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In order for the deceased to be accepted into Mictlan, offerings to the lord and lady of death were necessary. In European Christian tradition, many paintings employed skeletons to symbolize human mortality. They would be dressed up as royalty with scepters and crowns, and be seated on thrones to symbolize the triumph of death. After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire , the worship of death diminished but was never eradicated.
According to one account, recorded in the annals of the Spanish Inquisition , indigenous people in central Mexico tied up a skeletal figure, whom they addressed as "Santa Muerte," and threatened it with lashings if it did not perform miracles or grant their wishes. During these celebrations, many Mexicans flock to cemeteries to sing and pray for friends and family members who have died. Children partake in the festivities by eating chocolate or candy in the shape of skulls.
In contrast to the Day of the Dead , overt veneration of Santa Muerte remained clandestine until the middle of the 20th century.
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When it went public in sporadic occurrences, reaction was often harsh, and included the desecration of shrines and altars. His paintings of skeletons in daily life and that La Catrina were meant to represent the arbitrary and violent nature of an unequal society. Modern artists began to reestablish Posada's styles as a national artistic objective to push the limits of upper-class tastes; an example of Posada's influence is Diego Rivera 's mural painting Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central , which features La Catrina.
The image of the skeleton and the Day of the Dead ritual that used to be held underground became commercialized and domesticated. The skeletal images became that of folklore, encapsulating Posada's viewpoit that death is an equalizer. Skeletons were put in extravagant dresses with braids in their hair, altering the image of Posada's original La Catrina. As opposed to being the political message Posada intended, the skeletons of equality became skeletal images which were appealing to tourists and the national folkloric Mexican identity. Veneration of Santa Muerte was documented in the s in working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City such as Tepito.
Widely reported in the press, this discovery inspired the common association between Santa Muerte, violence, and criminality in Mexican popular consciousness. Since , there has been a "meteoric growth" in the size of the Santa Muerte beliefs, largely due to her reputation for performing miracles. By the late s Santa Muerte had become Mexico's second-most popular saint, after Saint Jude ,  and had come to rival the country's "national patroness", the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Our Lady of Holy Death is a personification of death. Although there are other death saints in Latin America, such as San La Muerte , Santa Muerte is the only female saint of death in either of the Americas.
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The latter was introduced by a believer named Enriqueta Romero. The two most common objects that Santa Muerte holds in her hands are a globe and a scythe. The scythe can symbolize the cutting of negative energies or influences. As a harvesting tool, a scythe may also symbolize hope and prosperity.
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The scythe has a long handle, indicating that it can reach anywhere. The globe represents Death's vast power and dominion over the earth,  and may be seen as a kind of a tomb to which we all return. Other objects associated with Santa Muerte include scales, an hourglass, an owl, and an oil lamp. It also symbolizes patience. An owl symbolizes her ability to navigate the darkness and her wisdom. The owl is also said to act as a messenger. Rites dedicated to Our Lady of Holy Death include processions and prayers with the aim of gaining a favor.
According to popular belief, Santa Muerte is very powerful and is reputed to grant many favors. Her images are treated as holy and can give favors in return for the faith of the believer, with miracles playing a vital role. As such, devotees believe she can protect against assaults, accidents, gun violence, and all types of violent death. The image is dressed differently depending on what is being requested.
Usually, the vestments of the image are differently colored robes, but it is also common for the image to be dressed as a bride for those seeking a husband  or in European medieval nun 's garments similar to female Catholic saints. White is the most common color and can symbolize gratitude, purity, or the cleansing of negative influences. Red is for love and passion. It can also signify emotional stability. The color gold signifies economic power, success, money, and prosperity. Green symbolizes justice, legal matters, or unity with loved ones.
Amber or dark yellow indicates health. Images with this color can be seen in rehabilitation centers, especially those for drug addiction and alcoholism. Blue candles and images of the saint indicate wisdom, which is favored by students and those in education. It can also be used to petition for health. Brown is used to invoke spirits from beyond while purple, like yellow, usually symbolizes health.
Santa Muerte also has a " saint's day ", which varies from shrine to shrine. The most prominent is November 1, when the believer Enriqueta Romero celebrates her at her historic Tepito shrine where the famous effigy is dressed as a bride. According to Chesnut, the religion of Our Lady of Holy Death is "generally informal and unorganized". The one on Dr. Another public shrine is in a small park on Matamoros Street very close to Paseo de la Reforma. Shrines can also be found in the back of all kinds of stores and gas stations. Andrew Chesnut has discovered that many botanicas in both Mexico and the U.
Her image is a staple in esoterica shops. The establishment of the first public shrine to the image began to change how Santa Muerte was venerated. The veneration has grown rapidly since then, and others have put their images on public display, as well. In , Enriqueta Romero decided to take a life-sized statue of Santa Muerte in her home in Mexico City and build a shrine for it, visible from the street. The shrine does not hold Catholic masses or occult rites, but people come here to pray and to leave offerings to the image. This statue of the saint features large quantities of jewelry on her neck and arms, which are pinned to her clothing.
It is surrounded by offerings left to it, including: Enriqueta Romero considers herself the chaplain of the shrine, a role she says she inherited from her aunt, who began the practice in the family in For many, this Santa Muerte is the patron saint of Tepito. On the first day of every month Enriqueta Romero or one of her sons lead prayers and the saying of the Santa Muerte rosary , which lasts for about an hour and is based on the Catholic rosary.
This Santa Muerte is dressed as a bride and wears hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry given by the faithful to show gratitude for favors received, or to ask for one.
The celebration officially begins at the stroke of midnight of November 1. About 5, faithful turn out to pray the rosary. For purification, the smoke of marijuana is used rather than incense , which is traditionally used for purification by Catholics. Food such as cake, chicken with mole , hot chocolate, coffee, and atole are served during the celebrations, which features performances by mariachis and marimba bands.
The religion of Santa Muerte is present throughout the strata of Mexican society, although the majority of devotees are from the urban working class. The phenomenon is based among people with scarce resources, excluded from the formal market economy, as well as the judicial and educational systems, primarily in the inner cities and the very rural areas.
Devotion to the image peaks during economic and social hardships, which tend to affect the working classes more. Santa Muerte tends to attract those in extremely difficult or hopeless situations but also appeals to smaller sectors of middle class professionals and even the affluent. The worship of Santa Muerte also attracts those who are not inclined to seek the traditional Catholic Church for spiritual solace, as it is part of the "legitimate" sector of society.
Many followers of Santa Muerte live on the margins of the law or outside it entirely. Many street vendors, taxi drivers, vendors of counterfeit merchandise , street people, prostitutes , pickpockets , petty drug traffickers and gang members who are part of the religion are not practicing Catholics or Protestants, but neither are they atheists.
In essence they have created their own new religion that reflects their realities, identity, and practices, especially since it speaks to the violence and struggles for life that many of these people face. With the exception of some artists and politicians, some of whom perform rituals secretly, those in higher socioeconomic strata look upon the veneration with distaste as a form of superstition.
Santa Muerte is also seen as a protector of homosexual, bisexual, and transgender communities in Mexico ,  since many are considered to be outcast from society. Her intercession is commonly invoked in same-sex marriage ceremonies performed in Mexico.