Reflections on the First Academic Conference on Santa Muerte


Despite the fact that over 90% of Santa Muerte devotees live in Mexico and the U.S., the first ever academic conference  dedicated exclusively to the skeleton saint was held in Europe, at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, on 11/21/14. Europeans have taken a particular interest in the growth of devotion to Saint Death partly because of the historical link to their own Grim Reaper or Reapress (la Parca) in the case of Spain.  Reflecting the increasing  globalization of the Americas’ fastest growing new religious movement,  the scholars presenting on Santa Muerte hailed from many different countries, including Mexico, the U.S., Germany, Denmark,  Spain and the UK.

In accord with the overarching theme of my book, Devoted to Death  I spoke to the international audience of the multifaceted identity of Saint Death and of some of the latest trends, such as her growth beyond Mexico and Mexican immigrants in the U.S.. Given both media and now academic portrayal of Santa Muerte as a narco-saint, I tried to highlight her other roles, such as curandera (healer) and love sorceress.  And of course, I emphasized the point that it is the Bony Lady’s reputation as the fastest and most efficacious miracle-worker on the Mexican landscape that propels her unparalleled growth.

If there was an overarching theme at the conference, although unintentional, it was a polarization of perspectives. On the one hand, several colleagues, who haven’t done extensive field research, attempted to explain the rise of devotion to Santa Muerte as a function of larger socioeconomic and political forces, such as extreme narco-violence and the failed Mexican state. Focusing on “cultures of illegality” Mexican scholar Jose Carlos Aguiar was the presenter who most explicitly linked the Bony Lady to drug violence. Dr. Aguiar stressed her role as patroness of narcos, especially of the Zetas Cartel. The voices of actual devotees were completely silent in his presentation.

Also presenting a macro-level analysis was German scholar who comes to the subject from an urban studies angle. Though she hasn’t done fieldwork beyond taking stunning photos at Dona Queta’s famous shrine in Tepito, Anne Huffschmid also linked the Bony Lady to narco-violence, but cast her more as protectress of its victims as opposed to patroness of its perpetrators.  Both she and Dr. Laura Roush of the Colegio de Michoacan were the presenters who most explicitly linked the rise of St. Death to the climate of economic and political insecurity engendered by the failures of the Mexican state. Both academics counted among several who mentioned the case of the missing 43 Mexican college students and the lightning rod that it has become for anti-government protests nationwide.

At the opposite pole was Danish scholar Regnar Kristensen, who has been studying the saint of death during the past 12 years. Ignoring the larger Mexican body politic, Dr. Kristensen focused on the importance of the family unit as the basis for both devotion and growth. An anthropologist, Kristensen squarely locates Santa Muerte within Mexican folk Catholicism and sees much more continuity than novelty in her devotional practices. In fact, the only significant novelty that the Danish academic sees in veneration of her is intimacy. He argued that devotees bring her into their families where she is treated in a more intimate and tender manner than other saints, of both the Catholic and folk varieties. While he has done more extensive fieldwork than other scholars, it has been conducted exclusively in Mexico City, with a sharp focus on Dona Queta’s shrine and her extended network of devotees. Mexican anthropologist Aguiar, who is from Guadalajara, criticized Kristensen for his “narrow focus” on the Tepito shrine and Mexico City.

Overall, the conference was a mixed bag for me. On one hand, I was thrilled to be in the company of the small group of international scholars who have published journal articles and books chapters on the White Girl. On the other hand, I felt frustrated by the overarching tendency to divorce Santa Muerte from her religious context. Above all, devotion to Saint Death is a matter of religion in which followers, pray to, give thanks and venerate a supernatural figure whom they regard as an omniscient and almost omnipotent miracle-worker. Too many of the presenters, perhaps reflecting highly secularized Western Europe, adhered to the Marxist view of religion as an epiphenomenon of the sociopolitical phenomenon. In other words, they regarded the meteoric rise of this new religious movement as a function of the dysfunctional Mexican state and the ongoing narco-violence.

I myself in Devoted to Death situated the proliferation of cult within these macro contexts because there is an undeniable dialectic between religion and society in which they exert mutual influence on each other. What I categorically reject, however, is a reductionist approach that posits the rapid growth of the cult as a mere function of hyper-violence and socio-political insecurity. No doubt, devotion to Santa Muerte has proliferated during a time of great death and dying, at least 80,000 since 2006, but to view the Mexican killing fields as the main reason for her growth is myopic. If Santa Muerte has become the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas it’s because of her reputation as the quickest and most efficacious miracle worker. Her 7 Powers votive candle, made of 7 different colors, best captures the appeal of the multitasking Mexican folk saint who can work miracles on multiple fronts.

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. 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