As a specialist in Latin American religion I suspected that sooner or later my research would take me to the Philippines, which was also colonized by Spain. However, I thought it would be the burgeoning Catholic Charismatic Renewal that would lead me there since I had done research on the dynamic movement in Latin America. So when I started research on Santa Muerte six years ago, I had no idea that it would take me to South East Asia, much less beyond Mexico and the US.
As it turns out, the Philippine case is crucial to a larger understanding of the historical development of the wildly popular folk saint whose devotion is now the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of King Death or La Muerte (Santong Kamatayan in the Tagalog language) is that he is still part of Holy Week processions in several Filipino cities, most notably in Argao. Click here for stunning images of the unique statue carved from ivory. Doña Sebastiana (go here), the Mexican predecessor of Santa Muerte, used to be an integral part of Holy Week activities in colonial Mexico and 19th-century New Mexico and Colorado, but now it would be unimaginable in Latin America given the Vatican’s recent condemnation (go here) of Santa Muerte as “anti-religion” and the poster girl for the “culture of death.” Claims are made that King Death is merely a personification of death, a la the Grim Reaper, and as such is not venerated as Santa Muerte, San La Muerte and Rey Pascual are in the Americas. As part of my field research, I plan to investigate these claims and determine if in some cases representation has morphed into veneration of Santong Kamatayan, who appears to be employed in Filipino sorcery as well.
Beyond the King Death of Holy Week processions and sorcery, there is a growing community of Santa Muerte devotees centered in Manila. The most prominent devotee is a Japanese-Filipino whose home altar is attracting more devotees by the day. While he refers to her as Santa Muerte and includes practices similar to Mexican devotees, the articulate young devotee has also incorporated elements of Filipino folk religion, which is a syncretic mix of pre-Christian practices with non-institutional Catholicism. I’m looking forward to exploring all of this firsthand as I head to the Philippines for field research in July.
Since Santa Muerte went public in 2001 there have been numerous cases of alleged human sacrifice to the skeleton saint. The great majority follow the pattern of the two latest cases, one in Chihuahua, Mexico, and the other in Guatemala City. In the Mexican case involving the shocking murder of a 6 year-old boy by a gang of neighborhood teens and pre-teens, local media outlets reported that some neighbors in the gritty barrio described the young murderers as Santa Muerte devotees who were notorious thugs in the neighborhood. In turn, Catholic media outlets seized on the story and interviewed a priest and Mexican academic who opined that murder victim Christopher’s mutilated body was consistent with Satanic rituals. Click here for more detail on the story analyzed in Doubtful News.
Last week’s case in Guatemala also lacks any solid evidence of human sacrifice. Two young women were found dead in a Guatemala City safehouse used by gangsters. Since the room in which the bodies were discovered, wrapped in plastic bags, contained a Santa Muerte altar, the police commander in charge stated that the murders could be assumed to be part of a “satantic rite” involving the saint of death by the gang members who were arrested and charged with homicide. Go here for more details. As in the Mexican case, both Catholic and Protestant media outlets picked up the story and further exaggerated the claims of Satanism and human sacrifice.
The lack of concrete evidence in these two cases and most others over the past decade and half have not stopped local Mexican and Christian media outlets from making unsubstantiated claims of human sacrifice, which have greatly accelerated since one of the few substantiated cases occurred in Sonora, Mexico in 2012. Click here for details. Since the Vatican condemned Santa Muerte a couple years ago, the Catholic Church in Mexico has waged a robust campaign against veneration of the skeleton saint, even threatening parishioners with excommunication. For a Church that was already struggling to compete with Pentecostalism, the emergence of a wildly popular and heretical folk saint has been a real challenge. Bogus stories of human sacrifice are also convenient to both the Mexican and Guatemalan governments in their battles against narcos for whom the Grim Reapress is especially appealing.
While there is no denying Saint Death’s association with criminal elements in Central America, Mexico and the US, the majority of her devotees are not kidnappers and narcos but mostly working class people looking for supernatural protection from the myriad threats and dangers that surround them, especially in Mexico and Central America, which are plagued by hyper-violence. Cases of alleged human sacrifice, of course, must be taken very seriously, but the manufacture of bogus stories only serves to demonize and further marginalize already vulnerable populations.
Santa Muerte is at it again in the small Texas border-town of San Benito. Two nights ago drivers on a rural road came across a white Santa Muerte statue planted in the middle of the road, on top of the yellow dividing line. At least one passerby believed they heard noises being emitted from the statue, so they dutifully reported it to local police. Afraid the statute, which appears to be no taller than 2 feet, might contain an explosive device, the city sent out a bomb squad to investigate. Go to local news report here.
No IED, or any other explosive device was found at the scene, and in the process the nocturnal effigy was smashed to pieces. Once again the local media turned to a well known anthropologist in the region, Dr. Tony Zavaleta, who was very quick to opine that the statue had probably been placed in the middle of the road as part of a some sinister sorcery. Watch him here. In our next post David Metcalfe will analyze both this bizarre incident and the previous cemetery controversy in San Benito involving Dr. Zavaleta and me. Click here for the cemetery story.
While Santa Muerte has become a permanent newsmaker, she received an extraordinary amount of coverage over the past couple weeks. The biggest story, by far, was one that Italian journalist Ludavico Laccino and I teamed up for on a series of Mexican cartel hitwomen who had adopted the nom de guerre of “Flaca” (often spelled as “Flaka”), which means Skinny Girl, and of course is one of Santa Muerte’s most common monikers. The appeal of a female saint of death to women who kill for a living couldn’t be stronger. Read more about the case here.
One of the most surreal stories I’ve come across in my six years of research on Santa Muerte suprisingly comes from Costa Rica. A couple weeks ago a doctoral student in art history contacted me inquiring about the use of human bones in Santa Muerte statues. I told him that it’s rare, but seems to be more common among devotees of the Argentine skeleton saint, San La Muerte. The day after receiving his email, I came across a surreal article in the Costa Rican press on a Santa Muerte statue with real human hands, skin and all, which two men had been driving through the streets of San Jose on the way to a rural location. I did a double-take when I realized this had happened in Costa Rica and not Mexico. While Saint Death is a regular in the Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Honduran press, her appearance in Costa Rican media is very rare. The reporter speculates that the fleshy hands were obtained from a local cemetery and associates the Bony Lady with narcos. For more details go here.
Here on the pages of SkeletonSaint we’ve given extensive coverage to the wave of altar desecrations in Mexico. Those who’ve read my book, Devoted to Death, know that it was the bulldozing of some 40 shrines on the U.S.- Mexico border that first sparked my interest in the saint of death. Since then, there hasn’t been another act of mass destruction, but every other week or so the local press in Mexico reports on the destruction of a publically accessible shrine, some of which are on private property and others not. In a country where some 100,000 have lost their lives in the interminable drug war, the investigation of such property crimes is a very low priority so the perpetrators of the shrine desecrations remain anonymous. Given the Mexican Church’s frequent and loud condemnations of Santa Muerte as satanic, it’s possible that at least some of the perpetrators are Christians offended by her public presence. The latest leveling of a shrine was carried out with machetes and shovels in the northern state of Coahuila. More details found here.
Since the visual aspect of Santa Muere devotion is so important, I thought a a short documentary would make a nice complement to my written work. Over the past months I teamed up with my VCU colleagues, producer Molly Ransone and editor Max Schlikenmeyer of the Virginia Commonwealth University Alt Lab. Check out our short doc Santa Muerte: The Skeleton Saint. I hope to collaborate on a full-length documentary in the near future.
On Wednesday a number of residents of the town of Buenos Aires, located about twenty miles north of the county seat of Cosoleacaque in the Mexican state of Veracruz, detained three suspected witches and handed them over to Veracruz State Police. It was the burning of Santa Muerte candles by the three suspects in the middle of the town soccer field that caught the attention of residents. The alleged witches are Nicolas Martinez Cruz of Oteapan, Moses Torres Jimenez and his mother, Bertha Jimenez, both from the town of San Pedro Martir. A mob of residents took the suspects to the police station, along with their Santa Muerte candles and others fluids with which they apparently performed their witchcraft.
The police chief stated that it was a few courageous men who had detained the alleged witches. Upon interrogation at the police station, the three said they had been paid 300 pesos to perform witchcraft against the police chief and his secretary. They were also taken to a cemetery where they had apparently stored other items for spellcasting next to a grave.
Click here for the article in Spanish. Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Chesnut
En los ultimos dias Enriqueta Vargas Ortiz del Templo de Tultitlan, Estado de Mexico, ha hecho unas declaraciones importantes sobre su papel de lideresa del cutlo de la Santa Muerte en Mexico. La “Madrina” Vargas dice:
A MIS NUEVOS AMIGOS: YO SOY ENRIQUETA VARGAS ORTIZ, MADRE DEL “PANTERA” FUNDADOR DEL TEMPLO DE LA SANTA MUERTE MAS GRANDE DEL MUNDO, NO ESTOY POR LUCRO, NO SOY BRUJA, NO HAGO TRABAJOS NEGROS. MUCHOS DE USTEDES ME HAN PREGUNTADO QUE SI HAGO ESTO, QUE SI HAGO LO OTRO, ETC. LES AYUDO SI ASI LO REQUIEREN ORANDO Y PIDIENDO A MI SANTA MUERTE PARA QUE LOS AYUDE, LES ACONSEJO COMO PEDIRLE O QUE PUEDEN HACER PARA HACERSE UNA LIMPIA O ARMONIZARSE. SIN EMBARGO MUCHOS DE USTEDES HAN SIDO GROSEROS Y OFENSIVOS CONMIGO, YO HE SIDO PRUDENTE Y PACIENTE, NO SE SI QUIEREN QUE YO PIERDA LA PACIENCIA O SON ASI PORQUE ES LA EDUCACION QUE LES HAN DADO. DISCULPENME SI NO ESTOY EN EL MOMENTO EN QUE USTEDES REQUIEREN QUE ESTE. YO SOY AMA DE CASA, ATIENDO A LOS DEVOTOS QUE ACUDEN AL TEMPLO, ATIENDO A LOS CIENTOS DE FIELES QUE ME LLAMAN POR TELEFONO, VOY A LOS PROGRAMAS DE RADIO EN LOS QUE ESTOY CON CASA GRIMORIO Y OTROS PROYECTOS MAS QUE SE ESTAN REALIZANDO, ESTOY PENDIENTE DE LOS TRABAJOS QUE SE ESTAN REALIZANDO EN EL TEMPLO CON LOS NICHOS, CON LOS BAÑOS, ETC. CONTESTO CUANTO MENSAJE TENGO AQUI EN EL FACE, EN EL WHATSAPP O CORREO, VOY AL PENAL A DAR ORACION Y A OTROS LUGARES DONDE ME LO REQUIEREN. PERO NO SE VALE QUE ME EXIJAN POR ALGO QUE NO ESTOY COBRANDO UN SOLO QUINTO Y TAMBIEN COMPRENDAN QUE SON MUCHOS LOS QUE NECESITAN AYUDA REAL Y NO “CAPRICHOS”. ASI QUE LES DIGO DE UNA VEZ: HOY VOY HACER 2 LECTURAS DE CARTAS POR LAS CUALES NO ESTOY COBRANDO, PERO NO MAS PREGUNTAS NI NECEDADES OK! LOS MILAGROS PARA QUE LES VAYA BIEN EN EL TRABAJO O PARA QUE VUELVA UN AMOR, LOS DEBEMOS REALIZAR NOSOTROS Y NO TIENEN IMPORTANCIA ANTE UNA ENFERMEDAD GRAVE O EL DOLOR DE PERDER A UN SER QUERIDO, O QUE ESTA PRIVADO DE SU LIBERTAD O DESAPARECIDO, ¡¡¡ESO SI ES IMPORTANTE!!! AAAHH!!! Y NO ME PIDAN NI UNA LECTURA MAS, PORQUE ESTOY CANSADA Y UN POCO MAL DE SALUD, LO HAGO POR CUMPLIR CON MI PALABRA Y HASTA AHI.
DEVOTOS DE LA SANTA MUERTE: NO ME GUSTA QUE ME UTILICEN PARA ESTAFARLOS A USTEDES. HE DEJADO DE ACEPTAR CIENTOS DE SOLICITUDES DE AMISTAD PORQUE MUCHOS CHICOS SALEN “CON MUY POQUITA ROPA” O A VECES NADA, OTROS SOLO LO HACEN PARA ATACAR MI CULTO Y OTROS MAS SON GENTES DE ALGUNOS “INOMBRABLES” (NO DIGO NOMBRES PORQUE NO LES VOY A DAR PUBLICIDAD NI SIQUIERA MALA) QUE ME ATACAN POR ORDENES DE ESTOS Y AHORA VEO QUE HAY ALGUNOS QUE SOLICITAN MI AMISTAD PARA SACARLES DINERO ¿FULANA DE TAL PORQUE UTILIZAS MI NOMBRE PARA OBTENER UN BENEFICIO ECONOMICO? ¿DE DONDE SALES QUE SABES HACER TRABAJOS DE AMARRE O BRUJERIA O ETC? ¡CARAJO! VOY A TENER QUE PONER EN LAS MANOS DE MI SANTA MUERTE A TODOS LOS PASADOS DE VIVOS, ES MAS, DESDE AHORITA LES DIGO ¡¡¡QUE MI SANTA MUERTE LES CIERRE TODOS SUS CAMINOS A PARTIR DE ESTE MOMENTO Y NO HAYA BRUJO, CHAMAN O SANTERO QUE SE LOS ABRA, HASTA QUE APRENDAN A SER CORRECTOS CON LA GENTE!!! AAAHH Y ESO VA TAMBIEN PARA OTRAS MUJERCITAS QUE SE PASARON DE VIVAS Y SE QUIEREN SEGUIR PASANDO DE LISTAS