On tonight’s Believer with Reza Aslan, our spiritual adventurer Reza takes us to sunny Mexico for an exploration of their seemingly dark faith of Santa Muerte.
Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, sees the worship of a female skeleton deity, and is a twist on one of the largest Christian faiths, Catholicism.
But despite its apparent focus on death, during the course of the episode Reza proves that the faith has a wonderful wellspring of believers who celebrate life and are simply downtrodden and in need someone in their corner.
The skeletal icon Santa Muerte is their new girl.
Mexico is one of the most Catholic countries in the world, with over 80 per cent of the population identifying with the faith.
Believers of Santa Muerte feel it is an extension of their Catholicism and they have accepted her wholeheartedly. Others reject her based on the Vatican’s view.
Known by many names, such as the popular “skinny lady”, Santa or “Santisima” Muerte is decreed to be a form of Satanism and blasphemy by devout Roman Catholics and especially the Vatican rule-makers.
But she is worshiped by millions who live in the margins, which is a whole lot of Mexico, a country mired in extreme poverty. The show reveals she is also the chosen saint of many Mexican prostitutes and transgendered people in North America.
But her star is rising among the average hipster and millennial, too.
Much like our own American Statue of Liberty with outstretched arms welcoming the huddled masses, the poor who have nothing, so too does Santa Muerte with her outstretched arms — accepting her believers in her bony embrace, a promise to intercede and deliver protection, justice, fortune, health, and happiness.
There is real history here, with the Aztec gods at its root. The famous Pietà sculpture by Michelangelo, of the deceased Christ laying on the lap of the Virgin Mary, is seen in a new version with the Virgin swapped with Santa Muerte, as New World and Old World versions of the Christ are blended.
Reza interviews an academic friend, Dr. Laura Roush, a professor of anthropology in Mexico City.
She explains the origins to Reza, saying: “Maybe this has to do with…not Satan, but connected to traditional healers as Santa Muerte was connected…it passes from the little old ladies to the jails.” This inspires Reza’s next trip, to prison.
In tattoos, the powerful imagery of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is swapped by criminals with images of Santa Muerte, the rationale being no one will get stabbed in the back if these powerful icons inked as virtual shields are on your skin.
In a segment that will undoubtedly delight current American president Donald Trump, Aslan dares to go there and points fingers squarely at the Mexican police, government, and cartels, an unholy trinity of corruption and death in Mexico.
Real day-to-day life Mexico is seemingly a total mess, as demonstrated painfully by Reza.
Politicians, corruption, police and the cartels are shown in specific examples to be all in cahoots at various levels.
To drive this truth home, Reza tells the actual real story of 43 college students on their way to a political demonstration when the police are believed to have intervened and reportedly handed them over to cartels. These kids are still MIA.
Enriqueta Vargas is interviewed, a priestess of Santa Muerte. She came to the faith in tragedy. Her son, who created a massive statue of Santa Muerte, was killed by thirteen assailants.
This drove her to the Santa Muerte faith, which she tells Reza she came to out of grief and revenge.
She tells Reza her son’s murderers have since been killed. Now a powerful figure in this visually rich version of extreme saint worship, she has transformed her son’s shrine into a real temple and become a powerful voice inside the faith.
We learn with her that you pray to the relevant icon based on the colors of Santa Muerte’s garments. Green is for legal problems, gold for money woes. Black is for protection.
We are taken to a broken down, poor prison where a version of Santa Muerte lives on the skin of each prisoner.
There is a new Trinity as Santa Muerte sits in the center seat of god, and flanking her is San Judas Tadeo, also known as St. Jude, the saint of lost causes and Malverde, the narco-saint.
Vargas is praised by prisoners as a true priestess and conduit to Santa Muerte. She visits these prisoners and blesses them, leading them in a mass. Reza participates. He offers his thanks and prayers to Santa Muerte for “all the things he takes for granted”.
We then head to a traditional Catholic church where Aslan explains that the Church overlooked Santa Muerte for over 100 years, until now Archbishop of Mexico Cardinal Rivera declared it Satanism in the 1990s.
There was a backlash to this decree, and Aslan says he “may have crystallized it [Santa Muerte] forever.”
Aslan also interviews a priest who calls the new faith a “cult”, and how it acts like a “magic wand” to practitioners who are childlike in their approach to religion.
According to this priest, St. Jude has been hijacked too. The Santa Muerte devotees have bastardized his role in the sainthood.
Aslan then takes us to Tipito, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Mexico City. It is a grimy 72 blocks of hell on earth, with real crime everywhere and a thriving black market.
Those who believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe are warring with shrines facing the Santa Muerte devotionals. Altars are erected but still, in this part of town, female priestesses and Santa Muerte rules.
Aslan interviews one elderly woman, Doña Queta Romero, whose simple act of getting a large gifted Santa Muerte figurine out of her house on to the sidewalk for space issues sort of blew Santa Muerte out of the closet in her ‘hood.
This odd housecleaning event inspired others to wheel out their freak flag for the faith, making her home ground zero for many to come and worship.
Doña Queta says the faith has no room for “narcos” and sinners. The religion has eliminated the fear of death, she explains.
Another Mexico City neighborhood, Roma and La Condesa, an affluent hipster scene, sees Adrian Baumann, a Mexican-American journalist explaining to Reza the faith isn’t just for sex workers and criminals anymore.
Santa Muerte is spreading like wildfire all the way to Los Angeles, Queens, NYC and among more millennials through the vibrant North American transsexual network.
Baumann says Trans people are really into this faith as are prostitutes, because of the acceptance and love they feel from Santa Muerte.
To underscore this point, Reza interviews three transgender prostitutes. In an ice breaker moment, Reza reveals he hid his Iranian identity and passed as Mexican when he came over to the USA initially.
Then, we are back with Laura Roush and Reza walking a local bazaar, who says Santa Muerte is about life, not death as Reza feels and points out.
Reza buys a Santa Muerte icon in black for protection. He is blessed and anointed with cigar smoke. Reza really likes his new Santa Muerte doll and takes the Santa Muerte figure to his next destination, a Dia de Los Muertos festival.
People bring their own personal idols as gifts are given to show respect. Tequila and mezcal are sprayed on Reza and his Santa Muerte doll. Even marijuana smoke is blown all over them.
Doña Queta admires Reza’s “skinny lady” and hugs him warmly. Whether you call her Santisima Muerte or Santa Muerte, all are united in their devotions and bask in what they feel is her powerful love.
Reza gamely takes part in all of this including a chain of strength, where hands are clasped and prayer is offered.
This was one of the best of the Believer series so far, as Aslan truly culturally immersed himself inside a religion that skated for many, many years as a regional quirk that acceptable to the Vatican, before suddenly being routed from Catholicism.
Unlike Vodou, which was also featured on the series, it feels more akin to the mothership of Catholicism than Vodou ever could.
Praising how Santa Muerte accepts the poor, disenfranchised, marginalized in society, Aslan is emotionally turned out and teary as he says: “It’s a new community, a new religion that is forming before our eyes.”
Aslan really does look as though his Santa Muerte doll is quite special to him. The end of the episode sees him sitting in a graveyard reflecting on humankind’s need to understand death and what our purpose in life is, and why we suffer.
Why some are fortunate and others never get a break? This faith is a magnet for those who have no “ins” in life, no trust funds, no chances of really getting a leg up except through luck, and a lot of prayers.
Don’t miss our stories about Aslan’s Believer episodes investigating Scientology and looking at whether it’s undergoing a reformation, as well as as Hawaii’s Doomsday cult leader JeZus and the Aghori cannibals.