses, and to give his or her partner the money the family needs. "Bring your money home," Tavera says Santa Muerte tells a selfish husband. "Here, it's needed."

The store sells Santa Muerte candles labeled "Contra la ley," or "Against the law." Such candles, Tavera says, are for someone who is driving without insurance, is struggling to pay their rent, and prays to Santa Muerte to hide his or her license plate from law enforcement. "They don't want a ticket because they don't have insurance, and because of their faith," she says, they don't get one.

Rakna mentions that Santa Muerte communicates through dreams. That's how Kolbie was approached: in three dreams several years after that first tattoo-shop encounter.

In the first dream, Kolbie visited a botanica and found that every object had Santa Muerte's image on it. In the second, Santa Muerte appeared as herself, wearing a long purple robe, clouds swirling behind her. In the third, Kolbie awoke while invoking Santa Muerte's name in a prayer.

Tavera doesn't like answering questions, she says, believing that "the more secrets there are, the better." But, she says, she let us in because she saw that Kolbie is "an honest believer."

Stephen asks Tavera how she knew that Kolbie is a believer. "It's in her eyes and what she carries on her back, a very beautiful protection," she replies.

A Los Angeles-based santero—an initiated priest in the Lukumí, or Santeria, religion—who went by Dr. E did a tarot-card reading for Kolbie over the phone and told her that Santa Muerte wanted to develop a relationship with her, and that Santa Muerte would become a powerful ally and guardian for her. She would be a spirit that Kolbie would cut deals with to bring about desired change, he said. But if she didn't keep her end of the bargain, Santa Muerte would take payment as she saw fit.

It was the first time that Kolbie had felt a spirit make contact with her, and she felt obligated to answer the call.

After the interview, Tavera brings forth a bottle of tequila and pours a little into our outstretched palms, telling us to moisten our brows and the back of our necks with it, so that we will not be accompanied by negative energy or spirits when we leave the botanica.

Casting out Satan

While devotees say that Santa Muerte's focus on justice means that those who are loyal have nothing to fear, her associations with death and drug-related violence make her a controversial figure among law enforcement and within the Catholic Church.

Armando Solorzano, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Utah, worries that with the veneration of Santa Muerte focusing on death as an end in itself, the very meaning of religion—as defining a way of living one's life—is lost to more concrete and pragmatic lists of needs.

Anthropologists, Solorzano notes, call Santa Muerte "a cult of crisis." He traces her presence in the United States back to the 1960s in inner-city barrios where high unemployment, police brutality against young Chicanos, and the inability of the Anglo-American Catholic Church to understand Mexican Catholics "brought the idea of death but without redemption, exemplified in Santa Muerte, as an end of everything."

Solorzano sees Santa Muerte as a popular religion, where the symbols of an existing religion have been appropriated and given new meaning. "These people feel marginal to the Catholic Church, that the church is not responding to their needs, so they redefine the symbols," he says. "It's now a religion controlled by the people."

In his office in a small, attractive house at the back of the Sacred Heart church at 900 South and 200 East—just a block from Botanica San Antonio—Father Eleazar Silva traces the history of Santa Muerte to when Pope John Paul II excommunicated kidnappers and drug dealers in the 1970s. Such criminals, he says, "began to create a Catholic religion outside the Catholic Church. The name Santisima mirrors that of the Blessed Virgin, but in reality, it is the personification of Satan."

Having a relationship with God requires a change of mind and heart, Silva says, citing Mary Magdalene leaving a life of prostitution to follow Jesus Christ. The danger of Santa Muerte, he says, is that she offers "a way of getting divine favors without having to make a change. You're trying to get something from God."

A woman in a small Southern Utah town where Silva was the local priest prayed to Santa Muerte that she be able to date a man 40 years her junior, Silva recalls. She got what she sought, but then began to dramatically sicken, Silva says, although doctors could not identify any particular malady. Finally, a doctor called Silva and told him, "She's not sick, she's not ill at all, but she's in the process of dying." Silva visited with her and "every night after I left, Santa Muerte came for her payment."

Silva performed a simple exorcism, he says, and the woman recovered. Such stories, he continues, are surprisingly common. He routinely finds Santa Muerte statues left on the steps of his church by people for whom "something went wrong" with their devotion to her and who want him to destroy them.

"I fight my war [against Santa Muerte] undercover," he says. "I do it case by case."

The church isn't the only place that former devotees of Santa Muerte brings their statutes when something goes amiss with their relationship with her. Andres Aquino owns Botanica Santa Barbara Bendita on 900 South, directly opposite Silva's church. A wall in his sanctuary at the back of the store is filled with shelves of saint statues, except for a portion concealed by a heavy red-velvet curtain. Behind the curtain are statues of Santa Muerte that devotees have asked him to keep. One statue belonged to a woman, he recalls, who was inexplicably losing weight and plagued by nerves and anxiety. Then she discovered that her husband had hung his statue of Santa Muerte upside down in a bucket of water as a punishment for the saint not delivering her part of a deal.

Aquino is a psychic who grew up in Greater Buenos Aires, Argentina. He offers spiritual cleansings and guidance to those who seek it. He's critical of people who use their limited knowledge of Santa Muerte to exploit the vulnerable with promises of hope and protection in exchange for thousands of dollars. Some self-described spiritualists, he says, charge $5,000 to $7,000 for a blood ritual to ask the saint to deliver the love he or she seeks, or a big win in Wendover.

While he doesn't venerate Santa Muerte, Aquino respects her, he says. He views her explosion in popularity as having grown on the back of the drug trade in Salt Lake City. "If you want to sell dope, you have to have good protection," he says. And for those who believe, he adds, "there's none better than La Santisima."

Death comes knocking

There have been only three homicides on U.S. soil linked to drug-cartel violence that also involved veneration of Santa Muerte, according to an FBI law-enforcement bulletin dated February 2013. But in Mexico, the folk saint's name is linked to a litany of violent and cruel deaths. That's because, Robert J. Bunker says in the FBI bulletin, success in cartel life means riches, beautiful women, power and brutal death. "With the stakes so high, the sacrifices and offerings to Santa Muerte have become primeval and barbaric," he writes. "Rather than plates of food, beer and tobacco, in some instances, the heads of victims (and presumably their souls) have served as offerings to invoke powerful petitions for divine intervention." Bunker lists a mind-numbing catalog of torture, dismemberment, murder and sacrifice to Santa Muerte, often at makeshift altars.

Stephen requested interviews with numerous municipal, state and federal law-enforcement agencies to talk about Santa Muerte's popularity with drug dealers and narco gangs, but all declined to comment. Several law-enforcement sources did agree to talk on the condition of anonymity because they did not have permission from their supervisors to speak to media.

One 20-year veteran officer draws a distinction between Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, another folk saint who's often linked to Most Holy Death and, in the case of Botanica San Antonio, can be found occupying an altar next to hers. You can't talk of one without mentioning the other, says the officer, who's seen Santa Muerte often in the past 10 years, on altars in drug "stash houses" he's raided or hanging from rearview mirrors in the cars at the scene of drug murders.

Jesus Malverde, he says, is a Robin Hood figure in recent Mexican history who stole from the rich to give to the poor, but who has been appropriated by the drug trade. He describes Malverde as "a peasant farmer dude—he's like Cesar Chavez, but for drug dealers."

The officer first started seeing "Jesus Malverde in little cards [drug] mules had," he says. "They usually walk across the border with a backpack, a couple of kilos of coke, a $2 bill, a wad of tissue paper for wiping their ass and a Jesus Malverde card. Carry that card, and your rivals won't get you, the cops won't get you." He pauses and grins. "Obviously, it doesn't work."

But the senior cartel players he's arrested, he says, have not been devotees of Malverde or Santa Muerte. He believes that cartel bosses introduce Malverde or Santa Muerte to their workers "because it gives them a religious foundation" for legitimizing drug dealing to the Catholic poor. "It's not Our Blessed Mother anymore; it's Santa Muerte," he says. "It provides them a justification for doing something that deep down they know is bad. Which is why you can't get anyone in law enforcement to talk to you—they don't want to give it any credence."

Father Silva also identifies connections between the Mexican drug trade in Salt Lake City and Santa Muerte. You pray to Santa Muerte, he says, for "the destruction of your enemies, to make drugs more addictive so your business flourishes." While devotees might get what they want through their prayers to her, he says, "you're asking a real person, Satan, he exists, and there is a price for it. And that price could be difficult."

Bone mama

But while cops may dismiss Santa Muerte and priests may see her as another face of Satan, for many people, a relationship with her brings spiritual depth and enriches their lives.

Steven Bragg is a spiritual worker initiated in the religions of Haitian Vodou, Palo Mayombe and Lukumí who runs a chapel and outdoor shrine dedicated to Santa Muerte in Louisiana called The New Orleans Chapel of the Santisima Muerte.

A childhood and youth plagued with a seemingly constant series of deaths of loved ones left Bragg "dealing with the reality of death," he says, and Santa Muerte showed him that she was always present with him during these difficult times. "I now feel her and can almost see her holding me, getting me through the grieving process," he says. "She let me know that any time I have to deal with death, she supports me, she will be there for me."

Bragg's system of veneration, which he learned from another Santa Muerte devotee, revolves around honoring three colors of statues, which represent the saint's three main aspects, or personalities: white (La Blanca), red (La Roja) and black (La Negra). As La Blanca, he explains, she employs the spirits of doctors, nurses and curanderos, those who help bring harmony and peace and undo spells cast against you. As La Roja, she is more aggressive; she works in the worldly realm helping people attain love, sex, justice and employment, for which she uses the spirits of lawyers, businessmen and prostitutes for her work. As La Negra, she descends into hell and brings "those who died violent deaths, criminals, those who were bad people in life," to perform tasks requested by followers that involve protection from sorcery and "dark spirits."

When Kolbie began praying to Santa Muerte, her altar was as simple as a framed picture of the saint placed next to a candle and a glass of water. Now, with a statue in a place of honor in her home, she feels Santa Muerte's presence strongly. Out of the other saints she venerates, none has remained as close a friend and guardian as Santa Muerte.

For Tavera's daughter Rakna, Santa Muerte protects the preciousness of life, despite her being the personification of death. She describes La Santisima's presence as making her feel dizzy and her ears ring as the saint's energy rises around her. That feeling came when she was in the intensive-care unit, praying for her prematurely born son. Rakna was released, but the hospital was keeping her baby because he had water in his lungs. She asked La Santisima to help her son, and the day after she went home, the hospital released him. "To me, it's a huge miracle," she says, "that I asked God and I asked her. She does great things."

That's something a mother who attended the rosary praying at the Taveras' store agrees with. Aracely, 52, came to Santa Muerte four years ago in dire need. Her family, she says in Spanish, had lost their home and their cars, and she could not find help. Then a friend at a restaurant she worked at brought her to Botanica San Antonio. She started to pray to Santa Muerte, and things began to improve. "Now we have an apartment, a car, we are living better," she says. "Now we have work that we didn't before. Thanks to God and her, we have all we have."

The shadow of the scythe

Though Tavera and Silva disagree on the impact Santa Muerte has, they both see a deep, distinct vein of racism within Utah's culture and society. "We're not welcome here," Silva says. Utah society doesn't accept Latinos, he says, which leaves them struggling on the edges of the mainstream culture.

In such a society, perhaps it's not surprising that a grandmother-like spirit—who, Tavera says, comes to people while they're praying in the wee hours of the night and comforts them, holding them and stroking their hair—is such an attractive force for people who live in the shadows of a culture dominated by a conservative faith.

Santa Muerte loves gay and straight people equally because she is fair, Tavera says, explaining that while society may not accept gay marriage, Santa Muerte asks who has the right to make such judgments. But such modern attitudes don't mean Santa Muerte is "trying to be convenient so people will believe," Tavera adds. Rather, she's just, and sees "the purity and the sincerity of the heart."

Tavera and her botanica throw an annual party for Santa Muerte during Fourth of July weekend because "we like to light fireworks for her," Rakna says. They estimate that around 100 devotees attended the party this past July in celebration of Santa Muerte. And on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead—typically celebrated Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, coinciding with the Catholic holidays All Hallow's Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day—Tavera leads a praying of the rosary for Santa Muerte and followers troop into her store throughout the day to bring their offerings.

But the biggest party, Tavera says, will be the day that members of the United States Congress sign a decree heralding immigration reform. Tavera smiles brightly as she talks of how faith among Santa Muerte's followers is about asking the saint, on behalf of their families, to bring about an amnesty for undocumented residents.

"La Santa Muerte is going to move the hands of those who don't want to sign," Tavera predicts. She describes Santa Muerte standing over those senators opposed to immigration reform and, with her scythe, getting them to do the right thing.

When reform is achieved, Tavera says, Salt Lake City will "see what a party with faith for her is like." Her words conjure an image of women dancing in their Aztec dresses on 900 South, the spectacle bringing traffic to a halt.

Amnesty will come, Tavera says, her hands clasped, her eyes flashing. "It's the faith we have in her."

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