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Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint
R. Andrew Chesnut
Oxford University Press, 2012
232 pp., $24.95
At Death's Altar
In Victorian times, an Anglican rector was once traveling in southern Italy. Mistaking him for a Catholic priest, a group of peasants begged him to give spiritual succor to a famous bandit who lay dying in a nearby inn. The rector offered what prayer and consolation he could, as the grateful bandit acknowledged in his last words: "You have been very good to me. I have no silver or gold to give you, but I will give you the one thing of value that I possess: you keep your thumb on the blade like so, and always thrust upwards!" Throughout his life, the parson marveled at a pious faith so utterly divorced from any notion of conventional morality, still less obedience to law.
This story comes to mind when reading Andrew Chesnut's jaw-dropping account of the modern-day cult of Santa Muerte, Saint Death, the grim cloaked skeleton wielding her scythe. Santa Muerte has various names: she is la Flaquita (Skinnybones) or la Huesuda, the Bony Lady, and she has attracted many other euphemisms in the centuries that she has enjoyed underground devotion. But whatever we call her, this sinister folk saint has acquired astonishing popularity in very recent years. During the present century, she has become an unavoidable presence across Mexico and Central America. As Chesnut writes, "In just ten years, Santa Muerte has become one of the most important religious figures among Mexicans from all walks of life and thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants in this country." Many specialized stores cater to the needs of devotees in search of herbs, potions and powders, votive candles and statuettes, many of which bear threatening slogans: "Death to my enemies!" or "Law, stay away!" Increasingly, such items appear in the religious goods sections of U.S. supermarkets as well (I have seen them in Texas, Arizona, and California). Although we have no exact idea of the scale of her following, Chesnut deliberately errs on the side of caution when he estimates a constituency of perhaps five ...