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Los Angeles believers in La Santa Muerte say they aren't a cult

Followers of Santa Muerte or The Holy Death worship in Los Angeles.
Followers of Santa Muerte or The Holy Death worship in Los Angeles.
Julie Platner/KPCC

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For most of us, figurines of ghouls and goblins come around only once a year. That's not the case for Latinos who choose to follow La Santa Muerte or The Saint of Death, a woman depicted as a cloak-draped skeleton, often holding a globe in one hand and wielding a scythe in the other.

In Los Angeles, Santa Muerte's followers gather in storefronts that have been converted into ad hoc temples and packed with icons and relics. These makeshift temples have seen an influx in visitors over the past decade as the reputation and popularity of La Santa Muerte has spread in Mexico, parts of Latin America and in many cities throughout the U.S.

Lucino Garcia, who goes by the name Professor Sisyphus, leads weekly evening services at Templo Santa Muerte on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. His temple opened five years ago with one prayer service a month, and now it hosts three services a week. They've gone from 50 attendees to more than 400. Sisyphus said people come to the temple out of curiosity.

"They want to see if it's true what they have been hearing in the streets, that Santa Muerte will grant you wishes. Whatever you need, whatever you want, it will be granted by Santa Muerte," he said.

According to Sisyphus, most attendees are Catholic. "Why do they choose to come to temple Santa Muerte instead of going to their Sunday services? More than anything, it's because Santa Muerte grants then favors faster than a regular saint," he said. "Why? Santa Muerte is with God every second."

Andrew Chestnut, a professor of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Santa Muerte's popularity is partly owed to a fallout from the Catholic Church, due to recent scandals. Now, the Santa Muerte following is taking on a different set of needs for immigrant communities.

"It's structure, it's prayers, it's form and everything really is all predicated on folk Catholicism. But I think it's in the process of going beyond it's Catholic moorings and morphing into something non-catholic and non-christian. It's a new religious movement in the making."

Many ceremonies revolving around the saint of death involve healing and bringing in good energy. Last month, Professor Sisyphus took his followers to Los Angeles National Forest for a ceremony by the river, with incense burning and chanting.

"We talk to our brother the river, the energy of the trees; we can hear the singing of the river. Not the noise of the water, no. Not the noise of the water, but the singing of the river."

The number of Santa Muerte followers started growing in Mexico in 2001, and in the United States, she's taken strong hold in immigrant communities, especially in places with high poverty rates. The Catholic Church has deemed believers cultish in the decade that Santa Muerte's popularity has increased, and others call Santa Muerte the patron saint of narcos and criminal gangs. To Sisyphus, everyone is welcome.

"The police will tell you that Santa Muerte is the saint of drug dealers, all those criminals," he said. "We see her as our mother, our protector ... because she is the protector of all God's creation."