23 Mar Who Is Santa Muerte And Why Is It Important In Our Tradition?
Hello, guys. Are you familiar with LA SANTISIMA MUERTE ” Saint Death” ? well, for those of you who have no idea of who this figure is. Don’t worry, that’s why i’m here. i’ll be your guide throughout our discussion.
While the Virgin of Guadalupe is perhaps the most iconic and ubiquitous of Mexican Catholic imagery, Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, is quickly becoming a powerful cultural force herself. Though Santa Muerte is not an officially sanctioned saint, having been condemned by the Catholic Church, she has nevertheless become a popular folk saint in Mexico and parts of the United States. That is, her followers, their devotion, and their growing numbers have contributed to her rapidly increasing popularity and visibility within Mexican and Mexican-American cultures. As the personification of death itself (herself), Santa Muerte is a thin, skeletal figure, often depicted as a female Grim Reaper.
I had been drafting this post for some time, but just last week The Atlantic published a very short article on Santa Muerte, “The Rise of the Narco-Saints,” which I saw shared several times on Facebook. But the article’s lack of details and slight bias left me a bit annoyed. It was rather poorly (hastily?) researched and made no effort to provide thoughtful commentary or even additional resources. Beyond the catchy headline and intriguing image, the two-paragraph article concentrated predominantly on Santa Muerte’s association with the drug trade and other illicit activities, as well as her corresponding condemnation by traditional Catholic authorities. Despite including a short quote from Santa Muerte expert and researcher Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut (whose book I’ll discuss below), the article manages to be “remarkably content-free,” as one commentator accurately observed. Overall, it seemed to have incendiary intentions by depicting Santa Muerte as a “new” trend growing rapidly in the United States; a trend that should be feared or viewed with skepticism for its close ties to narcoculture. (Devotion to Santa Muerte is by no means “new.” Though her history is difficult to pinpoint, her following picked up in the 1960s. Plus, legends abound of her centuries-old Aztec origins, and she appears in Spanish colonial records of the late 1700s. )
In this post I wish to provide a bit more context for Santa Muerte because, unlike what The Atlantic article would lead you to believe, she is in fact a complex, multifaceted folk spirit whose appeal reaches far beyond that of narcos, criminals, and the writer, directors, and actors of Breaking Bad.
In Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, Professor Chesnut provides an extensive overview of “Saint Death” through interviews and anecdotes recorded during his research in Mexico. The book is composed of seven chapters, and each title is based on a different colored votive candle. These colored candles symbolize different aspects of Santa Muerte’s spiritual work – brown symbolizes enlightenment and wisdom; white is purity and protection; black, “black magic”; red, passion and love; gold, money and prosperity; purple, (supernatural) healing; and green represents the saint’s power as a nonjudgmental advocate for all her followers (p. 20-25). Devoted to Death also explains that today the seven-color jar candle is the best-selling among followers and devotees as it represents Santa Muerte’s great multitasking powers (p. 26). Thus, while her candles do includes “black (magic),” that is but one of Santa Muerte’s diverse functions.
Chesnut acknowledges the unfortunate fact that the majority of the depictions of Santa Muerte in contemporary media and film concentrate on the dark, amoral, often violent side of the cult – that which the “black” votive candle represents. This, despite the fact that the black candle is the slowest selling of the votives : “Most American and Mexican nonbelievers, for example, have little idea that the Skinny Lady [Santa Muerte] heals sickness, finds employment, and helps alcoholics and drug addicts in their struggles for sobriety”. Indeed, Mexican media has portrayed Santa Muerte – considered the patron saint of the cartels and a premier symbol of narcoculture – as “religious enemy number one”. While this might allow for a convenient, visible enemy against which legal and religious authorities might act by dismantling altars and condemning public gaterings, such a strategy ignores what Chesnut refers to as a great irony: many law enforcement officials (police, army) are themselves devotees to Santa Muerte. Rather than associate her purely with drug trafficking and narcoculture, it would be more accurate to attribute her growing popularity to the attraction she holds for all “those whose line of work gives them a sense of their own mortality”. To me working with La Santisima Muerte is no joke, a lot of people get real scared and once they start working with her decide to put her away because they see a lot of things she does and then they want to walk away, but to me she got them after they decide not to want to work with her anymore. Many people use her and then get rid of her, trust me I know because a lot of people have told me they decided to not work with her anymore and my response is ” I have nothing to do with this” 🙂
Santa Muerte is ultimately a dualistic figure, aiding both those devotees labeled “good” and “bad” by mainstream society and religion. Given that she is not an officially recognized Catholic saint, Chesnut suggests that most devotees – especially those raised Catholic – “feel far more comfortable asking the nonjudgmental folk saint to perform decidedly un-Christian miracles than the official saints” (p. 22). Likewise, individuals who are judged by or excluded from official Catholicism – often based on their “questionable” professions, private lives, or sexualities – are especially inclined to venerate this folk saint who treats everyone equally. For Santa Muerte’s followers, every human being is united by their inevitable death, regardless of their particular religious or political affiliations, criminal backgrounds, or sexualities. She offers salvation and peace to anyone living outside “official” society or religion. It is fitting, then, that Santa Muerte has recently found a number of followers within LGBT and queer communities. In reading about the Latino Queer Arts and Film Festival in Los Angeles earlier this month I found a short documentary-style video, Loving the Bony Lady, featuring Arely González, a Mexican transsexual immigrant living in New York. It’s very well done and I suggest taking the time to check it out.
The film features interviews with González and a peek into her personal shrine. González suffered much discrimination in Mexican churches before becoming a leader in the community of Santa Muerte devotees in New York. I was struck in watching this video and in listening to González’s words by the appeal that Santa Muerte must have for queer communities. – She is excluded from official Catholic rituals; her skeletal, deathly face and figure are the antithesis of the life-giving Virgin; and she makes no judgements, accepting any and all individuals who sing her praises. She categorizes no one, and therefore allows for an infinite amount of identities among her followers.
Her cult, then, fits within the project that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick described as “nonce taxonomy“: “The self-evident truth for Sedgwick that ‘people are different from each other’ in sexual, as well as in other, more or less fraught and contested ways, is difficult to theorize even though we may well ‘know’ less systematically through literature or gossip about the small, unregistered gradations of difference which require the ‘making and unmaking and remaking of hundreds of old categorical imaginings’” (Anderson 68). Santa Muerte’s followers acknowledge and celebrate those differences that may ostracize them from other organized sects, therefore making, unmaking, remaking, and dissolving restrictive, hegemonic categorizations of identity. Now, I’m anxious to finish reading Devoted to Death, revisit queer theory readings, and do a bit of research on Santa Muerte through this lens.
Finally, if you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend Chesnut’s book, Devoted to Death. But if you’d rather read some shorter, still very informative articles online, check out Most Holy Death (Skeleton Saint), a blog that explores the sanctification of death in the popular faith traditions of the Americas. It is maintained by Dr. Chesnut and researcher David Metcalfe.
I want to know all of your insights. What do you think about santa muerte and how do you feel about this mystical figure? I’m pretty sure a lot of you have their own opinions on this and i would love to hear them all.