MEXICAN-U.S. CATHOLIC APOSTOLIC TRADITIONAL
1959 David Romo Guillen was born in Mexico.
1980s Romo became Director of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and Saint Philip of Jesus (Missionaries Misioneros del Sagrado Corazón y San Felipe de Jesús).
2001 (All Saints Day) Doña Queta erected a shrine to Santa Muerte outside of her home in the Tepito Barrio of Mexico City.
2002 Romo founded the National Sanctuary of Holy Death.
2003 Romo officially registered the church in Mexico as The Mexican-U.S. Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church.
2005 The Mexican government revoked the church’s official status.
2009 (March) The Mexican government destroyed thirty Santa Muerte shrines in Nueva Laredo and Tijuana.
2009 (April) Romo declared “holy war” against the Catholic Church for its condemnation of Santa Muerte.
2011 Romo was arrested on criminal charges and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
The Mexican-U.S. Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church was founded by David Romo Guillen. Information about his early life is very limited (Chesnut 2012:41-4). It is known that he was born in 1958 and that he had some experience with a several different religions. He knew members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whom he respected for their passionate commitment, and his family members joined a traditionalist Catholic group during the 1960s in the wake of liberalizing Vatican II reforms. Romo went on to serve in the Mexican air force veteran, marry and father five children (Freese n.d.). He subsequently became the leader of a traditionalist group, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and Saint Philip of Jesus (Missionaries Misioneros del Sagrado Corazón y San Felipe de Jesús), during the 1980s. He founded a home for children with a parent who had died from AIDS in 1993, but the home closed after just one year of operation. That same year he founded the traditionalist Mexico-USA Tridentine Catholic Church and appointed himself as “Archbishop.” Romo petitioned the Mexican government for registration of his church in 2000, a request that was granted in 2003 but reversed just two years later. Romo continued to head the church until his arrest and imprisonment in 2011.
The historical origins of Santa Muerte as a Catholic folk saint are debated. Theories include that Santa Muerte appeared to a healer in Veracruz during the 19 th century, emerged out of an amalgamation of death cult in ancient Mexican and later Catholicism, derived from Yoruba worship practices of African slaves mixed with a variety of Latin American religious traditions and Christianity, and resulted from a mixing of worship of the Aztec queen of the underworld (Mictecacíhuatl) with Catholicism ((Lorentzen 2009; Laycock 2009). For his part, Romo asserts that the image originated in Italy during bubonic plague” (“A Mexican Death Cult” 2010). Whatever her actual origins, Santa Muerte has existed in Mexico since the 18 th century, but it was during the 1960s that migrants brought Santa Muerte from rural Mexico to Mexico City. Worship of the saint then experienced extraordinarily rapid growth during the 1990s (Grabman 2011). Veneration of Santa Muerte had been largely private until 2001 when Enriqueta Romero, known as Doña Queta, erected a statue of Santa Muerte outside of her home in Mexico City’s the Tepito Barrio, triggering a dramatic growth in public worship over the next decade (Neville 2011). Romo established his church the following year.
Romo has drawn liberally on Catholicism, particularly traditionalist Catholicism, in creating The Mexican-U.S. Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church. He has incorporated elements of the mass, devotional texts and prayers, rosary beads in the services he officiates. However, Romo reportedly has also said that he “doesn’t recognize the authority of Pope John Paul II” (Walker 2004). It has been his creating a hybrid form of traditional Catholicism and Santa Muerte worship that most clearly distinguishes The Mexican-U.S. Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church from other sectarian Catholic groups. Worshipers at the church are predominantly Catholic, professing faith in Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the canonized Catholic Saints, but they also incorporate veneration of Santa Muerte into their religious belief and practice.
David Romo developed the mass format for The Mexican-U.S. Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church partly as a way to differentiate his services from a main rival, Doña Queta. These services featured many of the traditional Catholic elements of worship, such as receiving communion and praying with rosary beads (Walker 2004). However, the masses diverge from a conventional Roman Catholic mass as “the ceremony becomes startlingly different when devotees invoke ‘the spirit of the Santa Muerte’ and utter the phrases, ‘Glorious death, powerful death.’ Santa Muerte's followers pray their enemies will be vanquished. Romo denies that the objective of the ritual is to effect anyone's death. ‘We say, “Death to my enemies” so they will stop bothering us,’ he said. ‘It is not for the physical destruction of our enemies’” (Walker 2004; Wayward Monk n.d.). Romo also presides over thematic masses that reflect his worshipers’ personal concerns. These include masses for parishioners who are ill or are experiencing demonic possession that include exorcism and healing rituals. Worshipers are invited to bring a photo of a friend or relative to a special “mass for prisoners” (Chesnut 2012:89). Prayers during the services often are for protection: “Oh, Most Santa Muerte, I call upon you so that, through your image, you may free me from all dangers, whether [these dangers] are physical or from witchcraft, and that through this sacred flame you might purify my body from all charms and curses and that you also bring love, peace, and abundance. So be it” (Freese n.d.)
Devotees light candles to Santa Muerte, with the color of each candle being associated with a specific desired result. For example, gold candles are lighted for economic power and success, bone for peace and harmony, red for love and passion, white for purification, blue for mental concentration, green for legal problems, and yellow for healing (Freese n.d.). Devotees also make offerings to Santa Muerte. Appropriate offerings can include coins, cigarettes and cigars, fresh flowers, candy, wines and liquors, various fruits, tap water, bread, or incense (Chesnut 2012:66-79; Laycock 2009). Offerings must be presented in the appropriate way in order to achieve desired results. For example, cigars and cigarettes should be lit and the smoke blown across the Santa Muerte image.
Veneration of Santa Muerte had been largely private until 2001 when Doña Queta, erected a statue of Santa Muerte outside of her home in Mexico City’s notorious Tepito Barrio. David Romo had already founded the traditionalist Mexico-USA Tridentine Catholic Church and appointed himself as “Archbishop” in 1993. Santa Muerte devotees subsequently became members of his congregation, and when he requested official registration of his church in 2000, Santa Muerte beliefs and practices were already incorporated into church devotionals. The church was established in a donated private residence located on Calle Bravo (Ferocious Street) in Tepito. The entrance to the church is flanked by two life-sized statues of Santa Muerte.
Initially the church was named the National Sanctuary of the Angel of the Holy Death before Romo sought to register it as the Mexican-U.S. Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church. David Romo has served as archbishop and primate from the church’s inception (Freese n.d.). Between 2002 and 2011, when he was arrested, Romo conducted masses every Sunday. The church has supported itself financially through donations and the sale of Santa Muerte related items in its church store. Romo had developed plans prior to his arrest to create a seminary that would train new priests, teaching them philosophy and several languages (Walker 2004).
David Romo’s church has faced both internal competition for representation of Santa Muerte and external opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and the Mexican government. There are several other competitors for representation of Santa Muerte in Mexico City, most notably Doña Queta, who is regarded as the godmother of the movement. It was Doña Queta who created the first public Santa Muerte shrine in in 2001 and organized the first public rosaries at her Tepito shrine in 2002. Since that time the monthly worship services at Queta’s shrine draw several thousand worshipers. A second competitor was Jonathan Legaria who appointed himself as priest of Holy Death International. Legaria, who dubbed himself “Commander Panther” and "Godfather Endoque," constructed a large statue of Santa Muerte and a series of smaller shrines, established a shops that sold Santa Muerte items and spiritual services, and founded a radio station (“A Mexican Death Cult 2010). His endeavor quickly achieved a considerable following. However, Legaria’s life was cut short when in 2008 at age 26 when he was gunned down in a hail of automatic weapons fire. Legaria and Romo had been engaged in an ongoing feud, but his assassination has been attributed to gangland warfare. Legaria’s mother, Enriequeta Vargas, anointed herself the new “Panther” and began leading the religious services. At one point Romo changed the church’s name to the One and Only National Sanctuary of Santa Muerte to assert his primacy over other Santa Muerte groups. Romo’s assertion of leadership of Santa Muerte led to a more general criticism of Romo within the Santa Muerte community that “he was trying to be the leader of a devotion that could really have no leader but Santa Muerte herself” (Wayward Monk n.d.).
Romo’s church also faces competition from new, autonomous Santa Muerte shrines and churches that have been springing up on both sides of the U.S. Mexican border as well as in cities across the U.S. (Gray 2007). It is not surprising given the large Mexican immigrant community that Los Angles became a major center of Santa Muerte devotion in the U.S. Saint Death Temple (Templo Santa Muerte) and Saint Death Universal Sanctuary (Santuario Universal de Santa Muerte), and Most Holy Death House of Prayer ( Casa de Oracion de la Santisima Muerte) are prominent examples of such worship sites in Los Angeles (Chesnut 2012:89). Each of these churches has emerged and is administered independently, and they offer an array of Catholic-style services that include weddings, spiritual counseling, rosaries, and exorcisms.
The more significant opposition to Romo’s church has come from the Roman Catholic Church and the Mexican government. Catholic leaders have openly denounced Santa Muerte. “Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, the Archbishop of Mexico, has called devotion to Santa Muerte a heresy that ‘ensnares’ Catholics” and “the Archdiocese of Mexico City released a statement declaring that devotion to ‘Saint Death’ is incompatible with Catholicism” (Laycock 2009). Both Mexican Episcopal Conference leader Jose Guadalupe Martin Rabago and Cardinal Carrera have called Santa Muerte “satanic.” The Mexican government has alleged a connection between drug traffickers and Santa Muerte after Mexican troops began discovering “private shrines to Santa Muerte in the mansions of prominent drug lords” (Laycock 2009). In April, 2005, the Interior Secretariat ruled that the Santa Muerte group “did not meet the qualifications for a religion and removed the Mexican-U.S. Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church from the list of recognized religions, citing theological doctrine dating back as far as the Council of Trent” (Laycock 2009). This decision was a major blow to Romo as it left the church without the legal right to own property or raise funds.
Romo has responded to this religious and political rejection by arguing “that Santa Muerte was a tool for evangelizing people in the marginalized sectors of society just as the Virgin of Guadalupe was a vehicle for converting Native Americans” (Freese n.d.). He also began a series of meetings with Mexico City magistrates to promote social development and community service projects that would be undertaken by Santa Muerte adherents under the a new blanket organization, the National Association of Altars and Sanctuaries of Santa Muerte (Asociación Nacional de Altares y Santuarios de la Santa Muerte), which is effectively replacing the Mexican-U.S. Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church” (Laycock 2009; Wayward Monk, n.d.). There was more direct action as well. Romo “issued a call for Santa Muerte devotees to vote against Secretary Creel’s party, the National Action Party (PAN) (Partido Acción Nacional), and Creel himself in the 2006 Mexican Presidential Elections.
Despite his determined resistance, the final blow to Romo’s leadership of his church may have occurred in January, 2011. Romoand several of his followers were arrested on charges of kidnapping and laundering ransom money (Romo pictured top row, second from right). Several months later he was sentenced to twelve years in prison. However, he was not convicted on the kidnapping and money laundering charges. Rather, he was convicted instead for using a voting credential that bore his photograph, but under a different name, with which he was then said to have opened bank accounts in which he could receive ransom payments” (Wayward Monk n.d.).
“A Mexican Cult: Death in Holy Orders.” 2010. The Economist 7 January 2010. Accessed from http://www.economist.com/node/15213777 on March 7, 2012.
Chesnut, R. Andrew. 2012. Santa Muerte: Devoted to Death. New York: Oxford University Press.
Freese, Kevin. N.d. “The Death Cult of the Drug Lords: Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals and the Dispossessed.” Accessed from http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Santa-Muerte/santa-muerte.htm#rings on March 7, 2012.
Grabman, Richard. 2011. All rogues lead to Romo? The Mex Files. 7 January 2011. Accessed from http://mexfiles.net/2011/01/07/all-rogues-lead-to-romo/ on March 25, 2012.
Laycock, Joseph. 2009. “Mexico’s War on Saint Death.” Religious Dispatches. 6 May 2009. Accessed from http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/1428/ on March 7, 2012.
Lorentzen, Lois Ann. 2009. “Sightings: Holy Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border.” Sightings 28 May 2009. Accessed from http://www.yorkblog.com/faith/2009/05/sightings-holy-death-on-the-us.html on March 7, 2012.
Neville, Lucy. 2011. “My Travels: Lucy Neville on the Santa Muerte Cult, Mexico.” The Guardian. 9 September 2011. Accessed from http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/sep/09/saint-of-death-mexico-city on March 7, 2012.
Walker, S. Lynne. 2004. “Skeleton Force.” Copley News Service. 1 July 2004. Accessed from http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20040701/news_lz1c1death.html on March 7, 2012.
Wayward Monk, n.d. “Purple Fever (Part 3): David Romo Guillen: Monsignor of the Holy Death.” Accessed from http://wayward-monk.com/2011/12/30/purple-fever-part-3-david-romo-guillen-apostle-of-the-holy-death/#more-137 on March 7, 2012.