Mexico's Top Two Santa Muerte Leaders Finally Meet

The two Enriquetas finally met two weeks ago in Tepito, the notorious Mexico City barrio. For those who haven't been following the development of the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas, the Enriquetas are the two top Santa Muerte leaders in Mexico. Enriqueta Romero, affectionately known as Doña Queta, is the devotional pioneer who unintentionally transformed an occult practice, known to very few Mexicans, into the burgeoning devotion that claims some 10 to 12 million members, mostly in Mexico, Central America and the US but also in the four corners of the globe. It was the act of setting her life-size statue of the skeleton saint out on the sidewalk in front of her modest home on Halloween, 2001, that marked the public outing of the clandestine folk saint.

The other Enriqueta, with the surname Vargas, who initiated the visit with Doña Queta, is Death's Evangelist. At her Santa Muerte Internacional Temple on the gritty outskirts of Mexico City, Vargas charismatically preaches the good news of Saint Death to ex-cons, goths, housewives and others who see the Bony Lady as their protectress and provider in the harsh environs of working-class Mexico City. Unlike the Tepito pioneer who has been venerating the saint of death since she was a girl, Vargas only became a believer in the Bony Lady after her son Jonathan Vargas, aka Comandante Pantera, was killed in a hail of 150 bullets pumped into his Escalade in July of 2008.

Comandante Pantera had founded the Santa Muerte temple in Tultitlan and erected the world's largest statue of the skeleton saint, a 75 foot, fiberglass behemoth that looms larger than life over the neighborhood. It was her tireless crusade to find her son's murderers that led Enriqueta Vargas into the consoling arms of the Bony Lady. In the seven years since her son's death she has attracted hundreds of new devotees to her temple and has traveled extensively throughout Mexico and even to New York attempting to unite diverse temples and shrines under her direction.

And though I had never heard either of the Enriquetas speak disparagingly of the other, I had always assumed that rivalry had kept them apart. Doña Queta, in her 70s and having recently beat lung cancer, isn't interested in expanding her operations and becoming a national leader. In contrast, the magnetic Vargas owns a tour bus that has taken her to Playa del Carmen, and to the states of Hidalgo and Morelos and beyond. Vargas is articulate, energetic and willing to do battle with both church and state to defend the freedom to worship the skeleton saint, which has been condemned by both the Catholic Church in Mexico and the Vatican itself. A maverick, Vargas has introduced some ritual innovations at her temple, which are not practiced in Tepito. Weddings and baptisms in the name of Holy Death are the two most important ones not only performed at her temple but also in the prisons that she visits on a weekly basis.

The ostensible reason for Vargas's visit to the famous Tepito shrine was to give Doña Queta a gift that New York City Santa Muerte pioneer, Arely Vazquez, had given to Vargas for delivery to Queta when they were together at Vazquez's annual fiesta in Queens. Vazquez, a transgender Mexican who has developed a sizable following in Queens, phoned in to talk to both Enriquetas during their historic encounter in Tepito. Overcome with emotion, the three promised to stay in touch, and Doña Queta lectured Vargas on the importance of taking care of her health, lest she end up in a premature embrace from the Lady of the Shadows.

Beyond the historical significance of the first meeting of the leading figures of the fasting growing new religious movement in the Western Hemisphere, the encounter also highlights the paramount importance of gender in the devotion to death. Along with Arely Vazquez, the three top devotional leaders are women, and the saint herself is uniformly considered female, even having such 'girly' nicknames as White Girl, Pretty Girl, and Skinny Girl. Having studied the devotion for the past six years, I have also observed that women and girls significantly outnumber males at the public shrines and altars.

The femicentric nature of devotion to Santa Muerte, of course, provides continuity with the larger Catholic landscape of Mexico dominated by the world's most popular expression of Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe. An oft-heard phrase in Mexico is that Mexicans are 90% Catholic but 100% Guadalupans. That women devotees are venerating a female saint and assuming leadership positions at the highest levels of the movement is quite a contrast to both church and state in Mexico where they can't become clergy and have never become president of the republic. In a country plagued by sexism and even femicide, devotion to death is one of the few spaces beyond the home where Mexican women run their own show.