Long popular in Mexico, the skeleton saint La Santa Muerte is gaining a robust following north of the border among many non-Latinos, many of them shunning organized religion.
Wearing a black nun's robe and holding a scythe in one hand, Santa Muerte appeals to people seeking all manner of otherworldly help: from fending off wrongdoing and carrying out vengeance to stopping lovers from cheating and landing better jobs.
According to the Associated Press:
"Her growth in the United States has been extraordinary," said Andrew Chesnut, author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint and the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Because you can ask her for anything, she has mass appeal and is now gaining a diverse group of followers throughout the country. She's the ultimate multi-tasker."
The saint is especially popular among Mexican-American Catholics, rivaling that of St. Jude and La Virgen de Guadalupe as a favorite for miracle requests, even as the Catholic Church in Mexico denounces Santa Muerte as satanic, experts say.
The origins of La Santa Muerte are unclear. Some followers say she is an incarnation of an Aztec goddess of death who ruled the underworld. Some scholars say she originated in medieval Spain through the image of La Parca, a female Grim Reaper, who was used by friars for the later evangelization of indigenous populations in the Americas.
For decades, though, La Santa Muerte remained an underground figure in isolated regions of Mexico and served largely as an unofficial Catholic saint that women called upon to help with cheating spouses.