Enriqueta Romero and the Adoration of Saint Death

They say death can come in many forms, but in Mexico she is a woman with many names: La Niña Blanca (the white girl), La Flaquita (the skinny girl), La Dama Poderosa (the powerful woman) and Santísima Muerte (most holy saint of death). And then there’s a name that doesn’t hold any of this death appeal: Enriqueta Romero.

Now in her 70s, this diminutive but feisty former homemaker is actually one of the most unlikely religious crusaders around. She curses; she makes dramatic hand gestures; recently, to get some Mormons on her doorstep to beat it, the grandmother told them she was a stripper. And she can claim credit for spurring devotion to a saint who a decade ago was virtually unknown among even the religious. According to R. Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, 99 percent of the country had never heard of the saint a decade ago. Today, more than 5 million Mexican citizens — and many more worldwide — say they regularly pray to Santa Muerte. The whole thing started when Romero placed an altar to Saint Death outside her nondescript home in the rough Mexico City barrio of Morelos.

Although Romero is now internationally recognized, it’s not like she is WhatsApping with the pope. She spends most days at home puttering about in an apron, and has lived in the same house her entire life. The altar started as an offshoot of a Day of the Dead celebration in 2001 — Romero felt “it was time” for Santa Muerte. Almost 15 years later, there’s a monthly rosary gathering attended by thousands outside her house. Romero has seen both incredible controversy and jaw-dropping surprise: Her beloved Santa Muerte is now the second most famous folk saint (the Virgin of Guadalupe is No. 1). She says she started praying to the saint when she was 12. “She has just been with me my whole life,” Romero says. Incredibly enough, Chesnut calls Santa Muerte “the fastest-growing movement in the Americas,” in terms of its “religious competition for market share.”

Since her public debut, Santa Muerte has been attacked by the Mexican government and the Catholic Church. In 2009, the Mexican government destroyed 40 Santa Muerte shrines along the U.S.-Mexico border, citing links between the saint and drug cartels. The Catholic Church accuses the saint of links to anti-Catholic ideals. “By now, a lot of Mexicans have heard something in their parish church equating Santa Muerte with satanism and human sacrifice,” says Chesnut, adding that some of his relatives are too afraid to say her name.

Every morning, Romero prays in her personal altar upstairs and then works on the public altar in front of her house. The constant stream of flowers and candles must be rotated; fruit that is still edible, usually apples, is set aside as snacks for followers or the poor. There are tiles to mop, ashtrays to empty and glass to clean. Romero does this as her husband, Raymundo, takes up his usual post with a newspaper in their little shop — also a part of their home.

Other Latin American countries have saints of death, but Mexico’s is the only female one. Santa Muerte’s relative newness means the rituals surrounding her are not yet set in stone. For example, it’s not uncommon for whole families to light individual cigarettes in front of Romero’s home as they face the public altar and stand silently in prayer, letting the cigarettes burn down to the filter — a modern take on incense meant to appeal to the saints’ humanity, along with offerings of liquor, candy and marijuana. And Santa Muerte has a significant gay following. “She sees your faith and not your face,” says Romero. Hers is a fresh face, open for interpretation, even if that face is a bare skull topped with a crown.

Day in and day out, people arrive on foot, by bicycle or in cars. Some come with just their thoughts and prayers as an offering, while others labor under the burden of dramatic flower arrangements. At times, a line resembling that at a theme park, with whole families standing together, snakes from the neatly kept altar out into the street. Those that have come to know Romero over the years might pay their respects to her, and those with special worries may be invited inside to speak privately with the Doña of Death.

“God does the miracles,” says Romero. “Santa Muerte just helps me out.”