Saint Without Borders: Santa Muerte Goes Global

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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)

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