Arely Gonzalez’s bedroom is dominated by a giant altar; at its center a skeleton draped in jewelry and dressed in a sparkling jade gown. She is La Santa Muerte—The Holy Death—the object of Gonzalez’s affection, a powerful ally in a precarious life and a source of comfort—even miracles, some say—when nothing else helps.
Also known as La Flaca—the Skinny Lady—Santa Muerte has been worshipped in Mexico since the early twentieth century. Her origins are murky, perhaps a merging of Aztec or Mayan death deities with Catholic traditions. The Catholic Church of Mexico condemns her as blasphemy or devil worship, yet her popularity has exploded in the past decade, beginning in 2001 when a poor grandmother and resident of the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City erected an outdoor altar to the bony saint. Today, millions of Mexicans are devotees of Santa Muerte, and her cult has crossed the border into the U.S. Popularly known as the “sinner’s saint,” Santa Muerte has a large following among drug-runners, prostitutes and Mexican prisoners. For anyone living outside of official society, she offers a kind of salvation.
Gonzalez, an immigrant transsexual, suffered discrimination and was kicked out of churches in Mexico. But in New York, she has become a leader in the community of Santa Muerte devotees. In addition to her bedroom shrine, which is the largest private Santa Muerte shrine in the city, Gonzales organizes a yearly celebration for her saint. It’s a party, but one of veneration–a kind of thanksgiving for the year of miracles brought by Santa Muerte.