Loving the Bony Lady

By Scott Elliott & Adrian Fernandez Baumann | December 3, 2012

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.

* * *

Producers Matt Ozug and Julia Elliott and director Scott Elliott are the creators of Faith in the Five Boroughs, a project to document religion in New York’s immigrant communities. 

The Collector of Time

As Mark McKinley puts it, “no collector ever says, ‘I’ve gone too far.'” After 27 years and an official Guinness World Record, he stands by that statement.

The Saviors of Saffron

Three young Spaniards are reviving the farming tradition that flourished in their grandparents' generation.

An Aging Mother’s Animated Love Letter to Her Autistic Son

“Who would look after him if I wasn’t here?” and other questions this mom asks herself every day.

Courvosier Cox Knows He’s a Superstar

Meet a teenage actor-singer-comedian with absolutely no doubt that his tumultuous adolescence will soon give way to Hollywood fame.

A 360° View of India’s Gravity-Defying Pole Wrestlers

Get up close and personal with the athletes of the reemerging ancient pastime of mallakamb, in Narratively’s first 360 film.

This Breathtaking Greek Fireworks Battle Puts Your July 4th to Shame

Once a year, residents of this mountainous island gather at two churches on opposite ends of town and launch 100,000 handmade rockets — directly at each other.

Penny’s Ex-Husband Realized She’s a Woman. But They’re Still Best Friends.

When Dee came out as a transgender, it meant the end of her marriage to Penny. And that’s when the empowering journey for both women truly began.

The Nomadic People Caught in the Crosshairs of China’s Economic Boom

As Chinese investment turns this mineral-rich region into a cash cow, does the Southern Mongolian culture have any hope of survival? A few families are willing to fight for it.

Meet The Banksy of Cardboard Curiosities

This LA artist is creating ephemeral works designed to dazzle – then disintegrate.