Dr. Andrew Chesnut is the leading expert on Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte. He holds the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. First published in 2012 by Oxford University Press, his Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint was the first and remains the only academic book in English on the burgeoning new religious movement.
Robert – What led you to research on Santa Muerte?
Andrew – I was two years into a book project on Mexico’s patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe, when the Bony Lady suddenly appeared on my laptop one day in March, 2009. More specifically, a news story flashed across my computer screen in which some forty Santa Muerte shrines on the Mexican border with Texas and California had been demolished by the Mexican army. As a specialist in Mexican and Latin American religion, I was vaguely familiar with the skeleton saint, but at the time had no idea that she’d become religious enemy number one for the Mexican government. In the context of feeling a lack of passion for the Guadalupe project, I decided to put that project on hold and delve into the then obscure cult of the Pretty Girl (one of her popular monikers).
Robert – Can you tell us a bit more about the main roles that Santa Muerte plays?
Andrew – She’s a Mexican folk saint who plays diverse roles, including that of narcosaint. I wrote an entire chapter in my book on her role as spiritual patroness of Mexican narcos. Given their great need for supernatural protection from rival gangsters and law enforcement, narcos naturally gravitate toward the skeleton saint’s sharp scythe, but of course they also ask her to wield it as an offensive weapon to remove rivals from their path.
However, her role as narcosaint is but one of her multiple identities. For instance, her top selling votive candle in Mexico is the red one of love and passion. Indeed from the 1940s to the 1980s anthropologists that come across her in Mexico report her being employed exclusively for the purpose of love magic, mostly by women who believed their husbands or boyfriends were cheating on them.
Robert – Is it true to say that this is the fastest growing new religious movement in the world?
Andrew – It’s possible, but I’m much more confident in asserting that it’s the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas. Since devotion to Santa Muerte has only been public since 2001, there are no reliable surveys of the number of devotees. However, based on eight years of research, I estimate approximately 11 to 13 million devotees with 70% in Mexico, 15% in the U.S., 10% in Central America, and the remaining 5% spread across South America, the UK, Europe, the Philippines, and Australia.
Robert – What do you think is behind this rapid growth?
There are several factors at play, but most importantly she had quickly developed the reputation for being the fastest and most efficacious miracle-worker on the Mexican religious landscape. Most devotees are economically disprivileged and are looking for immediate supernatural intervention for help with problems in their daily lives. I’ve talked to many devotees who had been asking other religious figures, such as St. Jude, for specific favors only to give up after they were never granted. In the context of striking out with St. Jude, for example, a friend or family member would recommend trying their luck with the saint of death, who would typically deliver on the requested miracle within days. In addition, many devotees conceive of Santa Muerte as being more powerful than other religious figures, both Christian and NonChristian, and second only to God in potency.
Robert – What about the extreme drug trade related violence in Mexico over the past decade? Is that a major factor in the growth of devotion to her?
Andrew – Religion and society are inextricably intertwined so yes, the paroxysm of violence that has seized Mexico and Central America over the past decade makes for fertile soil for her growth. In a situation where some 200,000 Mexicans have been killed over the past decade, there has been growing demand for a folk saint who is petitioned both for extending life and visiting death upon others. For those who fear that death could be just around the corner, whom better to ask for a few more grains of sand in the hourglass of life than Death herself?
On the flip side, since she’s a folk saint and not a Catholic saint, she can be approached for the task of eliminating rivals. Thus, the killing fields of Mexico and Central America lend themselves the proliferation of Santa Muerte as the Grim Reapress. However, even without the bloodshed of the interminable drug wars in the Americas, devotion to Saint Death would be flourishing.
Robert- You refer to her as the Grim Reapress – Is there a connection to the European Grim Reaper?
Andrew – Definitely! In fact, without the Spanish version of the Grim Reaper, La Parca or Grim Reapress, there would be no Santa Muerte. As part of its spiritual conquest of the Americas, the Spanish Catholic Church brought over the figure of the Grim Reapress as a tool of evangelization of the indigenous peoples. Of course the Spanish knew nothing about PreCoumbian indigenous religions, much less that civilizations such as the Mayans and Aztecs had numerous death deities.
So at some point during the three-century Spanish colonia era, indigenous groups in Mexico, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Argentina syncretized the Spanish Grim Reapress with their own beliefs in death deities and thus were conceived the three skeleton saints of the Americas – Santa Muerte, San la Muerte and Rey Pascual. It’s important to note that in Spain and the rest of Europe the Grim Reaper was a mere personification of death, employed for religious and artistic purposes but not believed to possess supernatural powers.
Robert – Are there devotees in the UK?
Yes, there are a growing number of followers in the UK. In fact there is even a Facebook group for British devotees with 81 members. Interestingly it was started by a German immigrant who recently affiliated with Santa Muerte Internacional, Mexico’s largest network of temples and shrines led by the charismatic and colourful Enriqueta Vargas of Tultitlan on the outskirts of Mexico City. When I was in London a few years ago I searched for Santa Muerte paraphernalia at Botanicas in Brixton and Elephant and Castle but came up empty-handed. I’m eager to return there when I’m in town for speaking engagement in Late July.
Robert – What’s the position of the Catholic Church on Santa Muerte?
Andrew – She has received unprecedented, lighting-speed condemnation from the Church in Mexico, the Vatican, Pope Francis, and most recently three American bishops. Recalling she only went public 15 years ago, the fact that she’s been rebuked at all levels in the Church is extraordinary. When I was covering Pope Francis’s tour of Mexico in February, 2016, I was fairly confident that he would publicly rebuke her during his visit. And sure enough during one of his speeches he blasted her as the “macabre symbol” of the narcoculture of death. Catholic opposition arises both on theological grounds – Christians shouldn’t be worshipping death, the antithesis of eternal life offered by Jesus – and religious competition. Just as the Church in Mexico and throughout Latin America was in a state of panic over intense competition from Evangelical Protestants, a “heretical” death saint bursts on the scene and quickly ascends among the vast ranks of nominal Catholics.
Robert – What’s next on your research agenda?
Andrew – The new edition of “Devoted to Death” will be published by Oxford University Press in September of this year. In addition to updates, I included new material on her appeal to LGBT followers, the significance of having a Holy Death, one of the other English translation of Santa Muerte, and new historical material on her development in the Philippines and Southwestern United States.
My new research project focuses on Catholic death culture in the West. Topics such as memento mori, holy relics, Day of the Dead in Mexico, and the Grim Reaper will be my focus for the next few years.