The following originally appeared at The Revealer in an edited version, which also includes an excerpt from Devoted to Death. On February 3rd, 2013 Dr. Chesnut will be featured at the Observatory in Brooklyn, NYC for Viva La Muerte, an event centered on the Morbid Anatomy Library’s recent acquisition of devotional materials centered on Santa Muerte. (Interviewer: David Metcalfe)
One of the most contentious emergent religious phenomena in recent years has been the increased public presence of Santa Muerte, Saint or Holy Death, a Mexican folk saint whose skeletal visage is sweeping across the Americas. With Her many devotees among society’s dispossessed She’s drawn the ire of orthodoxies both religious and legal, and has become a beacon for the media, heightening the lurid glow of stories covering immigration and the drug war. The new book Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press, 2012) by Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, is one of the first academic studies in English of this complex and controversial figure. Dr. Chestnut was kind enough to answer a few questions and provide some insight into this fluid and fast growing devotional tradition.
The media portrayal of Santa Muerte is often tied to drug violence, how did that affect you as an academic going in to research her devotees?
As a specialist in Latin American, I had done research before in dangerous areas. A lot of the research was conducted at the main shrine in Mexico City, where I know the owner Dona Queta, the famous devotional pioneer, pretty well. So even though it’s one of Mexico City’s most notorious barrios I felt like she and others, and maybe possibly the Boney Lady herself, were watching my back. Although I did take all the precautions that I could.
One of the aspects that I really enjoyed about your book, here you say “possibly the Boney Lady herself,” and in the book you are able to capture a similar respect for her devotees. How is that being received by readers?
It just came out in January and usually you know book reviews can take from six months to two years. The first few ones have been really positive. As you know this is the first academic book in English on Her, so far the reviews have been positive. Most of the accounts of her so far have been by journalists, and many of them seeking to play up Her dark side, the Santa Muerte of the black candle and such. So yeah, I think there’s an appreciation of my underscoring Her complexities and her multi-faceted identity.
I’ve noticed that the media seems to cover Santa Muerte differently than they do other devotional phenomena. It seems journalists are almost forced to take a recognition of her as a physical being. Often they don’t talk about it like people believe in Santa Muerte, a lot of times the journalists will fall into saying well Santa Muerte does this, or attracts this, as if they are discussing a real entity.
I think I did that as well, but I did that intentionally to show, to try to convey, that for her devotees she very much is animated, she’s a living Saint. Without knowing which specific articles you’re talking about, I think that’s a rather natural tendency.
She’s often referred to as a female, since She does have a female identity as well, so you’ll see I often refer to Her as ‘her.’ I was aware of that, but I felt like it made sense because I was trying to excavate and highlight how Her devotees view her.
In fact, to add to that, an academic journal sent me an article submission to review, and the authors of this article on Santa Muerte, while acknowledging Her female identity, She’s constantly referred to as it, and that struck me as odd.
Even if you’re talking about burying a St. Joseph statue, or something like that, the way that the media treats a practice like that versus Santa Muerte, it’s very different. Do you think that the people in the media are aware that they play a hand in defining how devotees are seeing this? That their coverage is a part of how this develops in people’s awareness, even down to their practice?
That’s a good question, I don’t know if I feel qualified to answer that, because that would be jumping in their heads.
I guess what strikes me is that so much journalistic coverage is really superficial. It’s people who know nothing about the topic, will talk to me, will do a cursory google search, and the next thing they’re writing articles about it. That’s how a lot of journalistic coverage of my stuff is anyway.
That’s another reason why it’s mostly only been the black candle side that’s been illuminated by the media. As you know most media is profit driven, it’s commercial media, so they want to sell their product, and violence sells.
The African Diaspora and Afro-Latin traditions seem like they’re very porous. How far down does Santa Muerte’s influence go? Does She have influence down in South America? Has Her devotion been integrated into traditions like Candomble as well, or does it seem more like Mexican phenomena?
That’s an excellent question, Santa Muerte is present in all of Central America. I personally have seen altars of Hers in Guatemala. When I was in Cusco, Peru a couple of summers ago, I found some of Her incense at the big public market there in Peru. I know She is in Venezula.
I spent a month in Brazil this Summer, and no She hasn’t been integrated into Candomble or any of the other Afro-Brazilian religions.
Both here and in Mexico there’s a fair amount of integration also with Cuban Santeria that takes place. I think what you see in terms of the Afro Diaspora Religions is a hybridization taking place in Mexico City.
You have a fairly large Cuban community, many of those that didn’t go to Miami after the revolution in ‘59 went to Mexico City. So yeah you have that cross-breeding taking place in Mexico City.
And probably even more importantly here in the United States. I was just in a Botanica in San Francisco a few months ago, the owner is a Cuban Santero, yet half his shop, and he said half of his sales, are Santa Muerte, and he at least has been incorporating Santa Muerte into his own Santeria practice. So I would imagine that the largest incubator of that cross fertilization of Santa Muerte with Santeria and possibly Vodou actually happens in big city U.S.A.
I noticed that too. I’m in Georgia right now, there’s a Botanica in Duluth, which is a suburb outside of Atlanta, the Botanica is heavily focused on Espiritismo, and Santeria, but also has a large portion of the store taken up with Santa Muerte oriented items.
It’s astounding how fast that’s happened, remember most people only learned about Her 7-8 years ago maximum, and to see that now so many Botanicas in the United States are living off her sales in less than a decade is just amazing.
When I first had seen it, yeah probably, 7 or 8 years ago. There was that one report, it was a military report…
Yeah, Leavenworth, Kansas.
When was that? It was either late nineties or early 2000′s.
Yeah, I think early 2000.
That was when I first ran across it, and I think they started doing some media stories then, but I was surprised too. In Georgia I wasn’t expecting to find that. Since America plays such a large part in that, does the influence from the U.S. filter back down?
That’s a good question, I don’t think I can answer that at this point. I haven’t seen any direct evidence of that. I think that would make sense over the long haul. If you’ve read my book, you know that it’s illegal to actually set up a Santa Muerte church in Mexico City as of 2005 when they revoked Archbishop Romo’s license to practice.
So, since it is legal, and there are temples here in the United States, and since religious freedom is so much greater here, I’m sure that there’s a degree of innovation taking place here that probably exceeds innovation in Mexico.
Given the great fluidity of the Mexican immigrant population here I’m sure that’s taking place, but I haven’t seen any direct tangible evidence of that yet.
It seems this possibility plays into the responsibility that the media has up here to cover it properly because it will go back down. Recently there was that case where they were blaming Santa Muerte practice as a whole for a family that had committed murder. If reports continue to focus on highlighting and exaggerating violence, and these aspects are starting to filter back down into areas where there is violence, that could lead to problems.
Exactly, and I saw that because I was actually referenced in those particular stories that you were talking about.
I know some of the AP reporters who went to write the story and, you know, their knowledge of it is fairly superficial. But again that’s kind of par for the course for the mass commercial media anyway.
I do what I can. I was on Fox News a few months ago; I tried to make my points. I got some of my points in. I was waiting for them to ask if I thought Santa Muerte should be deported.
You sent me a recent article, was it from the Houston Chronicle?
It’s actually the weekly, the Houston Press.
That article was a fairly extensive one, they still titled it as Narco Saint, but it was a lot more positive.
Exactly, right it was more nuanced than most, but of course you’ve got to have the sexy part right?
It seems that in much of the coverage they don’t talk about La Familia, and some of the groups that have Protestant ties that do terrible things, that have very strange violent practices.
Yeah, that is true, although there is one particular British journalist, Ioan Grillo, who worked at the Houston Chronicle for years, he’s done some really good reporting on La Familia, and also now you know they were split and became the Knights Templar, on both of their religious connections. Yeah, I mean that’s true, but also I mean you know the figure of this grim reapress is so much more intriguing and compelling. So that is somewhat understandable.
Particularly imagine from the European vantage point, a lot of times the media interest from Europe has been more intense than here. Here’s their European Grim Reaper who has become a major saint in Mexico. Most Europeans are atheists or secularists, they look across the Atlantic and are mind boggled by what they see with their grim reaper becoming a grim reapress.
There are also accounts of St. Death from the Middle Ages, that was someone that you could pray to, and people did. A lot of the older traditions of the Cult of Saints are very practically oriented. It’s interesting that the figure of Santa Muerte is kind of a catch all.
Exactly, and so that’s been another major transformation that She apparantly has undergone. All of the anthropological reports from the mid-20th century show Her almost exclusively as a love magician. So, you know, in just a couple decades She’s morphed from love magician to multi-tasker.
How does She interact with Jesus Mal Verde? Do those traditions of folk saints fall in together?
I think that with those two specific figures of Santa Muerte and Mal Verde I think there’s probably more competition than collaboration. Particularly because until Santa Muerte appears as a Narco Saint, Mal Verde for a long time had been the premier Narco Saint. And more specifically he’s really tied to the Sinaloa Cartel, which is still the strongest cartel in Mexico.
Yet in just a few years Santa Muerte now has national coverage. You’ll always see people from different cartels being apprehended with Santa Muerte paraphernalia either on their persons or at their safe houses or whatever. So yeah, I still think that there is that specific, not maybe exclusively Sinaloan, although His main shrine is in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, but still more kind of Nortena regional.
Whereas Santa Muerte, again, in less than 10 years, you’ll find Her from the Yucatan to the border as well. So yeah I think in that case it’s more of a competitive relationship, and particularly because of their association with the competitive cartels, but in general I think in the larger scope of Latin American folk saints, I don’t think it’s such a competitive relationship. In fact you’ll find people that might have several at their home altar.
You’ll hear that refrain a lot that She’s really jealous, in fact on your home altar you should really have no other saints because She wants the sacred space to Herself. Yet every altar is well populated by all kinds of friends of Hers, including the Virgin of Guatalupe, St. Jude, whatever, so while you might hear that, in practice it doesn’t seem to be true.
How does all this come together with the Catholic faith? It seems that there is some disconnect with the institutionalized church.
Definitely. In my book I show how pretty much everybody but a teenage girl tells me that they’re Catholic, yet, when you talk to them further, it’s clear that the great majority of them are not practicing Catholics in terms of going to Mass and having any kind of significant relationship with the institutional church. So, like the great majority of Mexicans, they’d be cultural or nominal Catholics who don’t have really any significant ties to the Catholic Church.
Most of them see this as part of their Catholicism, yeah I think that’s the most common view. Kind of as an extension, a nominal extension of their Catholicism, and either haven’t heard, or if they have, don’t care, that the Catholic hierarchy has condemned Her as Satanic.
Texas and L.A. would be the obvious places in the U.S. to find Santa Muerte. Are there other places where she has a large following that wouldn’t be obvious?
I think a really good example, and I talk about this in the introduction to book, when I first started doing the research it didn’t even occur to me to look for Her here in Richmond, with a Latino population of under 5%.
First, I went to Mexico, I went to D.C., found Her easily in D.C. It was kind of late in the research where I thought I might as well see if She’s here in Richmond. Sure enough there are a couple of Botanicas that are well stocked with Her paraphernalia, I can go buy votive candles half a mile from my home in an area that’s not even Latino.
I just found it very telling and compelling that here She is in Richmond with a Latino population of less than 5%, which tells me that I think she’s got national scope, even in medium size and smaller places. I would kind of think that off the beaten path, where people don’t realize there are fairly large Mexican and Central American communities. Places like Atlanta have a booming, mushrooming Latino population. Another big place because of it’s agriculture is North Carolina. I know there’s stuff going on there. So those are kind of places beyond the big cities, where it’s easy to find Her.
My niece lives just outside of Atlanta and she found Santa Muerte votive candles right next to the Virgen of Guadalupe in the local grocery store.
I think the latest trend, and I’ve had it confirmed at the Botanica I told you about in San Francisco, and one of the owners of a Botanica here in Richmond, have told me that more and more African Americans and Anglo Americans are interested in Her stuff, and that’s obviously fairly recent. She seems to be transcending her Mexican roots, and even the pan-Latin roots, and appealing to people who aren’t Mexican or Latin American heritage.
R. Andrew Chesnut is Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is also the author ofCompetitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy (Oxford University Press, 2003) and Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty (Rutgers University Press, 1997). He also blogs for the Huffington Post.
David Metcalfe is an independent researcher, writer and multimedia artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is a contributing editor for Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, the online journal of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, and The Daily Grail. He writes regularly for Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Modern Mythology, Disinfo.com, The Teeming Brain and his own blog The Eyeless Owl. His writing has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized 2011), Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color & Music (Alarm Press, 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions 2012). Metcalfe is an Associate with Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.