A Mexican religious subculture surrounding the folk deity Santa Muerte is growing in Queens. Her name translates as “St. Death,” and her followers say she watches over the marginalized and undocumented without judgment.

At a birthday party held in her honor on Nov. 5, evidence of the community’s growth was clear. I made a documentary film in 2016 about Santa Muerte and her following, and worship sessions then drew 50 to 100 attendees. Now, the scene is exploding, adding more and more members who have expressed disillusionment with the Catholic Church’s harsh stance on LGBTQ people, its scandals, and its history of brutal colonization of Indigenous Americans.

Santa Muerte is the second-most popular folk saint in Mexico. According to some scholars, her followers make up the fastest-growing religious movement among people from Latin America. She’s the patron saint of anyone who lives a little closer to death than the average person, which historically meant cabdrivers, drug dealers and sex workers.

Santa Muerte is the second-most popular folk saint in Mexico. Her name translates as “St. Death,” and her followers say she watches over the marginalized and undocumented without judgment.

But many of her followers say that as the religion gains traction, Santa Muerte's devotees are becoming more diverse. They now include more undocumented immigrants, more LGBTQ people, and some who see Santa Muerte as a type of extension of the Day of the Dead. Rodolfo Romero says he follows Santa Muerte because she was able to deepen his connection to his deceased father.

“I became a devotee of death because I wanted to see my dad,” Romero said, in Spanish. “She allowed him to leave the realm he lived in. And that’s why I’m a devotee of her: to see my dad, who I love.”

Rodolfo Romero, a Santa Muerte devotee

Romero attended the kickoff for Santa Muerte’s birthday party: a religious procession in Corona, Queens, where this congregation, one of two main groups of Santa Muerte worshipers in New York City, is based.

The procession, accompanied by banda musicians in gold brocade uniforms, walked to a rented cultural center, where followers would venerate her all night long with prayer and entertainment. Worship sessions happen about once a month, but the Nov. 5 event, which took place on the holiest day of the year for followers, was special.

Santa Muerte devotees carry statues of the folk deity along the procession toward Club Cultural de Queens in Corona.

Members of Banda La Grande de New York conclude the procession outside the Club Cultural de Queens.

As the celebrations kicked off, devotees lined up to place statues of the saint at the altar. Santa Muerte is usually depicted with a skeletal female frame that resembles the Grim Reaper. Felipe “Pasitas” Lopez, who founded this group of followers, brought a red statue that nearly matched his own height.

At the altar, he blessed the worshippers by running a colorful prayer candle down their backs. The candle’s color depends on what they’re asking of Santa Muerte, with red signifying love and green signifying money.

Felipe “Pasitas” Lopez, who founded this group of followers, rolls a prayer candle along a devotee's back. In the faith, the color red signifies love.

The line for the altar was long, and the air thick and steamy with incense and body heat. Lopez estimated between 150 and 200 people were at the cultural center. He said the group is growing to include more people from all over Latin America.

“Before I used to have only Mexican people,” he said. “Now, I have people from Honduras, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala.”

Lopez says he’s gaining followers because the Catholic Church judges sinners and Santa Muerte does not see the world as a binary of good and evil. He cited the LGBTQ community and undocumented immigrants as growing demographics.

The dense crowd gathered before the altar to Santa Muerte.

Lopez, who is an undocumented immigrant, said his love for the saint solidified during a past near-death experience at the border. Raúl, another undocumented immigrant and follower of Santa Muerte, crossed six years ago. He said that being an immigrant here has often been lonely, and Santa Muerte has helped him through that.

“I came to do something for my family,” he said in Spanish. “But here, one often encounters many obstacles. You feel lonely, and all that. So you search for the care of someone. And who better than Santa Muerte?”

Like many younger followers, 26-year-old Raúl is at odds with his family, who are strict Catholics. The Vatican has condemned Santa Muerte and many other folk saints as blasphemous.

Felipe “Pasitas” Lopez, the founder this group of followers.

Deysi and Analia

Manuela Medina, who overheard my conversation with Raúl, explained that while many followers are converts, the tradition itself is ancient. Many Mexicans believe Santa Muerte is an evolution of the Aztec god of death. For Medina, it’s tradition.

“I’ve been a follower of Santa Muerte since my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my great-great-grandparents … all of my ancestors,” said Medina, who grew up attending services at Santa Muerte’s original shrine in Tepito, a neighborhood in Mexico City.

“We’ve always believed in her,” she added. “It’s a part of my culture.”

Santa Muerte devotee, Eric Lopez, recites prayers at the folk deity's birthday celebration.

That night, I witnessed the community’s growth firsthand. When I first spent time with these Santa Muertistas while making my film, the parties were more bare-bones: a mariachi band, one or two rock bands, and dancing. Here, the festivities included two mariachi bands, a DJ, bartenders, and even a hired clown.

The second mariachi act performed with their backs to the crowd. Instead, they faced the birthday girl herself, and played for her late into the night.