Warning: This essay touches on suicide and anti-trans violence.
Like most Latinas, I was born and raised Catholic, and like most Catholics, I had both a tremendous fear of and a powerful fascination with death from an early age. I knew that I wanted to be a girl, and that God had made me a boy — and that made me want to die. But I also knew the only thing worse than having to live my whole life as a man would be dying as a man and having to be one for all eternity. I didn’t know there were other options; I didn’t know there was Santa Muerte, the Mexican folk saint whose name means Holy Death. I didn’t know she’d teach me not just how to stop being afraid of dying, but also how to love living.
Around puberty I realized I didn’t know how to be a boy, so instead I put most of my effort into being a Christian, both at the Catholic church I grew up in and the Evangelical church my mom joined when I was in middle school. As a young adult I would spend at least five days a week at church, going to multiple services, teaching Sunday school, volunteering at youth groups, leading Bible studies, I even worked as a janitor at several churches. Being Catholic and going to church was my whole life.
Then one day I wore a dress to church and told everyone my name was Melínda and I lost that life. Former friends told me I was spitting in God’s face, that I was no longer invited to their weddings, and that I wasn’t allowed around their kids. I wasn’t allowed to volunteer at the only place I spent time. I wasn’t allowed to be with the only people I talked to. Transitioning saved my life, but it also took away most of the things that made my life worth living.
Unfortunately, my relationship with death got even more unhealthy from there. As a trans woman, death is all around me. I think about death when I reject a guy on Grindr and he tells me he’s seen me around town and isn’t afraid to follow me back to my place. I think about death when trans people are misgendered by their own families and friends at their funerals. I think about death when Black and brown trans women continue getting assaulted and murdered by men who are afraid of their own attraction to them.
For a while, I got lost in it. I was working as a writer at a queer women’s website and after years of reading about and reporting on anti-trans violence nearly every day, I started thinking that being dead was the only way i could have a healthy relationship with death. It all came to a head when, overwhelmed and exhausted from thinking about death every day, I tried to kill myself in 2017. Thank Santa Muerte, my friends were there to stop me.
After the hospital, I realized that if I wanted to stay alive I needed to find a new way to look at not only dying, but also living. Santa Muerte showed me that new way. I had gotten it in my mind that anything short of a perfect life was a wasted one. I thought I was fighting to save trans lives, but every year more and more of us die. I realized that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t save everyone, and I thought that meant my life was pointless. In the mental hospital, and therapy after that, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to see my life as something worth living.
While I was starting to heal, I visited friends in Minneapolis. I still wasn’t doing well at all, but at least I was alive. In a crystal shop there I saw the book La Santa Muerte: Unearthing the Magic and Mysticism of Death by Tomás Prower. I bought it and started reading everything I could find about the Holy Death. As soon as I got home, I built a shrine completely dedicated to Santa Muerte. Ironically, this book about death would be my lifeline.
I had first heard of Santa Muerte online a few years ago, and before that in stories about brujas and narcos. I was interested, but I didn’t fully devote myself to her until after that trip. You might have heard that she’s the patron saint of criminals, murderers, and cartels. But she’s so much more than that. Death really is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter how much you accomplish in life — or how much you don’t. Presidents and beggars both die, and Santa Muerte welcomes both into her loving arms. A lot of marginalized people flock to Santa Muerte because she’s the ultimate egalitarian. Her worshippers include queer and trans people, undocumented people, sex workers, and criminals. She takes care of all of us and sees us all the same. We’re all siblings in Holy Death.
"Death really is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter how much you accomplish in life — or how much you don’t. Presidents and beggars both die, and Santa Muerte welcomes both into her loving arms."
She's also a party girl, always ready to celebrate with you and share a smoke and a drink when good things happen. She's a saint of second and third and fourth chances. She's a protector and a guide. For those of us who have seen death or face it regularly, she’s a shoulder to cry on and a hand to hold. A shoulder and a hand were exactly what I needed.
When I was unable to sleep, Santa Muerte was there, showing me that in her eyes, I was worthy of love and family. When I didn’t want to be alive, La Flaca would remind me that I still had friends, that I could still smile and laugh, that I could see beautiful things and feel wonderful things. She reminded me how wonderful it could be just to simply be alive. When I felt trapped, I could pour her a glass of tequila and roll up a joint for her, and suddenly options would pop up. I poured Santa Muerte a fresh glass the day I got an email about writing this very essay.
In her eyes, even the worst person on Earth is equal to the absolute best. When she looked at me, a depressed, alone, and hopeless trans woman, she looked with just as much love as she looked at the pope and saints. She looked at my life with all of its failures and sins and shortcomings, and said I was worthy of love. She looked at me the way I needed to start seeing myself.
There’s a lot to be afraid of and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by death. With Santa Muerte, I can let go of all of that. I can use the energy I used to spend worrying about dying to love myself; I can use that energy to love others. When I see death this way, I don’t get overwhelmed by it. And in times like these, that means I can be there for others who do. With Santa Muerte I’m not focusing on an afterlife — I’m focusing on this life. And I’m not focusing on what-ifs — I’m focusing on what is. I can take the gifts she gives me and share them with others. Without my own worries to carry, I can help carry my friends’.
When you have a healthy relationship with death, you can have a healthy relationship with life. All of the worrying about death I used to do? All of the wishing I were dead? I give that up to Santa Muerte. If I worship death, why should I be afraid of it? If I trust and respect death, why should I try to hurry or force its hand?
I’m not afraid of death anymore, and more importantly, I’m not afraid of life. I know that one day I’ll die and I’m at peace with that. And until that day comes, I’ll face the world with courage, knowing Santa Muerte is protecting me, and that I’ve got a lot to do while I’m here.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org. The Trevor Project, which provides help and suicide-prevention resources for LGBTQ youth, is 1-866-488-7386. You can also text TALK to 741741 for free, anonymous 24/7 crisis support in the US and UK from the Crisis Text Line.