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Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint
Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint
R. Andrew Chesnut
Oxford University Press, 2012
232 pp., 218.26

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Philip Jenkins

At Death's Altar

Santa Muerte and her devotees.

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 percent of all Mexican citizens, some five million people. In underclass and criminal settings, she has far outpaced the Virgin of Guadalupe in popularity. In fact, she can well be considered an anti-Guadalupe, a dark shadow of Mexico's beloved mother figure.

At her worst, she can be very dark indeed, as the protector of the shady, the criminal, and the downright homicidal, at a time when Mexico's drug wars have reached apocalyptic proportions. Frequently over the past few years, headlines have reported dozens of bodies turning up on a single day, often showing signs of torture and mutilation, and media accounts regularly report altars to Santa Muerte in the homes of arrested drug dealers and mob executioners. She is also beloved by gangs who smuggle immigrants across the border, a ruthless and often violent enterprise. Mexican security forces storm and bulldoze her shrines, to eliminate what appears to be a source of lethal opposition to the state and to all organized society. Inevitably, Santa Muerte enjoys special popularity in prisons and jails, on both sides of the border. At her worst, then, the Godmother is the patron of what writer Tim Stanley has termed "a criminal subculture that blends political corruption with ritualized murder." Stanley offers still more alarming parallels for the cult: "In the same way that exotic cells of jihadists have established themselves in London and Paris, criminal gangs motivated by bloodlust and kinky spiritualism [sic] have been found living in the suburbs of Boston and Atlanta."

To Andrew Chesnut's great credit, he eschews sensational claims in his very well-written and historically informed study. Yes, he agrees, Santa Muerte does have some ghastly devotees, but for every mobster or sex criminal totally committed to the dark side, we find probably thousands of ordinary poor people who seek her blessings in far more gentle matters, in love magic and the quest for prosperity—or rather, for mere everyday survival. If she is the angel of death, she is also the great healer and love doctor, the ultimate curandera. For most devotees, she performs the same functions that African-derived faiths like Umbanda and Vodun supply in Brazil or the Caribbean. Incidentally, she also meets the very same needs that provide the basis for thriving prosperity churches worldwide.

One of the many merits of Devoted to Death is Chesnut's sense of wider context. In various forms, figures like Santa Muerte appear over much of Latin America, in different guises and genders. Generally, they do not receive much attention from scholars of mainstream religion, because they so evidently lie outside of "real" faith, defined as what the churches approve of. Studying and teaching about religion almost invariably means following the boundaries of recognized faith traditions and denominations: we study Catholicism, evangelicalism, Islam, Judaism, not freakish outliers like Santa Muerte. But this neglect (which, to be fair, is not nearly as widespread among scholars of religion as it was even twenty years ago) is deeply unfortunate, because the popularity of such figures says so much about authentic popular needs and desires, about what we might call the demand side of religion.

In many circumstances, churches can meet such needs from their own traditions and resources, but if they cannot, then believers must look elsewhere, creating what are dismissively termed "folk saints." That very phrase is enlightening. As Duke Ellington famously remarked, all music must by definition be folk music, as he had never heard any musical compositions presented by horses. On the same lines, when was any saint not a folk saint, in that he or she had that status declared from on high by elite church authorities, without a preceding groundswell of popular opinion and enthusiasm? The language becomes relative: While I venerate real saints; they follow folk saints.

It would have been easy to write Devoted to Death as a freak show or a horror exposé, but Chesnut instead shows why we must locate the phenomenon on the spectrum of known religious expressions. Reading his work forces us to think carefully about the unmet needs that drive millions to seek aid in such unsavory spiritual quarters: as a famous phrase declares, cults live on the unpaid bills of the churches. In a Mexican context, it is easy to denounce the illegalities that Santa Muerte sanctions, but we can usefully ask why ordinary poor people should have any respect whatever for the state's laws, after decades of systematic corruption and oppression. Nor is it startling that poor Mexicans fail to see any absolute sinfulness in a drug trade that, for all its savagery, actually has effected real transfers of wealth to some fortunate communities. In such a moral quagmire, it is difficult to see lawbreakers and convicts as qualitatively different from the social mainstream, except that they happen to have fallen prey to official injustice. In early modern Europe, likewise, some church litanies included the line "Lord, deliver us from justice."

Santa Muerte is a central religious figure for outsiders in a society where it is often all but impossible to be a law-abiding insider. She performs the same role as the Virgin Mary did for many in medieval Europe, as the spiritual refuge for those who lacked the approved social status that allowed them to petition directly to the distant figures of God the Father or Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, Santa Muerte has always found her most dedicated followers among marginalized women. As her hierophants and interpreters, they achieve a spiritual prestige that they could never find in the Catholic Church. Once again, we see that the forces driving some people towards Santa Muerte are not too different from those mobilizing support for the much more esteemed and better studied Pentecostal and charismatic churches worldwide.

At the same time, the story of Santa Muerte must challenge how we define the outer limits of Christianity. Chesnut holds an endowed chair in Catholic Studies, and he comes to this project as an outgrowth of his earlier work on Catholicism and Protestantism in modern Latin America—in other words, as a scholar of Christianity. But in what sense does Santa Muerte relate to Christianity, even to its most bizarre historical manifestations (and some through the centuries have been truly florid)? Without exception, Santa Muerte devotees would claim to be Christian and Catholic, and the cult takes its forms from standard Catholicism, with rosaries as the normal form of veneration. But is there not a point at which a style of belief or worship becomes so aberrant that it has passed outside the limits of faith? Of course, Christians need to be very careful indeed about reading out of the faith anyone who claims to be a believer, if only because of the long and disreputable history of such practices: Catholics and Protestants spent centuries denying each other's claims to follow the same God and Bible. But however firmly Santa Muerte is rooted in a Christian society, her cult really does push the limits to their extremes. Because of that controversial quality, Chesnut deserves our special thanks for this intelligent, responsible, and sympathetic (although not uncritical) account of a significant and rising movement.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author most recently of Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses (HarperOne).

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