Love, Magic and Holy Death – A Conversation with Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut

Every month there seems to be another horror story in the media regarding the devotional traditions associated with Santa Muerte, the American folk Saint of Holy Death.  One of the most recent news story details the discovery of a weathered human skull and jaw bone, along with what police are saying are remains of a Santa Muerte altar, in a dumpster in Oxnard, California. Another item announces that true-crime author John Lee Brook has been commissioned to write a  “tell-all” book on Santa Muerte and her “occult” connections to the Mexican drug trade. The title of his last book,  Blood In Blood Out: The Violent Empire of the Aryan Brotherhood, probably gives a good idea for where the focus will be.  There is, however, another side to Santa Muerte, whose associations with love magic predate any ties She has developed to narco-trafficking and murder.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss this in more detail with Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, whose book Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press, 2012)  is one of the first academic studies in English to examine this complex and controversial figure. With the media’s eye cast coldly on The White Lady’s dark side, one of the first things we discussed was the implications of such one sided reporting on complex cultural issues. Chesnut was succinct in his appraisal:

“I guess what strikes me is that so much journalistic coverage is really superficial. It’s people who know nothing about the topic.  They’ll talk to me, they’ll do a cursory Google search, and the next thing they’re writing articles about it. That’s how a lot of journalistic coverage of my stuff is anyway.

There’s another reason why it’s mostly only been the black candle side highlighted by the media. As you know most media is profit driven, it’s commercial media, so they want to sell their product and violence sells.”

With the phenomena spreading quickly through the Americas, and with much of the innovation in practices emerging from devotees in the United States, it’s important that the media coverage is as honest as possible. Due to the ambiguity of the symbolism surrounding Santa Muerte reporters face an even greater responsibility as they are often a key source for how this tradition develops as it evolves and grows.

“Santa Muerte is present in all of Central America. I personally have seen altars to her in Guatemala. When I was In Cusco, Peru a couple of summers ago, I found some of her incense at the big public market there in Peru. I know she is in Venezula.

I spent a month in Brazil this summer, and no, she hasn’t been integrated into Candomblé or any of the other Afro-Brazilian religions yet.

Both here and in Mexico there’s a fair amount of  integration with Cuban Santería. I think what you see in terms of the  Afro Diaspora religions is a hybridization taking place in Mexico City.”

Chesnut also mentioned that the most vital crucible for this developing devotional tradition is the United States itself. In 2005 the Mexican government revoked the legal standing of the Mexico-USA Tridentine Catholic Church, where, under the leadership of Archbishop David Romo, Santa Muerte’s devotions had received her first “official” recognition.  This makes the U.S., which is much more open to alternative spirituality, a fertile ground for the tradition.

To read the full conversation, and discover Santa Muerte’s “Red Candle of Love and Passion,” excerpted from Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint, head over to The Revealer for some: Love, Magic, and Holy Death.