The cult of Santa Muerte making inroads in the US

NBC 12 in Richmond, Virginia has taken a look at the growing cult of Santa Muerte — the saint of death.

She’s the face of death. Cloaked. Bones exposed. But Santa Muerte is no longer in the shadows — millions are following her.

“She’s got a reputation as a very prompt miracle worker,” said VCU professor of Religious Studies, Andrew Chesnut. “That, I would say, is the number one reason for her mushrooming cult.”

Santa Muerte has many nicknames, including: the bony lady, the grim reapress, the saint of death. Chesnut is one of the world’s leading experts on Santa Muerte. He even wrote a book, ‘Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.’

“Here you’re asking a figure of death, a representation of death, for a few more grains of sand in the hour glass,” said Chesnut.

She caught his curiosity after he saw the Mexican government bulldoze more than 40 Santa Muerte shrines on the US/Mexican border.

“I thought it was just amazingly intriguing that this folk saint had become spiritual enemy number one of the Mexican government in its war against the drug cartels.”

That’s because some call her the saint for sinners.

She’s not an official canonized Catholic Saint. In fact, she’s been condemned by the Mexican Catholic Church. She’s what you call a folk saint.

“Since she’s not an official Christian saint, you can ask her for things that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise ask a canonized saint for,” said Chesnut.

She’s attractive to the criminal element. She’s big in Mexican prisons and among drug traffickers, and prostitutes. She’s also made her way across the border.

This photo was snapped by Immigration and Customs agents. It’s a Santa Muerte shrine found during the raid of an illegal document ring with ties to Richmond.

“The fact that she’s here in Richmond, where the Latino population doesn’t exceed six percent, is really significant,” said Chesnut.

She’s also quite important to the working class. Santa Muerte has an estimated five million followers world wide.

In 2008 the Chicago Tribune wrote that

as Mexican immigrants journey north, devotion to Santa Muerte has grown immensely in Chicago, Los Angeles, Tucson, Ariz., and other urban areas. In one of the more unusual religious phenomena to cross the border, statuettes, candles, charms and medallions of the skeletal figure are sold in supermarkets, dollar stores, malls and flea markets.

Last September Tim Stanley, a historian of the United States, said in the Telegraph

Santa Muerte is part Virgin Mary, part folk demon. The image of a cloaked saint wielding a scythe is supposed to offer those who venerate it spiritual protection. Offerings come in the form of flowers, alcohol, sweets and tobacco. Contraband can be used to invoke protection from the police. For the poor of Mexico — a nation torn between extremes of wealth and injustice — Santa Muerte is a very pragmatic saint. Like the gang leaders who offer hard cash in return for allegiance, she provides material blessings that the Catholic Church can no longer afford to bestow.

Tens of thousands of Mexicans living in America venerate Santa Muerte and have no association with crime. Nor is the cult purely ethnic: in North California, the Santisima Muerte Chapel of Perpetual Pilgrimage is tended by a woman of Dutch-American descent. But the prevalence of Santa Muerte imagery among drug traffickers injects an interesting cultural dimension to the debate over illegal immigration. It accentuates American fears that the drug war in Mexico is turning into an invasion of the USA by antidemocratic fanatics.

The Mexican conflict has claimed 35,000 lives since it began in 2006. Recently, the violence has spilled over the border and spread throughout the US along narcotics routes that stretch from Arizona to New York. The warring cartels are bound by a perverse ideology, with Santa Muerte as a unifying icon that terrifies opponents into submission.

While the Santa Muerte movement — which originated in Mexico but now also has a growing number of followers in the USA — is referred to as a cult, it is not an organized religious group.

There is no central authority, and consequently there is much diversity in rites and beliefs associated with the saint.

Research resources on Santa Muerte
Devotees seek to soften image of Mexico death cult

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday April 28, 2012.
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