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Beyond día de los muertos: The believers of Santa Muerte in Veracruz

A young woman dressed in Santa Muerte makeup waits outside the pantheon with other participants.
Héctor Quintanar for NPR
A young woman dressed in Santa Muerte makeup waits outside the pantheon with other participants.

Photojournalist Héctor Quintanar has documented a different tradition that takes place in Coatepec, Veracruz during the Day of the Dead celebrations in México. This is a glimpse of last year's festival dedicated to the Santa Muerte.

Coatepec, Veracruz, is famous for being a coffee-growing town in the Sierra Veracruzana. Tourism has grown substantially in recent years due to its cultural attractions and open spaces. Majority Catholic, the town has a deep reverence for the Saint, San Jerónimo, to whom the construction of the main parish is dedicated, in a 17th-century building where believers carry out processions every year.

However, for a few years, another movement has taken root in populations outside the mainstream that directly infringes on the widely accepted Catholic beliefs: The cult of Santa Muerte.

Car with a Santa Muerte
/ Héctor Quintanar for NPR
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Héctor Quintanar for NPR
Car with a Santa Muerte

Every November, believers gather in the Cárdenas neighborhood of Coatepec to thank Santa Muerte for granted wishes, miracles and even acts of evil toward their enemies. Locals have organized a patronal feast in Cárdenas, where they offer food, drink, prayers, and a massive procession that includes cars, music and a large wooden arch placed in the cemetery – home of death.

On October 28, 2022 the Coatepec community holds a Santa Muerte parade that includes offerings, arches of flowers and wood, and decorated cars
/ Héctor Quintanar for NPR
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Héctor Quintanar for NPR
On October 28, 2022 the Coatepec community holds a Santa Muerte parade that includes offerings, arches of flowers and wood, and decorated cars
Parade of cars with decorations and statues of Santa Muerte, held in Coatepec on November 28, 2021.
/ Héctor Quintanar for NPR
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Héctor Quintanar for NPR
Parade of cars with decorations and statues of Santa Muerte, held in Coatepec on November 28, 2021.
View of the floral arch offerings and life-size skulls that accompany the parade
/ Héctor Quintanar for NPR
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Héctor Quintanar for NPR
View of the floral arch offerings and life-size skulls that accompany the parade
Daniel Guzmán holds a statuette of La Santa Muerte. He is devoted Thanks to his father who initiated him in this belief.
/ Héctor Quintanar for NPR
/
Héctor Quintanar for NPR
Daniel Guzmán holds a statuette of La Santa Muerte. He is devoted Thanks to his father who initiated him in this belief.

There are a lot of stories about the Santa Muerte's miracles. 61-year-old Don Alberto says he was cured of heart cancer, which almost ended his life and family business. The Saint has appeared to others in dreams and some turn to it as a last resort when facing challenging situations.

This belief has been growing as the procession that takes place every year in the town of Coatepec grows before the incredulous eyes of the families who watch thousands of people carrying skeletons in their hands or children riding in carts singing corridos to the saint.

The powerful Saint can even force one's enemies to move away or disappear. Caution is advised because it can be dangerous to deal with Santa Muerte without the proper respect.

Don Alberto, 61, is a believer in Santa Muerte thanks to the fact that his faith cured him of cancer in the aortic vein. The doctors had given him up, but his belief healed him.
/ Héctor Quintanar for NPR
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Héctor Quintanar for NPR
Don Alberto, 61, is a believer in Santa Muerte thanks to the fact that his faith cured him of cancer in the aortic vein. The doctors had given him up, but his belief healed him.
Juanín gets a tattoo of Santa Muerte that covers his entire back.
/ Héctor Quintanar for NPR
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Héctor Quintanar for NPR
Juanín gets a tattoo of Santa Muerte that covers his entire back.
Juanín's Santa Muerte tattoo.
/ Héctor Quintanar for NPR
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Héctor Quintanar for NPR
Juanín's Santa Muerte tattoo.

"We are not criminals, people look down on us because we have tattoos or because we look poor and fucked up," said Benjamin Olmos, one of the event's organizers. "But the truth is that we are human beings like anyone else who believes in death, which is the only sure thing in life."

Paris, 33, is a Mexican wrestler. His faith in Santa Muerte began when he was able to overcome problems with alcohol and family thanks to his offerings and prayers to the Santa.
/ Héctor Quintanar for NPR
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Héctor Quintanar for NPR
Paris, 33, is a Mexican wrestler. His faith in Santa Muerte began when he was able to overcome problems with alcohol and family thanks to his offerings and prayers to the Santa.
Paris says his faith in Santa Muerte began when he was able to overcome problems with alcohol and family thanks to his offerings and prayers to the Saint.
/ Héctor Quintanar for NPR
/
Héctor Quintanar for NPR
Paris says his faith in Santa Muerte began when he was able to overcome problems with alcohol and family thanks to his offerings and prayers to the Saint.

Click here to see more of Héctor Quintanar's projects.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Héctor Quintanar
Sarah Mosquera
Estefania Mitre
Estefania Mitre (she/her/ella) is an associate producer for social media who works with visual elements to amplify stories across platforms. She has experience reporting on culture, social justice and music.