Dr. Andrew Chesnut to Speak on Santa Muerte at Death Salon SF

Dr. Andrew Chesnut, author of the pioneering book on the Bony Lady, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint  will be speaking on Santa Muerte at Death Salon San Francisco, on Saturday, October 11, 2014.

He will join an all-star cast of artists, academics and literati who explore the cultures of death from diverse perspectives. Megan Rosenbloom, Elizabeth Harper, Annetta Black, Sarah Troop, Caitlin Doughty, and Paul Koudounaris, among others, will share their cutting-edge work with both the immortals and mortals of the City by the Bay. Click here for more information.

devoted to death

Upcoming Dr. Andrew Chesnut lecture at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

Dia de los MuertosOn Friday, October 24th, join Dr. Andrew Chesnut at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York for an unforgettable Dia de los Muertos celebration!

From the Morbid Anatomy Museum invitation:

“Please join us for our annual Morbid Anatomy Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos costume party! This year we will welcome back the ghosts of the dead in the tradition of our favorite holiday-–the Mexican Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead–-with a mini-lecture by Dr. Andrew Chestnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint,” Calavera Makeup by Jane Rose, tequila, music, sugar skulls, our beloved La Catrina, exotic tunes by DJ in Residence Friese Undine, a Day of the Dead Altar honoring the late film director Luis Bunuel, a Mexican Food Truck and, as always, an opportunity to strike a mortal blow to our beautiful piñata of Lady Death herself! There will also be, as always, the opportunity to don-–and admire other!–-amazing Day of the Dead-themed costumes, pan de muerte, and more.”

Click Here for more information!

Image: From The Richard Harris Collection


Santa Muerte Shrine in Michoacan

The Santa Muerte shrine in the tiny Michoacan town of Santa Ana Chapitiro is one of the most impressive in Mexico. Built by a devotee from Mexico City, it contains exclusively handcrafted images of the skeleton saint. Devotees come from all over Mexico and the United States to leave offerings of thanksgiving and also to ask the saint of death for all kinds of favors but usually those relating to health, wealth and love. In late September of every year the owners of the shrine hold an annual feast over three days in which devotees of death come from both countries to celebrate their devotion to the Bony Lady. I took the photos in the following slide show during a visit in July, 2014.

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Overturning Bias – 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals & Santa Muerte

SantaMuerteContrerasThe voices of law enforcement and religious anti-cult ‘experts’ have been prevalent in the public conversation surrounding Santa Muerte’s emergence in the global culture. Often at odds with more objective investigation, the testimony and analysis of these pundits has made searching out the thread of reality within her tradition more difficult for those unaware that the most vocal critics of her devotees are often culturally biased to ignore the social implications of her rise in popularity.

A hyperactive focus on criminality has come back to bite this type of ‘expert’ testimony in a recent court case judged by the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals – with the court overturning a guilty verdict where testimony from a law enforcement anti-cult expert was deemed to have unfairly influenced the jury:

During their trial, prosecutors called upon U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte in West Texas to discuss the use of Santa Muerte, which translates in English to Death Saint, among drug traffickers. Almonte, who has trained law enforcement agents and written about Santa Muerte, has been used in previous cases to testify about the folk saint.

Although Almonte testified in the couple’s case that not all Santa Muerte devotees were linked to criminal behavior, the appeals court said his remarks were used by prosecutors in closing arguments and were “highly prejudicial to the defendants.”

With her global growth and with the significant number of devotees she has throughout the Americas, it is important that biases regarding the nature of her devotions and the intentions of her devotees be cleared up. In the overturned case, evidence of the accused parties having a Santa Muerte prayer card became a focal point of the prosecution who brought in Almonte to provide information supporting the contention that the devotional item could be related to charges of firearms possession and drug trafficking.

The popularity of her imagery throughout the U.S. and Mexico makes these kinds of broad-sweeping assumptions dangerous, especially with the very real threat of violence that surrounds drug trafficking and organized crime. Justice department employees who see Santa Muerte as an indicator of criminal devotion may be encouraged to take extra measures to combat perceived violence from ‘death cultists’ with nothing more than circumstantial evidence of a popular devotional tradition to back up their actions. Those educating law enforcement on these issues, such as Almonte, need to be very clear on the true social implications of traditions such as those that follow Saint Death.

As Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, Chair of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, pointed out on Twitter:

“The Santa Muerte court ruling is big blow to law enforcement self-appointed “experts” who testify in drug cases on regular basis. U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte, the law enforcement agent rebuked in Santa Muerte court case, couldn’t distinguish between statutes of St. Jude & Jesus.”

For more on this developing story Click Here to read AP reporter Russell Contreras’ article on the situation.

Santa Muerte in the Philippines





With new evidence from the Philippines,  the Spanish origins of Santa Muerte are clearer than ever. Filipino photographer Estan Cabigas details the effigies of the Bony Lady that date back at least to the 1850s in the former Spanish colony. http://langyaw.com/2011/04/21/strange-santa-muerte-in-the-philippines/ The skeleton saint’s role in Filipino Holy Week processions appears very similar to those of the Penitentes (Catholic Brotherhoods) in Colorado,  New Mexico and Mexico during the 19th century. This discovery, coupled with the existence of skeleton saints Rey Pascual in Guatemala and Chiapas  and San La Muerte in Argentina and Paraguay, reinforces the indisputably strong Spanish influence in the origins of Santa Muerte in Mexico.

As I point out in my book, Devoted to Death, the Bony Lady is the result of the syncretism between the medieval Spanish Catholicism brought to Mexico and Indigenous beliefs, but this new evidence from the Philippines, where there were no Aztecs or Mayas, points to the much greater contribution of the Spanish Parca (Grim Reapress) to the genesis of Santa Muerte than Mexican Indigenous beliefs and iconography.  There is still much to be learned from the Filipino context, but what emerges so clearly is that the Spanish Parca is the sine qua non of Santa Muerte and her fellow skeleton saints.



Photo credits: Joel Aldor and Yashagaro Hasegawa

Saint Without Borders: Santa Muerte Goes Global


As media reports on the Bony Lady repeat the same tired narco-saint narrative ad nauseum, the big developing story is that of the rapid globalization of devotion to Santa Muerte. Keeping in mind that the skeleton saint was unknown to the great majority of Mexicans until a little over a decade ago, it’s astonishing that she now has devotees across the globe, in at least five continents. When I started my research in 2009 my Mexican parents-in-law, who have lived in the western state of Michoacan for more than 80 years, had never heard of Saint Death. Ironically, it was their gringo son-in-law who told them about the White Girl and even took them to a shrine outside of the colonial-era town of Patzcuaro.

Shortly after Enriqueta Romero’s (Doña Queta) public outing of the skeleton saint in the notorious Mexico City barrio of Tepito in 2001, devotion to the Lady of the Shadows first spread north into the U.S. as tens of thousands of Mexicans crossing the border asked her to protect them along their perilous journeys. Of course in a slightly different representation and name, Doña Sebastiana, the Bony Lady had already been in the U.S. since at least mid-19th century when Catholic brotherhoods of New Mexico and Colorado, the Penitentes, would pull her wooden effigy in a death cart as part of their Holy Week processions.

Within the span of just a decade, veneration of the Skinny Girl in the U.S. has gone from being exclusively Mexican to multi-ethnic. The major botanica, which has an in-store altar, here in Richmond, Virginia, is owned by a Salvadoran family who became devotees here in the U.S. Even more impressively, this, the fasting growing new religious movement in the Americas, has transcended its Latin American roots to include African-American and Euro-American devotees. One of the Facebook groups I belong to is predominantly composed of such believers, including Steven Bragg, an Ango-American who was raised Pentecostal in Mississippi and founded the first public shrine in New Orleans a few years ago, which is mostly frequented by Central American and Mexican immigrants.

Southward into Central and South America is her second axis of globalization. When I was doing research in Guatemala for my book, Devoted to Death, in 2010 I was shocked to see a life size effigy of the skeleton saint at one of the most important shrines for the country’s most popular folk saint, San Simon (aka Maximon). As I’m about to head back to Guatemala for further research I’m wondering if devotion to the Pretty Girl hasn’t eclipsed that to the country’s own skeleton saint, Rey Pascual, who remains largely a regional folk saint in the towns near Quetzaltenago. Along with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are the three Latin American countries beyond Mexico with the largest number of devotees. Further south, the Andean countries of Venezuela, Colombia and Peru form the nucleus of devotion in South America. Many curanderos (folk healers) in the three nations have incorporated the saint of death into their practice, and as in Mexico and the U.S. she has an ample following among prisoners in Peru, where I found her devotional paraphernalia for sale at the Cuzco municipal market in 2010. I’ve yet to find a devotee in Brazil, but a graduate student in the southern city of Curitiba recently sent me the first public image I’ve seen of her there, advertising the services of a tattoo parlor.

From Mexico and the U.S. Santa Muerte’s third axis of global expansion is east into Europe and Asia. I recently featured the first German devotee, Michael Caleigh, in a recent post and since then have met those who are devoted to Saint Death in Ireland, the UK, and Italy. Like most Euro-American and African American devotees their veneration of the skeleton saint is quite removed from its Mexican folk Catholic roots. Further east, there are now devotees in the Philippines, Japan and Australia. Missy Barkeley, the first Australian devotee I’ve come across, also recently recounted her encounter with the Bony Lady on this site. Like so many other devotees across the globe, Missy came to Saint Death through illness, which is one of the salient themes of devotion yet is completely ignored by the media. Yashagaro Hasegawa is a devotee of Japanese descent who lives in the Philippines and frequently posts new photos of his home altar. Yesterday he told me that an effigy of Santa Muerte processes through the streets of a town in Cebu during Holy Week, just as Doña Sebastiana used to in New Mexico, Colorado and Mexico.

So why such meteoric globalization of devotion to the White Girl in just over a decade? First and foremost is her universal appeal as a saint of death. Whether Mexican, Korean or Portuguese, we all face the inevitability of our own demise. The miniature globe that she often holds in her bony hand represents her dominion over planet earth. Of course iconographically she couldn’t be more Mexican goth, but in these time of uber-globalization that only adds to her allure. Tequila, mescal narco-couture, Mexican cuisine, and Day of the Dead are not only trendy in the U.S. and Europe but even in countries such as Thailand where some teens dress in “Mexican gangster” style. In addition to her universal appeal, social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr has provided an essential platform for her expansion. There are now hundreds of Facebook accounts and groups dedicated to her, and on Twitter there is a new tweet in #SantaMuerte every couple minutes! While most new religious movements fail within a few years, the meteoric global expansion of devotion to Santa Muerte, even in the face of Vatican condemnation, reveals her to be a saint without borders.

Photo credit: (YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)