The 15th Anniversary of Santa Muerte Coming Out of the Closet

Enriqueta Romero, the Godmother of Santa Muerte devotion, at her shop in Tepito
Enriqueta Romero, the Godmother of Santa Muerte devotion, at her shop in Tepito

For months I had anticipated the 15th anniversary celebration of Enriqueta Romero’s famous Santa Muerte shrine in the notorious Mexico City barrio of Tepito. Doña Queta, as she’s affectionately known, unintentionally launched the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas by setting her life-size statue of the Bony Lady out on the sidewalk in front of her home on Halloween of 2001.

Santa Muerte devotee who brought his Bony Lady to be blessed at the Tepito shrine
Santa Muerte devotee who brought his Bony Lady to be blessed at the Tepito shrine

Prior to the outing of the skeleton saint, Santa Muerte was venerated clandestinely to avoid rebuke and possible persecution from Catholics and Protestants. So unknown was the Mexican folk saint of death that my 86-year-old parents-in-law, who have lived in the western state of Michoacan their entire lives, only found out about Santa Muerte through my research.

Handcrafted Santa Muerte at the Shrine in Tepito
Handcrafted Santa Muerte at the Shrine in Tepito

I first met Doña Queta in the summer of 2009 when I was just beginning my research on the Bony Lady. Having done most of my prior research in Brazil, I wasn’t sure how I’d be received as an American researcher in Mexico City’s most notorious barrio, infamous for gang warfare and contraband.

Devotee who brought her Lady in Red to be blessed at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
Devotee who brought her Lady in Red to be blessed at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito

However, my concern melted away when Doña Queta welcomed me so graciously to her shrine and home, granting me full access to devotees who arrive at all hours of the day and night. I ended up doing much of my research, especially interviews with Santa Muertistas, at her historic shrine.

Devotee at Tepito shrine with his Santa Muertes of protection and passion
Devotee at Tepito shrine with his Santa Muertes of protection and passion

To make it to age 72 in Tepito is quite a feat, even more so when cancer strikes. The Santa Muerte godmother recently beat throat cancer, which she credits to the healing powers of both the Virgin and Santa Muerte.

Blessing Santa Muerte with holy smoke at the Tepito shrine
Blessing Santa Muerte with holy smoke at the Tepito shrine

However, it was the Grim Reapress coming for her beloved husband of many years, Rey, that led her to cancel a formal 15th anniversary celebration on October 31, 2016. In June of this year Rey and Doña Queta’s brother were victims of an early-morning assassination attempt by sicarios on a motorcycle.

Portable Death - Many Santa Muerte devotees bring their images to the Tepito shrine in backpacks
Portable Death - Many Santa Muerte devotees bring their images to the Tepito shrine in backpacks

Both men were struck by the hitman’s bullets with Rey succumbing to his wounds and his brother-in-law surviving. I wrote about the tragic incident here.

A devotee who brought his Santa Muerte of the 7 Powers statue to be blessed at the Tepito shrine
A devotee who brought his Santa Muerte of the 7 Powers statue to be blessed at the Tepito shrine
A devotee who brought his artisanal Santa Muerte to the Tepito shrine for blessing
A devotee who brought his artisanal Santa Muerte to the Tepito shrine for blessing

Though a formal anniversary celebration wasn’t held, scores of devotees came to pay their respects to the Santa Muerte pioneer on Halloween and the 1st of November. My collaborators on “La Flaca” (watch the trailer here), a feature-length film on the Bony Lady in New York City, co-directors Thiago Zanato and Adriana Barbosa, were in Tepito this past Halloween, along with photographer Marco Antonio Ferreira and local guide, Mario Puga. Thiago describes what they saw...

A devotee at the Tepito shrine with her purple Santa Muerte for healing
A devotee at the Tepito shrine with her purple Santa Muerte for healing

We arrived in Tepito the day before Enriqueta Romero was supposed to lead her monthly rosary service, which coincided with the Day of the Dead. We heard lots of people were expected to come to her shrine that day. It was our first time in Tepito, and we didn’t know if Enriqueta would speak to us.

A young devotee at the Tepito shrine with her handcrafted Santa Muerte
A young devotee at the Tepito shrine with her handcrafted Santa Muerte

Tepito is supposed to be one of the toughest neighborhoods in Mexico City so we hired a guide, Mario. We were repeatedly told she wouldn't be there because of the tragic murder of her husband several months before, but we decided to try anyway.

A devotee with his Angel of Death at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
A devotee with his Angel of Death at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito

After roaming the streets of Tepito for a little while following Mario, we arrived at Enriqueta's house, and much to our surprise, she was there by herself. She received us with open arms, and we talked for a couple hours. We were struck by how open and warm she was, especially after the violent death of her husband.

“Thanks for the favors granted” At the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
“Thanks for the favors granted” At the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito

We talked about religion, Santeria, death, the film we are making about NYC devotional pioneer Arely Vazquez, Santa Muerte, Andrew Chesnut’s research, and about how she had no plans to be there the next day when lots of people would come to her doorstep.

A devotee praying at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
A devotee praying at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito

Then people started to arrive, and Marco Antonio and I started taking pictures. Food was shared freely and most people loved posing for pictures with their Santa Muerte images. Our guide kept reminding us of how dangerous it was there and how we should keep moving, just to be safe.

Boys with Bony Ladies on their way to the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
Boys with Bony Ladies on their way to the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito

We felt good and welcomed by Enriqueta, and the devotees kept arriving. A few hours later it was starting to get packed, and she went outside to tell people to hurry up in front of the altar since there was a long line forming in front of her house.

A devotee at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito with his Lady in Red for love and passion
A devotee at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito with his Lady in Red for love and passion

Then she grabbed us and took us inside her home, to her personal altar and showed it to us while we were talking. She told us to take as many pictures as we wanted but not to show them to anyone - ever! We were touched by her and the things she said.

A devotee with Santa Muerte tattooed on his chest at the shrine in Tepito
A devotee with Santa Muerte tattooed on his chest at the shrine in Tepito

We realized there is something profound going on there, in the middle of a really dangerous barrio, because of both her and her fellow devotees. We left Tepito feeling grateful and inspired to finish our film.

Votive candles at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
Votive candles at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
Santa Muerte Godmother Enriqueta Romero with the most famous effigy of the Bony Lady at her Tepito shrine
Santa Muerte Godmother Enriqueta Romero with the most famous effigy of the Bony Lady at her Tepito shrine
A devotee making his way on his knees to the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
A devotee making his way on his knees to the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
A devotee offering a marihuana joint to the Bony Lady at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
A devotee offering a marihuana joint to the Bony Lady at the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
Santa Muertes and Catholic images at the home of Enriqueta Romero
Santa Muertes and Catholic images at the home of Enriqueta Romero
A devotee with the Bony Lady tattooed on her arm near the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
A devotee with the Bony Lady tattooed on her arm near the Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito
Enriqueta Romero and Andrew Chesnut at her Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito, July 2009
Enriqueta Romero and Andrew Chesnut at her Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito, July 2009
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