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A name that pops up in October is Santa Muerte. Who is the death saint?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Halloween is almost here, so is Dia de los Muertos - the Day of the Dead. It's a holiday in many places, normally just after Halloween, and its symbols include a skull that appears on everything from embroidered skirts and jewelry to pillows and dishware.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is also a season when people invoke la Santa Muerte - or the Death Saint.

ANDREW CHESNUT: She is the saint who never discriminates, because death accepts everybody. We all end up in her bony embrace.

MARTÍNEZ: Andrew Chesnut is a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He's written a book about the skeleton saint, who is typically depicted as a bony woman wearing a robe and carrying a scythe.

CHESNUT: When the Indigenous people in Mexico first see the Spanish figure of the Grim Reapress (ph), they make that association with their own death goddess, the Aztec one, who's called Mictlancihuatl, who's the queen of the Aztec underworld called Mictlan.

INSKEEP: Santa Muerte began gaining a big following about 20 years ago on social media and, Chesnut says, controversy followed.

CHESNUT: For the past six or seven years, the Catholic Church in Mexico issues warnings not to involve Santa Muerte in their Day of the Dead commemorations because she's satanic.

MARTÍNEZ: But some believers say she grants miracles. Leslie Hurtado is reporter for Chicago's Cicero Independiente and the South Side Weekly.

LESLIE HURTADO: Similar to the Virgin Mary, many give offerings. They pray to her daily. So there's active participation.

INSKEEP: Hurtado recently covered a Santa Muerte celebration at a local grocery and taqueria.

HURTADO: The owner, Angelina Mendez, she is a firm devotee. And the reason for this event is that she made a promise to la Santa Muerte that if she fed the community in Little Village, if the store grew, she would honor her in a grand event.

MARTÍNEZ: The turnout was huge.

HURTADO: Many traveled far just to see her. They will do anything for her. It was really fascinating because there's a lot of them that honor la Santa Muerte.

INSKEEP: A figure sometimes referred to as the Virgin of the Forgotten.

(SOUNDBITE OF RODRIGO Y GABRIELA'S "THE EYE THAT CATCHES THE DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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