In a culture, such as ours, that does everything it can to deny our inevitable mortality, when a folk Saint appears clothed in the visage of death it can cause a bit of a stir. Santa Muerte, for her devotees, is an all encompassing friend, a beneficent mother, giver of gifts that no other Saint would sanctify, and available to all who seek her favor. The Western media, however, only sees her as an archetypal image to promote fear mongering over the complex issues of immigration, drug trade and violence.
Last Friday I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, Endowed Chair in Catholicism at Virginia Commonwealth University*, whose recent book, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, is one of the only (if not THE only) in-depth resources on La Niña Blanca (The White Lady) available in English. The book is a fascinating look at one of the 21st centuries most nuanced devotional traditions, which Dr. Chesnut treats with a respect that I haven’t seen in most religious scholarship on less controversial areas, let alone one as maligned as Santa Muerte.
At issues is the ubiquity of her patronage. As a patron Saint of the dispossessed, Santa Muerte is naturally aligned with those on the margins of society, which includes drug traffickers, prostitutes, gang members and organized crime. Do we think of the Virgin Mary in the sole light of the Cosa Nostra due to the devotion they show her? No, but when your Saint appears in the guise of the grim reaper, it’s difficult for the Western media to act outside it’s habitual fear mongering into the more complex social issues at play. It’s also difficult for the West to recognize the beauty and sincerity of the traditions that attend her devotions.
While recent stories have reported murders associated with Santa Muerte devotees, they fail to mention that there are even more gruesome acts committed by narco gangs identifying with radical forms of Evangelical Christianity, such as the Familia Michoacana and the Caballeros Templarios. Ryan Valentine, a writer from Toronto, and practicing ‘witch doctor’, points out in his article Saint Death, the Knights Templar and Corporate Colonialism, that there are much deeper issues at hand that often get brushed off in order to highlight the fears of foreign influence that can be fostered by focusing on Santa Muerte’s darker aspects.
For those who love her, however, she can be found in the sun lit street as often as she can in shadows…
“Sunny Flea Market on Airline Drive is as full of raw life as any place in the state of Texas, especially on this hot Sunday afternoon in August. Fifty thousand weekly visitors stroll its long rows of covered market stalls, where more than 1,000 vendors offer a cradle-to-grave bonanza of blue-collar Mexican-American life…
And if you know where to look, everywhere there is death — more specifically, the Grim Reaper-like visage of Santa Muerte (“Saint Death” or “Holy Death”). The increasingly popular, scythe-wielding folk saint, miracle worker and unofficial patron of many of Mexico’s narcos, prostitutes, prisoners, poor, gays, transvestites and others on the margins of Mexico’s Drug War-ravaged, poverty-stricken society is all around. She is found on clothing: A twentysomething man sports her on a T-shirt, on which rests the head of his sleeping infant, nestled in a front-slung harness. Another man honors the veiled skeleton with a chunky gold pendant around his bull-neck.
And then there’s the jackpot: an entire stall given over to Santa Muerte devotion. Here, devotees of (as she is variously known) “La Madrina” (“the Godmother”), “La Flaka” (a slang spelling for “the Skinny Woman”) or “La Niña Blanca” (“the White Lady”) can buy candles, statues, posters and amulets for her veneration.”
*(Our conversation will be featured in an upcoming article for The Revealer, the online journal of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media)