‘Santa Muerte’ Devotion Highlights Chasm Between the Church and Trans Mexicans

The development of a new religious devotion among Mexican transgender persons highlights the growing chasm between LGBT people and the Catholic Church in one of the world’s most Catholic nations, as well as the tragic circumstances among which many transgender people live.

Religion News Service recently reported on the growth among trans Mexicans of the “Santa Muerte” (“Saint Death”) devotion, the practice of honoring and praying to the skeletal figure of “Death.”  The news story explained:

A shrine to Santa Muerte

“The skeleton saint — with her female form and association with death — is particularly appealing to transgender sex workers, who face the persistent threat of violent clients and transphobic hatred.

“Unlike official church figures such as Our Lady of Guadalupe whose images are ethereal, Santa Muerte appeals to those with practical problems and passions living on the country’s margins. Devotees ask her for protection, even when sex work is their only occupation.

” ‘The majority of us believe in Santa Muerte,’ said [Betzy] Ballesteros [a trans sex worker]. ‘She’s a God to us. I ask her to shield me from danger and provide work and clients.’

“The cult of Santa Muerte is an example of religious syncretism, with roots in European Catholicism and Aztec beliefs.”

The Catholic hierarchy has condemned the devotion, just as they have expressed many negative messages about transgender people:

“The Rev. Hugo Valdemar Romero, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, said the church does not abandon or excommunicate transgender people. But he does believe they suffer from pathology.

” ‘Of course it is not acceptable for someone to violate their own biology,’ he said. ‘Nature is very clear. There are men and there are women.’

“As for Santa Muerte, Romero considers it a heretical cult.

“. . . .Despite the church’s condemnation, many Santa Muerte devotees describe themselves as Catholic.”

Though the hierarchy condemns the new devotion, it seems that they don’t recognize their own part in its creation.  Andrew Chesnut, a religious studies scholar from Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied the devotion, explains that the new tradition arose to serve a need that established churches were not meeting:

“Mexican Catholics and evangelicals tend to view transgenderism as a lifestyle choice. But the fact that Santa Muerte is outside the orbit of both evangelical and Catholic Christianity makes her much more appealing. It’s much easier for followers to feel that she’s not going to be judgmental.”

And the lived experience of trans Mexicans testifies not only to violence they face in society but also the rejection they receive from churches:

“The civil rights organization Transgender Europe has documented 247 killings of transgender people in Mexico between January 2008 and April 2016, the second-highest number in the world, after Brazil.

“The life expectancy of transgender women in Latin America is 35, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

” ‘Transgender people are more likely to become involved in substance and alcohol abuse and they are less likely to have strong networks of family and others on whom they can count,’ said Cymene Howe, an anthropologist who has studied the importance of Santa Muerte among transgender sex workers who migrate between Guadalajara and San Francisco.”

And Betzy Ballesteros, the sex worker quoted above, offered testimony of her experience with the church:

“I went with some transgender friends to Mass one time. The priest stopped his sermon and told us to leave the house of God. After that, I decided I wouldn’t ever go back.”

If Catholic Church leaders in Mexico believe that this devotion is harmful to its adherents, they must first recognize that their own harmful actions towards trans people are encouraging the worship of Santa Muerte to flourish.  When people are scorned and rejected, they will find their own path to God.  The surest way for Church leaders to win back trans people to the ecclesial community is for them to end their negative rhetoric which causes both physical and spiritual death.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 9, 2017

0 replies
    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Very interesting observation! In Tibetan Buddhism, terrifying entities such as these are known as “Wrathful Deities”. And in certain Native American spiritual traditions, they are also known as the “Kachinas”. Once you let these frightening figures know, through your demonstrated lack of fear, that you have foiled their attempts to terrify you, the result is that you automatically acquire new spiritual insights and empowerments. In fact, the “Bardo Thodol”, known also as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”, gives specific instructions on how to thwart these entities, and turn their negativity into a positive source of spiritual illumination, sometimes known as Tantric Empowerment. I’ve been blessed to be able to study with some outstanding Buddhist teachers — including Khen Rinopche, the principal deputy to His Holiness The Dalai Lama — when they gave courses here at the Five Colleges in Amherst and Northampton. Amazing stuff — And there’s really no reason why it should disrupt anyone’s parallel commitment as a practicing and professing Catholic. Some of the finest Buddhist scholars, in fact, have also been Catholic priests teaching at the university level.

  1. Richard Baldwin Cook
    Richard Baldwin Cook says:

    This insightful article well describes the appeal of Santa Muerte to the abandoned urban poor of Mexico. These poor, these thoroughly hopeless are drawn to a scandalised-diety as an affirmation of their own desperate existence on the margins. This association of the doomed with the anti-god who judges not, is mirrored by the official representatives of acceptable, polite churchly forms, who vie with each other in their denigration of the thoroughly helpless and completely abandoned. The official Church, represented in the comments of a designated pitchman, resorts to pseudo science to bolster pseudo-faith, pseudo-hope, pseudo-love. Saint Paul would today recognize the assembly of saints by making the necessary trans-positions.

  2. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM
    Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    My brother priests would do well to listen and meditate on the revelations of those who have found familiarity and comfort in Death. Perhaps they can start with St. Francis of Assisi. Perhaps his words will help them find the humility to embrace the mystery of our existence as perceived by our trans brothers and sisters.

    “All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,From whose embrace no mortal can escape.Woe to those who die in mortal sin!Happy those she finds doing your will!The second death can do them no harm.Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks. And serve him with great humility.”


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