A shrine to Santa Muerte in Mexico.
Although he’d studied and traveled in Mexico for years, it wasn’t until 2005 that Andrew Chestnut first heard of Santa Muerte.
"I first ran into her in Mexico City, on the cover of a glossy magazine," Chestnut says.
For the past ten years, drug cartels in Mexico have been worshiping Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a robed skeleton lady. But that devotion isn't necessarily sanctioned or shared by Catholic officials, or the Mexican authorities. In 2009, the Mexican army bulldozed more than 40 Santa Muerte shrines along the U.S.-Mexico border.
That's when Chestnut, a Catholic Studies scholar at Virginia Commonwealth University, decided it was time to learn more. Her popularity is now spreading beyond the Mexican borders, Chestnut wanted to know why she has such widespread appeal.
"She's what we call a folk saint, a saint who hasn't been canonized or approved by the Catholic Church," Chestnut says. "She heals, she takes you to your destination in the afterlife, she is the patroness of matters of law and justice."
Chestnut talks about Santa Muerte almost as though she's a person, and for many of her followers -- whose numbers are reaching 7 million -- her actions have real consequences.
"She has quickly developed a reputation as the most prompt and efficacious miracle worker," Chestnut says.
He visits shrines all over Mexico, where millions of worshipers go to ask Santa Muerte for help. Other worshipers are there to give thanks. While visiting one shrine, Chestnut saw an extremely well-dressed devotee making an offering.
"And he told me a whole gripping story about how he was there to give thanks to the saint of death because she had released him from his kidnappers," Chestnut says.
It's stories like these that have skyrocketed Santa Muerte's popularity. Before 2002, she was known to relatively few people, but during the last ten years, she has become well-loved by both sides of the Mexican drug wars.
"There's an entire municipality in which half of the 400 police officers actually wear Santa Muerte image stitched onto their police uniform," explains Chestnut
The Mexican government and the Catholic Church are now waging a war on Santa Muerte, but her following continues to grow in Mexico, as well as among immigrants in the U.S. and around the world. Chestnut explains that, for many people living in misery, Santa Muerte may seem like the best place to turn.
"People who work in the streets are exposed to death on a daily basis," Chestnut says. "So who better to ask for a few more days of life here on earth than the saint of death herself?"