Some people become devotees on their own initiative, actively seeking out Santa Muerte upon the recommendation of friends or family members. Others receive an unexpected call or visit from the Skinny Lady ( la Flaquita , one of her many nicknames) in which she offers to solve their problems. Such was my own path to the skeleton saint, a surprise visit in the spring of 2009. For several years I had been doing research on the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. I had decided to study her as I was finishing my second book. As a specialist in the religions of Latin America, I wanted to tackle a monumental topic for my next book project. As empress of all the Americas and queen of Mexico, the mestiza Virgin towers over the region’s religious landscape. Of course fellow researchers and devotees had already written numerous books and articles on her, but I was sure there was still much to say about the world’s most important advocation of the Virgin Mary. But as the semesters passed, first at the University of Houston and then at Virginia Commonwealth University, my enthusiasm for the project waned. The passion that had driven my previous research and writing just wasn’t there, and I wasn’t sure why.
Folk Saint Shrines Razed
It was in this context of research malaise in the spring of 2009 that the Bony Lady ( la Huesuda , another common nickname) appeared on my laptop and summoned me to contemplate her. More specifically, it was the news of a military assault against her on the U.S.-Mexican border that ultimately led me to replace Guadalupe with a figure who at first glance seemed to be her antithesis, a sort of anti-Virgin. In late March the Mexican army razed some forty Santa Muerte shrines on the Mexican border with California and Texas, mostly on the outskirts of Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo. Army bulldozers had leveled the very same roadside altars that we had passed numerous times on our long road trips from Houston to Morelia, state capital of Michoacán and my wife’s hometown. I started making the eighteen-hour drive in 2006 and noticed that on each subsequent trip the number of makeshift roadside altars on the main highway linking Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey had multiplied. The crude concrete shrines, often obscured by the SUVs and pickups of the devotees, were our signpost on the return trip, letting us know that the Texas border was just a half an hour or so away. What on earth had Saint Death done, I wondered, to deserve such an aggressive desecration of her holy sites at the hands of the Mexican army?
As images of her shrines reduced to rubble flickered across my computer screen, I had an epiphany. My flagging passion for research on Guadalupe would be replaced by a quest to understand why the Mexican government had declared Santa Muerte a virtual enemy of the state. More broadly, I would seek to discover why in less than a decade devotion to her had grown so much that her popularity now eclipses every other saint in Mexico except Saint Jude, patron of lost causes, and devotion to her is the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas. Never one to balk at an epiphany, I turned my back on the Virgin and decided to stare Saint Death straight in the face.
Some readers will have come across the White Girl ( la Niña Blanca , another popular sobriquet) on trips to Mexico, while others will have encountered her in TV series, such as Breaking Bad or American Horror Story , or as votive candles in supermarkets in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, and other cities with large Mexican immigrant communities. But most, I suspect, are meeting the Godmother ( la Madrina, also a common moniker) for the first time. I ask those already familiar with her to bear with me as I briefly introduce her to who have not encountered Saint Death before.
Holy Spirits of the Dead
As her name would indicate, Santa Muerte is a Mexican folk saint who personifies death. Whether as a plaster statue or on a votive candle, gold medallion, or prayer card she is most often depicted as a female Grim Reaper, wielding the same scythe and wearing a shroud similar to her European male counterpart. Unlike official saints, who have been canonized by the Catholic Church, folk saints are spirits of the dead considered holy for their miracle-working powers. In Mexico and Latin America in general such folk saints as Niño Fidencio, Jesús Malverde, Maximón, and San La Muerte (the Argentine counterpart of Santa Muerte) command widespread devotion and are often sought out more than Catholic saints.
The great majority of folk saints, unlike the official ones, were born and died on Latin American soil. Niño Fidencio, for example, was a curandero (folk healer) in early twentieth-century Mexico, while Pedro Batista led a religious commune in the backlands of Brazil during the same period. Thus folk saints are united to their devotees by nationality and often by both locality and social class. A Mexico City street vendor explained the appeal of Santa Muerte to her, saying, “She understands us because she is a battle-ax [ cabrona] like us.” In contrast, Mexicans would never refer to the Virgin of Guadalupe as a cabrona, which is also often used to mean “bitch” or “bad ass.”
Where the Skinny Lady differs from other folk saints, including the skeleton saints of Argentina (San La Muerte) and Guatemala (Rey Pascual), is that for most devotees she is the personification of death itself and not of a deceased human being.
The very name Santa Muerte says much about her identity. La muerte means death in Spanish and is a feminine noun (denoted by the feminine article “la”) as it is in all Romance languages. A few casual observers of the White Girl have erroneously attributed her female identity to the feminine gender of the word “la muerte” in Spanish. However, the fact that both the Guatemalan and Argentine saints of death are male figures shows there must be other explanations for the saint’s female identity. In any case, she and the Argentine San La Muerte are the only saints in the Americas that actually include the word “death” in their names. For devotees and nonbelievers alike, it is obvious that the hollow stare of the skeleton saint is the gaze of death.
No introduction to Saint Death would be complete without brief consideration of one of her most unique characteristics—her gender. While folk saints abound in the Americas, and other supernatural skeletons work miracles in Guatemala and Argentina, Santa Muerte stands alone as the sole female saint of death from Canada to Chile. Her asexual skeletal form contains no hint of femaleness. Rather, it is her attire and her hair that mark the saint as female.
Devotees and manufacturers of mass-produced images of the Bony Lady usually dress her as a nun, the Virgin, a bride, or a queen. Red and black medieval tunics, white bridal gowns, and flowing bright colored satin robes normally cover her skeletal body, leaving only her bony hands, feet, and face exposed.
This article is excerpted from the book ‘ Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint ’ by Dr Andrew Chesnut , Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the first and only academic book on Santa Muerte in English.