Arely Gonzalez's bedroom is dominated by a giant altar; at its center is 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 La Santa Muerte.
More from Narratively...
Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2013.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Save the world... by changing how you pee
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Why does Fareed Zakaria still have a job?
- Does solar energy have a battery problem?
- 10 things you need to know today: September 22, 2014
- 7 common estate-planning mistakes
Subscribe to the Week