In the opening scene of season three of Breaking Bad, the fearsome twin assassins, the Primos Salamancas, drive into a dusty outpost in Mexico where a procession of people are crawling on hands and knees through the dirt. They join the prostrated crowd and soon arrive at their destination: a shrine to Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death.
In a show full of shocking twists and turns, there are no two characters quite as creepy as the cousins who commit their deadly deeds in silver skull-tipped boots; and there’s no scene quite as eerie as the one where they light a candle and pray before the figure of a large skeleton saint, bedecked in finery, asking for her help with their next job—killing Walter White.
The ingenious Breaking Bad team used a heavy dose of artistic license to create this scene, but one thing is true: The skeleton saint is real and devotion to her is one of the fastest-growing religious practices in the Western hemisphere.
“From Argentina to Canada, there is no religious movement growing faster,” says Andrew Chestnut, professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. “Get this, going back to 2001, Santa Muerte is essentially unknown to 99 percent of Mexicans. Today, a decade and a half later, I estimate that there is some 10 to 12 million devotees in Mexico, the U.S., and Central America.”
Speaking to an attentive audience at an Obscura Society event in New York, Chestnut referred to the growth of the Cult of Santa Muerte as “astronomical.”
At first, judging Santa Muerte (who is called a number of things by her followers: Saint Death, Holy Death, the Bony Lady, among others) based solely on appearance, may seem frightening.
But on closer inspection, it makes sense. Death is one of the few universal experiences in the world. And while she looks “quintessentially Mexican,” Chestnut points out that “death has no nationality, death knows no borders or frontiers.”
“I would argue…she has a reputation for being one of the most powerful supernatural entities in the entire Americas because she represents death itself.”
And since her appeal is universal and her powers great, why shouldn’t she wield them for good, too?
While Santa Muerte does have some adherents on the darker edges of society—some cartel members pray to a black-clad Holy Death for her assistance with their nefarious deeds—her sinister uses are often exaggerated by the media.
The cult of Santa Muerte more often attracts ordinary people seeking more mundane miracles—help with money or jobs, a little love action, or protection from harm (who better to protect you from death than death herself?).
Saint Death’s earliest recorded miracles had tinges of Cupid.
While Chestnut says it is believed that Santa Muerte came from the meeting of an early Aztec death goddess with the European grim reapress, La Parca (“the parched one”), introduced by the invading Spaniards, her first documented miracles occurred in the 1940s.
During this time, Mexican women dressed in black would pray to Santa Muerte to use her ever-present scythe to bring their cheating husbands back to them. If Holy Death couldn’t make that happen, however, she should feel free to use her weapon for the opposite purpose: get rid of the other woman.
As Chestnut puts it, “She plays both sides.”
Today, many who follow her consider themselves Catholics (to the chagrin of the Catholic Church, who has condemned this imposter saint as satanic). But with particular devotion to Santa Muerte, they find a religion and holy figure that is accepting of all. Death doesn’t discriminate, so, naturally, neither does its leader.
Because of this inclusivity, the Cult of Santa Muerte has found particular popularity among fringe groups: the LGBT community, sex workers, the drug cartels, even young millennials (OK, their fringe status is just in their heads).
Arely Gonzalez, who identifies as transgender, is one such devotee. She grew up Catholic in Mexico but now lives in Queens, where she says she has the biggest shrine to her patron saint in New York, and throws the biggest festival in the country in honor of Saint Death’s birthday (on the second Saturday of every August).
With the help of a niece who translated, Gonzalez told The Daily Beast that she is still Catholic and still believes in the Virgin of Guadalupe (one of the most popular saints in Mexico). But now she “keeps [Catholicism] inside” and “pays more attention to Santa Muerte.”
Gonzalez first received a statue of Santa Muerte from a friend, but began praying to her after facing health problems. She promised the saint that, if she would cure her, she would start putting on festivals in her honor.
Santa Muerte came through and earned herself a devoted follower.
According to Chestnut, Santa Muerte has a “reputation for being the fastest and most efficacious miracle worker.”
“I call her my Skinny Girl, my Saint, my Queen, my Mother, my Bony Lady, or the Grim Reaper,” Gonzalez says in a video produced for a project called “Faith in the Five Boroughs.”
Her home shrine is large—and constantly growing—and she keeps it open for anyone who is interested in paying their respects. It is also a powerful representation of how traditional Catholicism meets the Cult of Santa Muerte for many devotees.
The altar is populated with numerous replicas of the skeleton saint, many decked out in lavish finery. There’s the Santa Muerte dressed in a silver and shiny green gown and draped in jewelry—miniature necklaces, earrings, and a crown.
There’s the figure clothed in a painted-on red and gold robe, with a bony grin on her face, large scythe in one hand and a carved wooden globe in the other.
There are Santa Muertes represented as Aztecs, and a trio depicting “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” boney hands covering the appropriate body parts. There’s the red-robed Santa Muerte holding a scythe in each hand and with a mirror for a face, reflecting “you back to yourself.”
But among the many Santa Muerte skeletons and the offerings of candles and tequila left for her are also statues of saints and angels, even one of Jesus himself.
“I think she is an angel sent by God. Like her name says, I think we’re all one short step from life to death,” Gonzalez says in the video. “Sooner or later, she takes the rich, the poor— everyone. There is no one who can save himself from her.”
The Catholic Church disagrees.
“The cult of the Holy Death is destructive. It is blasphemous, it is diabolical and obviously it is anti-cultural,” Mexico City archdiocese spokesman father Hugo Valdemar is reported by Vocativ to have said in 2013.
Blasphemy aside, there is a darker side to Saint Death’s powers. While many of her followers are good people looking for protection from a mother figure, she has also attracted other, more nefarious followers, like those in the Mexican prison system.
Aside from the logical assumption that Saint Death would seem naturally adept in the dark arts, Chestnut also points out that it’s much easier to appeal to Santa Muerte for help with evil deeds than it is to turn to Saint Jude or the Virgin of Guadalupe, who, one can imagine, wouldn’t be quite so accommodating.