SANTA ANA CHAPITIRO, Mexico (RNS) — Since before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the image of death has loomed over Mexico, present in festivals, rituals, music, dance and literature. The Mesoamerican cultures that preceded the colonial era had six days a year to celebrate death. A much newer addition is the cult of Santa Muerte, which has become increasingly popular in the past two decades.
The cult to Santa Muerte has been gaining more devotees every year in Mexico and has expanded to the United States and areas of Central America. A blend of Roman Catholic and indigenous influences, Santa Muerte is a female folk saint that goes by many names, including la Niña Blanca, la Hermana Blanca, la Niña Bonita, la Dama Poderosa, and la Madrina among others. The Catholic Church condemns the cult.
Devotees worship at the world’s largest Santa Muerte statue at the Temple of Santa Muerte International near Mexico City, in June 2019. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres
A cult follower blows on incense at the Temple of Santa Muerte International, near Mexico City. Many Santa Muerte rituals use marijuana rather than traditional incense. Although condemned by the Catholic Church, the cult continues to grow. Many Santa Muerte followers still consider themselves to be practicing Catholics. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres
In this small town near Mexico City, the growth of Santa Muerte’s popularity can be traced to a single family that built the world’s largest statue to the folk saint. The Temple of Santa Muerte International was created by the Jonathan Legaria Vargas, known as “the Pantera Commander,” in the early 2000’s.
Enriqueta Vargas preaches at the Temple of Santa Muerte International in 2015. Behind her is a statue of her son, Jonathan Legaria Vargas, known to Santa Muerte followers as “el comandante pantera” or the Pantera Commander. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres
Enriqueta Vargas poses at the Temple of Santa Muerte International in 2015. Vargas died in 2018, and leadership has fallen to her daughter, Kristhel Legaria Vargas. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres
The Pantera Commander was killed in a shooting in 2008 and his mother, Enriqueta Vargas, took over his growing cult. Under Enriqueta Vargas’ guidance, Santa Muerte International grew dramatically from 2008 until her death in 2018, and is now estimated to have more than 10 million followers worldwide, according to “Devoted to Death,” an academic study of Sante Muerte by Andrew Chesnut, professor of religion at Virginia Commonwealth Univerity.
Santa Muerte International has a 70-foot tall statue of Holy Death at their temple on the northern stretches of Mexico City.
Since Enriqueta Vargas’ death last year, her daughter Kristhel Legaria Vargas is the head of the temple. And while many demographic groups have joined the cult of Santa Muerte, younger women have been one of the largest groups joining the church.
People mourn during funeral services for Enriqueta Vargas at the Temple of Santa Muerte International in Dec. 2018. Vargas died after battling cancer, leaving her daughter in charge of Santa Muerte International. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres
Kristhel Legaria Vargas poses in front of a mural featuring her brother and mother at the Temple of Santa Muerte International near Mexico City in June 2019. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres