When reports emerged that Leticia Salazar Vazquez, Mayor of Matamoros, a town on the border of the United States and Mexico, had ordered military action against a shrine dedicated to Santa Muerte it seemed to be a continuation of the aggressive stance the Catholic church has taken toward the burgeoning devotional tradition in Mexico. Coming shortly after a series of violent actions aginst Catholic clergy, including the assault of a priest who allegedly refused to oversee worship at the shrine, it seemed that the situation was an obvious outgrowth of the Vatican’s official condemnation of the practice. The Mayor’s affiliation with the conservative PAN (National Action Party), which has a long-standing ties to the Catholic church, seemed to confirm this as well. Yet things are not always what they seem, especially in Mexico.
Vazquez is one of a growing group of Evangelical Protestant politicians emerging in the contentious political atmosphere of Mexico, and her orders to demolish the chapel and two other roadside shrines now appears to be, in some sense, one of the first ecumenical actions taken against Saint Death since the devotional tradition became more public in 2001. A 2013 article in Reporte Evangelico ( Click Here to read the article) on voter turn out in Mexican elections relates that “in just one year, evangelical Christians increased their turnout by 10%, about 50 candidates for mayor and local councils were nominated and confirmed their progress in Oaxaca, Puebla, Tamaulipas, Veracruz . It is an army of millions of votes that each year come out of their congregations to support politicians who profess that faith.“ For a country which has been overwhelmingly Catholic for centuries, even during times of revolutionary governance, this is a significant development.
The situation becomes even more complex when one looks at the fact that the actions taken against Santa Muerte by the Catholic church are in large part being spurred by its ‘New Evangelization,‘ which aims to bring lapsed parishioners back to the fold. Reacting to research which showed drastic changes in the activity of professing Catholics, and a drop in overall numbers, the Vatican has mobilized to focus heavily on curtailing further losses, especially in Latin America, which is home to 42% of the world’s Catholics. Two of the largest competing groups are Pentecostasl and Charismatic Catholics. This would seem to put both the Evangelical mayor and the Santa Muertistas on the same non-Catholic side of the coin, yet in Matamoros we see that Santa Muerte has become an issue on which both Evangelicals and Catholics can unite against.
Thirteen days after the destruction of the chapel reports from the El Norte website (Click Here to read the report) indicate that two of the shrines that had been razed have been rebuilt, one already housing a statue of the skeleton saint. Moreover, an anonymous devotee erected a makeshift altar just yards away from the mayor’s home. Despite the best efforts of the PANista mayor to silence her, Saint Death continues to be born again as a reminder that the social issues which attend her meteoric growth remain present in the minds of her devotees.
Note: This article was co-authored by Dr. Andrew Chesnut and David Metcalfe