Santa Muerte: Devoted to Death

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An interview with Professor R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D.

Santa Muerte (Spanish for Holy Death or Saint/Sacred Death), is a female folk saint venerated primarily in Mexico, the Southwestern United States and worldwide . A personification of death, she is associated with healing, protection, and safe delivery to the afterlife (a proper natural death) by her devotees. Despite opposition by the Catholic Church, her cult arose from popular Mexican folk belief, a syncretism between indigenous Mesoamerican and Spanish Catholic beliefs and practices.

Prof. Andrew Chesnut, PH.D.
Professor R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D.

The voice we have today who crosses continents lecturing on Santa Muerte is Professor R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., who holds the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and is Professor of Religious Studies at VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University). He is the leading academic authority on Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte, the fasting growing new religious movement in the Americas.

A specialist in Latin American religion, he is the author of Competitive Spirits: Latina America’s New Religious Economy  (Oxford University Press, 2003), Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press, December 2012), and of Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty” (Rutgers University Press, 1997). He also blogs for the Huffington Post

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An interview prelude with Professor R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D.:

Thank you so much for fitting me into your busy schedule Andrew! I admire your ground work research with meeting Santa Muerte devotees in person, worldwide. As a professor of Religious Studies at VCU,  is there an academic course you lecture on Sante Muerte at the University or is  your research only limited to your book “Devoted to Death”, lectures and interviews?
It’s a pleasure collaborating with you, Mona! I don’t teach a specific course on Santa Muerte but do cover her in my various course on religion in Latin America. In addition to my book and lectures and conferences, my main vehicle for dissemination of my research and Santa Muerte-related news is our site Skeleton Saint which I co-direct with partner in crime, researcher David B. Metcalfe. It’s the only site of its kind in the world, now going into its fourth year.

There has been an vast affinity, devotion and association of skeleton figures/icons relatiing to Santa Muerte  faster than any cult out there, but what truly classifies the cult of Sante Muerte? From where I see it…most people associate all skeleton figures with Sante Muerte or the the Reaper at very least. It must make your research pretty damn hard with having the reference of  Michlantecuhtli, the Aztec God, the persona of Kali, symbology of Baphomet, the Grim Reppress and so many other associated attributes!
Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, is a Mexican folk saint that personifies death in the form of a female skeleton. Devotees believe she possesses awesome supernatural powers and can deliver miracles and favors faster than her rival folk and Catholic saints. She originated as a syncretism or fustion of the Spanish Grim Reapress, La Parca, and MesoAmerican beliefs in death deities, such as the Aztec goddess, Mictecacihuatl, Queen of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld. While her iconography is fluid, she is still usually represented in a manner very similar to the European Grim Reapress.

Devoted to Death
Devoted to Death

The devotion to Sante Muerte turns most paths and religions upside down by openly taking in petitions from bringing a lover back, taking a lover, healing of deseases, attaining endless opportunities, getting back at murders to drug lords wanting the protection and assurance to sheer revenge but above all a “proper death”. Would you associate this up to a pure example of faith, or do followers and devotees profess that there is a stronger force behind or within the Bony Lady?
Most devotees, especially in Mexico, still consider themselves Catholic so many will tell you that God is number one, and many Santa Muerte prayers ask God permission to invoke the power of Santa Muerte. However, in the daily devotions of many believers, Santa Muerte possesses god-like powers and omniscience while God remains a rather aloof and abstract figure.

The Cult of Sante Muerte doesn’t appear to have a hireyarchy in that, there is no “head” guidance at least one of flesh and blood. It’s as though, people are being lead via entity rather than through a mundane direction. Doña Queta of Tepito, Mexico is one of the first recorded devotees to bring about Santa Muerta – What does she have to say about the surge of over 12 million devotees over the span in a little over 10 years? Is there no limit/no rules in expanding an extension of the Sante Muerte cult?
Enriqueta Vargas is now the top Santa Muerte leader in Mexico and commands a network of temples and shrines in Mexico, New York, Colombia and possibly soon in Brighton. Her Santa Muerte Internacional is the strongest attempt to institutionalize and organize this the fasting growing new religion in the Americas, which since 2005 is prohibited by Mexican law from established churches. She is attempting to decouple Santa Muerte devotion from its strong folk Catholic roots and emphasize, Indigenous practices, along with elements of Cuban Santeria and traditional Mexican witchcraft. However, since there is still very little formal organization, people are free to venerate Santa Muerte as they please, which for most devotees involves a heavy mix of Catholicism and New Age components.

I know you are looking to produce your next book on Santa Muerte. Aside from the commercial aspect, as the cult continues to expand, have you seen an intensity on how the statues and altars are being built? I know there has been 75 ft monument, and a profound sighting of what appeared to be a human sacrifice a the foot of a Sante Muerte altar, I wouldn’t put it past some to construct Sante Muerte out of multiple human remains to insure the success of their petition to be granted. Do you feel that the tremendous awareness you have given to the world, backed up by VSU may put a limit (by un named institutions and governments) on what’s published next? It’ll be truly exciting to read what you share with the public within your next book!
Any new academic book worth its salt will have to explore different angles from those I’ve already explored in Devoted to Death. I wrote the book rather quickly thinking I had competitors also aiming to publish the first scholarly book in English. So I’m very surprised that four years later Devoted to Death remains the sole academic book in English. The new edition of it should be in print by the end of 2017.


Credits and links:

Oxford University Press (Santa Muerte: Devoted to Death – The Skeleton Saint
Huffington post
Twitter (andrewchesnut1)
Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy
Born Again in Brazil:
The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty

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