TEMPLO DE SANTA MUERTE
TEMPLO DE SANTA MUERTE TIMELINE
14 th century: The Aztec civilization worshiped the goddess of death.
18 th century: There was local worship of Santa Muerte in rural Mexico during the Spanish colonial period.
2001: The first public shrine to Santa Muerte was unveiled in Mexico City.
2006: The Templo de Santa Muerte shrine in Los Angeles was established.
Current Santa Muerte veneration can be traced to the fourteenth century Aztec civilization’s worship of the goddess of death and, later, to the eighteenth century Spanish colonial period when there was local devotion to Santa Muerte. Social scientists became aware of local, largely underground worship of Santa Muerte in the 1940s. Santa Muerte remained an underground figure for decades, appealing predominantly to rural, marginal groups. It was in 2001 that the first public shrine to Santa Muerte was unveiled in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City and two years later that the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, Mex-USA was temporarily granted official recognition by the Mexican government.
Recent Mexican history has been characterized by governmental and fiscal crisis that have led to unemployment, poverty, the erosion of government welfare programs, and extraordinary inequality of wealth between upper and lower status groups. Adding to this instability has been the violence and political destabilization created by the growing power and violent tactics of the drug cartels. This combination of circumstances was a major factor in both the growing veneration of Santa Muerte among the most
disadvantaged elements of the Mexican population and the large-scale flow of Mexican immigrants into America. Since 2000, there has been an extraordinary growth in Santa Muerte devotionalism. Indeed, her popularity has risen to a level such that the number of Santa Muerte devotees now rivals those of St. Jude and even La Virgen de Guadalupe. Estimates the number of Santa Muerte devotees run as high as five million. Although Santa Muerte has become controversial due to veneration by drug traffickers, and prison inmates, she also has a following among those on the other side of the drug wars (police, soldiers, and prison guards) as well as among a broad cross-section of Mexican society, particularly younger adults.
Not surprisingly, Santa Muerte devotees are generously sprinkled among the millions of Mexican immigrants who have arrived in the United States. While there are small, private Santa Muerte shrines scattered across the United States and Santa Muerte devotionals for sale in Latino markets around the country, Los Angeles is the home of the first two public Santa Muete shrines: Most Holy Death House of Prayer (Casa de Oracion de la Santisma Muerte) and Temple Saint Death (Templo Santa Muerte). Templo Santa Muerte was established in 2006 in central Los Angeles, California by Professor Sisyphus Garcia (Lucino Garcia) and his wife, Professora Sahara.
Most devotees who visit the Templo de Santa Muerte would consider themselves to be good Catholics and are comfortable with also venerating Santa Muerte. The temple services resemble traditional Catholic services in some respects as Professor Sisyphus celebrates mass and performs rosary services, for example. For Catholic Church leaders, of course, veneration of Santa Muerte sharply distinguishes the temple from orthodox Catholic belief and practice. Professor Sisyphus offers a range of courses on topics such as numerology, parapsychology, chakras, past lives, and magic therapy. These courses have no obvious connection to Santa Muerte, and he makes little effort to connect the two. He simply states that “We speak about God, about Jesus, but we also speak about Santa Muerte” (Holguin 2011). In speaking of Santa Muerte, Professor Sisyphus emphasizes faith in her as a means of receiving needed favors. As he puts it, “If you have faith in her, she will grant you wishes….Not what you want, but what you need” (Saraswat 2013).
Visitors to Templo Santa Muerte include both curiosity seekers and devotees. The temple offers a range of rites that parallel those offered in Catholic churches, including baptism, marriage and communion. Professor Sisyphus also offers prayers services (Misas) each evening. Professor Sisyphus and Professora Sahara typically lead services in conventional, secular dress, although Professor Sisyphus has been known to appear in a coyote-skin headdress (Levoy 2009). Templo also offers healing and energy ceremonies. For example, Professor Sisyphus led devotees to Los Angeles National Forest to commune with nature by a river. As he summarized the occasion, “We talk to our brother the river, the energy of the trees; we can hear the singing of the river. Not the noise of the water, no. Not the noise of the water, but the singing of the river” (Platner 2012). Beyond the official ceremonies, those visiting the temple present Santa Muerte with specific requests for favors. Santa Muerte is unique among Mexican folk saints in the malleability of her image. Devotees therefore pray to her for a variety of wishes and needs, ranging from affairs of the heart to retribution for their enemies, and expect their prayers and gifts will produce results. As is the case for most Santa Muerte shrines, devotees leave gifts of items such as money, liquor, candles, and cigarettes after making their requests. Visitation to the temple has grown from only a few dozen to several hundred as the presence and location of the temple have become more widely known (Platner 2012).
Established in 2006, Templo Santa Muerte is located in a converted storefront in central Los Angeles. The building hosts both a temple and a holistic medical and religious supply store (botanica) that carries votaries, amulets, rosaries, icons, and books of spells (Platner 2012).
Little is known about the lives of the founders and current managers of Templo Santa Muerte, Professor Sisyphus (Lucino Garcia) and his wife, Professora Sahara. Both are immigrants from Mexico, and they claim to be the godson and goddaughter of the Santa Muerte, respectively (Chesnut 2012:89; Platner 2012). Professor Sisyphus emigrated from the State of Nayarit and at one time was a wrestler. He claims to be in a thirteen-generation lineage of witch doctors (brujos) and to have apprenticed with two shamans, one of whom taught him how to communicate with Santa Muerte (Levoy 2009). Professora Sahara was brought up in the State of Oaxaca. She reports speaking with Jesus at age nine and later encountered Jesus again following a serious accident. She was told by Jesus to start her mission and finally, at age thirty seven, met Santa Muerte and began her spiritual journey (Chesnut 2012:90).
Santa Muerte has received strident opposition in Mexico from both the Roman Catholic Church and the Mexican government. Opposition in the United States has been much more muted. Law enforcement officers have taken interest in Santa Muerte because some devotees are drawn from the ranks of drug traffickers. Indeed, there was a large law enforcement conference in Los Angeles sponsored by the National Latino Peace Officers Association at which police officers received instruction on shrines, tattoos, symbols and their affiliation to gangs and drug traffickers (Holquin 2011). In November, 2012, in Oxnard, California, an hour away from the Templo, human remains and pieces of a Santa Muerte altar were found in a dumpster. When such events have occurred, there has not been any implication that the temple was in any way connected to illegal activity.
The Roman Catholic Church has not been nearly as active in its opposition to Santa Muerte in the U.S. as it has been in Mexico. The Los Angeles diocese has had no official comment on Templo Santa Muerte (Holquin 2011). One local priest, Father Dario Miranda, who leads the St. Rose of Lima Church in Maywood, has referred to Santa Muerte devotion as “evil in disguise” and to Santa Muerte devotees as “confused and misinformed.” In his words, “This is not acceptable,” he said. “This is not Christian; it is not Catholic, certainly” (Cadiz Klemack 2012).
For its part, Templo Santa Muerte has sought to maintain an open, welcoming atmosphere with rituals open to anyone interested. The altar at the botanica is open for everyone to offer their goods in exchange for blessings. Professor Sisyphus states that the temple “represents the good side of Santa Muerte and that most worshippers are normal, law-abiding citizens” (Holquin 2011).
Cadiz Klemack, John. 2012. “Saint or Satan?: ‘Angel of Death’ Worshipped in LA.” NBC Southern California , May 24. Accessed from http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Santa-Muerte-Catholic-Christian-Church-Religion-Cult-Melrose-Hollywood-Satanic-Angel-of-Death-153462975.html on 17 November 2013 .
Chesnut, R. Andrew. 2012. Devoted to Death: Santa Meurte, The Skeleton Saint . New York: Oxford University Press.
Holguin, Robert. 2011. Officers Nationwide Arrive to LA to Learn about ‘Saint Death’.” KABC-TV Los Angeles, CA, May 17. Accessed from http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/los_angeles&id=8136835 on 26 December 2013.
Platner, Julie. 2012. “Los Angeles Believers in La Santa Muerte Say They Aren’t a Cult.” The Madeleine Brand Show , January 10. Accessed from http://188.8.131.52/programs/madeleine-brand/2012/01/10/22062/los-angeles-believers-in-la-santa-muerte-say-they- on 28 December 2013.
Saraswat, Shweta. 2013 “Folk Saint Santa Muerte Alive and Well in LA.” On Being , February 27. Accessed from http://www.onbeing.org/blog/folk-saint-santa-muerte-is-alive-and-well-in-la/5052 on 17 November 2013.
Suter, Leanne. 2012. “Human Remains, Santa Muerte Altar Found in Oxnard Trash Bin.” KABC-TV Los Angeles, ABC, November 15. Accessed from http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?id=8887246 on 28 December 2013.
“Templo Santa Muerte Los Angeles CA. 2010. Accessed from http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCwQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.santamuerte.org%2Fsantuarios%2Fusa%2F3034-templo-santa-muerte-los-angeles-ca.html&ei=Xe6-UoaiG4fisAStqYGgDQ&usg=AFQjCNFTzyDPVvQIRVUHBOnW2Y7w7mbA9Q&sig2=kRk2C6At6WWS3gch5LmO6Q&bvm=bv.58187178,d.cWc on 28 December 2013.
David G. Bromley
28 December 2013