It’s Mardi Gras today and revellers may recognize skull and skeleton decorations reminiscient of a saint and the Mexican Day of the Dead. Santa Muerte is the skeleton saint whose cult has attracted millions of devotees over the past decade. Although condemned by mainstream churches, her supernatural powers appeal to millions of Latin Americans and immigrants in the US. Devotees believe the Bony Lady (as she is affectionately called) to be the fastest and most effective miracle worker, and as such, her statuettes and paraphernalia now outsell those of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Saint Jude, two other giants of Mexican religiosity. Sarah Borealis sat down with R. Andrew Chestnut, author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, to discuss this folk saint’s impact today.
Is there a connection between devotion to Santa Muerte and the more “domesticated” version of death represented by the Mexican Day of the Dead?
To a certain extent, yes. Devotion to Santa Muerte involves veneration of death herself (conceived of as a female entity) whereas Days of the Dead (November 1 and 2) focus on the commemoration of departed relatives and loved ones. However, many Mexicans who partake in Days of the Dead rituals completely reject the idea of spiritual devotion to a folk saint who personifies death.
Is there a correlation between the meteoric growth of the cult of Santa Muerte over the past ten years and the paroxysm of violence in Mexico related to the global economic crisis and the war on drugs?
Most definitely. More that 40 thousand Mexicans have died in the drug wars since President Felipe Calderon took office. Mexico, tragically, has some of the world’s highest murder and kidnapping rates, ranking in the top ten in both categories. Santa Muerte proves to be especially attractive to those Mexicans who feel the proximity of death in their daily lives. Drug traffickers, law enforcement agents, prisoners, prostitutes and others who make their living in the street are particular groups who seek out the saint’s protective scythe.
Do you think the cult is in the process of institutionalizing?
Yes, but slowly. There are now many Saint Death temples in both Mexico and the US. Doña Queta (the godmother of the cult) leads monthly public worship services at her famous Mexico City shrine. And a monthly magazine, published in Mexico City, provides ritual instruction and advice to Santa Muertistas. However, the great majority of devotees venerate the Bony Lady (one of her common monikers) on their own, without any affiliation with the temples or Doña Queta’s shrine.
What is the stance of the Catholic church on the cult?
The Church in Mexico has officially denounced it as heretical, with certain bishops and priests even condemning her cult as satanic. To date, the Church in the US has made no official pronouncement. In fact, just this week both the Archdiocese of Washington and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops refused to comment on devotion to Saint Death in this country. Interestingly, all devotees whom I interviewed in Mexico except one told me they were Catholic.
You situate the Santa Muerte devotion within what you term the “religious marketplace” or “faith economy.” Could you elaborate?
As is the case in the US, the world’s largest and most robust religious economy, Mexico is now characterized by religious pluralism. The great majority of Mexicans are still Catholic, but Pentecostals, New Ages groups, Santeria, and now Saint Death all compete with the Church for their souls. In a relatively free religious economy in which no one faith has a state-sanctioned monopoly on spiritual production, faith-based organizations are compelled to compete with each other for market share. Those groups that offer attractive religious goods and services will prosper while those that don’t will stagnate or perish.
Do you believe that Santa Muerte will draw American attention to the current situation in Mexico, or the plight of millions who immigrate to the United States for economic and political reasons?
Yes. In particular I believe it will illuminate the folly of the interminable hemispheric drug wars, which have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in wasted expenditures.
Does the growth of the cult of Santa Muerte in the United States strike you as evidence of a larger process of “Hispanicization” in this country?
Without a doubt. Even more striking is the Hispanicization of the Catholic Church in this country. At least one third of Catholics in the U.S. are Latino, and if it weren’t for the influx of Latin American immigrants, the church would have hemorrhaged members over the past half-century, just as mainline Protestant denominations have.
Given the Santa Muerte’s obvious connections to medieval European religious beliefs and symbols, do you believe that the devotion will eventually catch on across the Atlantic?
Not on a large scale, but probably among certain counter-cultural groups, such as Goths and neo-pagans. And of course the Bony Lady is already there, especially in Spain with its sizeable numbers of Mexican and Central American immigrants.
R. Andrew Chesnut is Bishop Walter Sullivan Endowed Chair of Catholic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA. He is the author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.