Santa Muerte is known by many different names including Señora de las Sombras ("Lady of the Shadows"), Señora Blanca ("White Lady"), Señora Negra ("Black Lady"), Niña Santa ("Holy Girl"), Santa Sebastiana (St. Sebastienne) or Doña Bella Sebastiana ("Our Beautiful Lady Sebastienne") and the most popular one - La Flaquita ("The Skinny Little Lady"). A skeletal female figure most often clad in a long robe and wedding dress, she usually carries a scythe in one hand and a globe in the other. Some practitioners adorn her in garish displays of expensive jewelry or lavish robes in alluring arrays of colors depending on the aspect being worshipped. She may appear forbodingly clad from head to toe in black as well.
No matter how she manifests this increasingly popular folk saint specializes in protecting followers from their enemies and striking down those they wish to harm. By turns jealous and vengeful, the personification of death who does not judge but leads the faithful who properly conduct sacrifices and rituals safely to the afterlife, is rapidly growing a following among the infamous drug cartels of Mexico as well as working-class professionals.
Prior to the 20th century, most prayers and other rites to the Death Saint were secretly performed in the privacy of the practitioner's home. Since the turn of the 21st century worship has become more acceptable and public, especially in Mexico City after a shrine was created for Santa Muerte in 2001. The number of believers in Santa Muerte has mushroomed in the past 10 years. Authorities now believe as many as eight million people openly worship the folk icon, making Saint Death the second only to Saint Jude, and putting her into direct competition with the country's beloved Virgin of Guadalupe. The meteoric rise in the size of the death cult is believed to be connected to her supposed ability to quickly grant wishes and perform miracles as well as the surge in drug violence.
Among the poor, where her worship has exploded in recent years, she offers hope for the chance of a better life. Worship has been seen to peak during times of economic crisis with many followers being young, female, and disillusioned with the established Catholic saints ability to deliver them from the miseries of the abject poverty they exist in. But the cult of Santa Muerte is present throughout all the strata of Mexican society, not just urban working-class families, who constitute the majority of devotees. Military and police agents, elected officials, artists, and other affluent members of Mexican society have been identified as secret practitioners in recent years.
In 2001, a devotee named Enriqueta Romero took her life-sized image of Santa Muerte from her home in Mexico City and built a shrine that was visible from the street, shocking her neighbors and drawing people from all over Mexico to come pray and to leave offerings for the Lady of Death. Every year on November 1, thousands of people descend on her rough neighborhood in Tepito to celebrate the adopted holiday, clutching skeletal dolls that depict their protector, who is dressed as a bride and adorned with gold for the celebration. A carnival-like atmosphere pervades Santa Muerte's most important ceremony of the year, with food, music and dancing well into the night as well as sex and drugs.
Still a surprisingly number of worshipers of "the Bony Lady" consider themselves to be devout Catholics, despite praying to a non-canonized folk saint openly repudiated and demonized by the Church. In a country where the dominant religion is Catholicism the rituals and processions of the worship of Saint Death take on a decidedly familiar tone, either in deference or in mockery. Self-appointed priests replace the traditional hierarchy the same way marijuana smoke replaces ceremonial incense. There are temples and shrines as well as other ritualized elements that effectively merge traditional forms of veneration with their local beliefs and customs.
The Church has been unequivocal in its response, stating that devotion to Santa Muerte "is the celebration of devastation and of hell" and that practice should be stomped out with the help of families and communities. Still worship continues to grow among their followers, owing in part to Saint Death's supposed ability to quickly grant wishes and her lack of judgement, the latter being the more likely draw for gang members and outlaws. In a country plagued by drug violence, worship of the malleable and forgiving Saint has at times taken on a more deadly and sinister form - reflecting the violent struggle many of them face on a daily basis for survival.