April 29th, 2016 marked the 3 year anniversary of SkeletonSaint.com. It’s been a wild and wonderful journey encountering and engaging the enigmatic Nina Bonita from jail cells in Madison County, Georgia to private shrines in the Philippines – the Americas’ fastest growing new spirituality continues to spread around the world and we’ve been at the forefront of media and scholarship surrounding Saint Death’s emergence in the 21st century. The Virgin of Guadalupe has been called the Queen of the Americas, but Santa Muerte is the undoubted Empress of the New World were violence, corruption and social inequality have made the skeleton saint a powerful patron of those left behind as our culture stumbles into an apocalypse of inept bureaucracies and outlandish oligarchic delusion.
Andrew Chesnut and I set up the website after our round table discussion, Viva La Muerte: The Mushrooming Cult of Saint Death, at the Morbid Anatomy Library with then scholar in residence, Salvador Olguín. The evening was especially poignant since it was the first time that Tracy Hurley Martin and Joanna Ebstein, Morbid Anatomy’s founder, collaborated together on an event – a relationship that continues to grow and has lead to the founding of one of New York City’s most popular cultural spaces, the Morbid Anatomy Museum. A night filled with intimate discussion, live mariachi music, traditional food and drinks – it was a sign of what was to come and it all occurred under the protective cloak of the Bony Lady.
Now, three years later, Morbid Anatomy has gone on to host immersive trips to Mexico City, where participants were warmly welcomed by la Madrina Enriqueta Vargas of Santa Muerte Internacional and given the rare opportunity to experience the reality of Santa Muerte beyond the macabre media bias of narco-saint and satanic seductress.* Dr. Andrew Chesnut has continued his field research in Mexico, South America, London, and the Philippines and has been able to finally trace the origins and interconnections of a tradition that has eluded scholars for over a decade. At the same time I have continued my analysis of Santa Muerte’s role in digital culture and surprising presence in the liminal corners of the United States, providing a better picture of how the skeleton saint has become a vivid example of the power of decentralized movements to spread and develop in contemporary culture.
More than anything our experience has been one of connection – connecting across cultural lines, language barriers and artificial social boundaries. We’ve developed close relationships with devotees and charismatic leaders in the cult around the world, and have been able to bring to the public a small taste of the brilliant complexity of Santa Muerte’s tradition.
Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, A Skeleton Saint was published by Oxford University Press in 2012, eleven years after Dona Queta created the street-side shrine in Tepito that brought Santa Muerte’s tradition directly into the public view. It was then, and remains today, the only book in English to accurately portray Saint Death’s roll as a multifaceted icon of devotion.
Chesnut’s research has continued to develop over the past four years, opening up new avenues of understanding. His groundbreaking investigation into the growth of charismatic Christianity in Brazil and the role of market forces in the spread of spiritual traditions have served to provide a valuable window for exploring Santa Muerte’s place in global culture. Although she has been labeled a Catholic folk saint, Santa Muerte’s popular tradition exists in the diverse marketplace of contemporary religion and she has successfully adopted and adapted elements of charismatic Evangelical practice, prosperity gospel tropes, New Age metaphysics, practical occultism, and digital kitsch along with influences from Afro-Carribean and Afro-Latin traditions. In the United States she’s been comfortably co-opted within the growing interest in alternative religion and neo-paganism, and is becoming a favorite for neo-traditionalists searching out exotic inspiration close to home.
Despite her ubiquitous presence, the question of ‘what can a gringo know about la Nina?’ remains a legitimate challenge to those who would divorce her from the complex environment of Latin America. Culture and language are intimate partners and no amount of translation can capture the power of Santa Muerte as she lives and breathes on her native soil. This is not to limit her to Mexico, she is the patron of the New World, anyone who approaches her with honesty can quickly enter into a powerful relationship with la Ser de Luz. However, those who approach with the assumption that they can adapt her to their own understanding will quickly find themselves in the midst of a reality that is unpalatable to the mediated illusion of peace that hides the fact that our world is undergoing a massive and unprecedented upheaval. Santa Muerte emerges from the streets, prisons and violent borderlands, she is not safe and she is not comfortable, she is death and death is change.
Personally these past 3 years have been a powerful lesson in the social realities that have allowed Saint Death to become such a pertinent part of our culture. For much of this time I’ve lived in rural Georgia with little to no income in a spiral of circumstances that have brought me face to face with the endemic poverty ravaging our world. Unlike many in this position I am a writer and cultural creative, and the situation has become a central part of my research in understanding and connecting with the lives of the majority of people on this planet who suffer in silence as corporations, cults and corrupt officials continue to plague all of us with their poisonous offerings.
I’ve seen first hand the cold cell of the unjustly accused – spending time in a rural county jail thanks to a paperwork error at the DMV which was compounded by not having access to the proper resources, such as web connectivity, a regular vehicle and a phone, which are necessary to move ahead in the current culture. It was here that I met a man who’d had a vision of la Santa Muerte during a methamphetamine overdose, and was able to share with my cell mates their experiences on the front lines of the drug war.
Beneath the harsh fluorescent glow of the cell’s lights Our Lady of the Shadows became very real for me and my heart opened to the hopelessness that so many face in a world in which those who are given the responsibility to help use their position instead as a means to their own unlawful gain, unquestioned obedience or perverse personal pleasure.
As I’ve written in other places, you have no idea what Santa Muerte means to her devotees until you’ve faced the prolonged desperation of poverty, the callous indifference of those who have internalized the bureaucratic system and the reality of being in a jail cell with no knowledge of how or when you’ll be released. It is here that the comfort of her silent eyes becomes a soft reminder than all are equal as the sands of the hourglass slip away – judge, jury, jailer and executioner will all, along with those jailed, face the cut of her scythe.
Devotion to Saint Death is a very personal undertaking and Dr. Chesnut and I are inexpressibly grateful to all of those who have opened their lives up to us as we continue our exploration into the growth and development of this complex and intriguing tradition. We’ve been humbled, challenged, provoked and enlivened by our research in ways that I doubt many other scholars have experienced, or can imagine experiencing, and we are thankful for this opportunity to share with the global community an icon of faith which brings to light so many different facets of the contemporary world.
Viva la Santa Muerte! Nuestra Dama de la Justicia has stepped out from behind the veil, the Empress of the New World is here. May her scythe slice through all barriers – may her silent eyes guide us to see peace – and may the hourglass run long for those who seek a better world for all of us to live in. Step lightly friends, Saint Death is sweet to her devotees, but those who would try her patience will quickly find that her beauty is as sharp as her blade.
May 8, 2016
*If you are in the New York area on May 30th you have a chance to join Dr. Chesnut at Morbid Anatomy when he returns to present an illustrated lecture, Come to Me, or Else – Santa Muerte the Love Sorceress, which will detail one of her more popular and surprising roles as la Patrona del Amor (Click Here for tickets and more information.)