Review of R. Andrew Chesnut, "Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint"
The Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) produced two sets of images that remain as powerful now as when he created them -- although they were produced for newspapers, and the muse of journalism seldom looks a century ahead. The first group is explicitly political. It includes caricatures and street scenes, drawn for opposition tabloids during the era of Porfiro Diaz. The Diaz dictatorship was overthrown in the 1910 revolution, which Posada also depicted in his work.
The other series by Posada is less topical -- or, more precisely, it is timeless: a panorama of everyday life with skeletons acting out the human comedy. A skeleton man courts his skeleton beloved. An upper-class lady poses with an elegant and stylish hat atop her grinning skull. Skeletons drink in a bar, and dance to the tunes plucked out by bony musicians. There is nothing grim about any of this. Posada's images are always spirited, their humor canceling out any trace of morbidity.
“Death is a mirror which reflects the vain gesticulations of the living,” wrote Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude, his classic interpretation of Mexican history and culture. “The whole motley confusion of acts, omissions, regrets, and hopes which is the life of each of us finds in death, not meaning or explanation, but an end…. A civilization that denies death ends by denying life.”
Paz does not explicitly refer to Posada’s work, but he captures its essence too precisely not to have been thinking of it. And both came to mind repeatedly as I read R. Andrew Chesnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press).
Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, set out some years ago to write a book on the Virgin of Guadalupe, only to find his enthusiasm fading after a while. He writes that he was fighting “research malaise” when, by chance, he learned of Santa Muerte, a Mexican “folk saint” known to her devotees by nicknames such as the Bony Lady, the Godmother, and the Angel of Death. She is, in effect the Virgin of Guadalupe’s dark cousin, if not her evil twin.
Santa Muerte’s history and role are complex and, in some ways, distinctly Mexican. But her power -- like that of Posada’s artwork – is too great to contain within national borders.
She began to make the news in the 1990s -- always (at least in the U.S. media) with reference to the Mexican drug cartels. When the police would raid a gangster’s home, they often found altars to a grim-reaper-like figure, presumably satanic in nature. By 2010, Santa Muerte entered norteamericano popular culture through "Breaking Bad," a TV series that is about methamphetamine production in roughly the sense that Kafka’s Metamorphosis is about having a bug problem.
In the opening sequence of Breaking Bad's third season, a couple of well-dressed hit men arrive in a small southwestern town. They take a quick look around and then, inexplicably, drop to the ground on their bellies and begin to crawl through the dust, joining dozens of other people making their way to a shrine. Once inside, they find an altar holding a skeletal figure and light a candle to it. They also bring to her a drawing of the show's central character, who has made the mistake of coming to the attention of a Mexican drug cartel. And then, having paid honor to the personification of death, they head north to address certain business problems.
Santa Muerte: the patron saint of drug traffickers and gun thugs. That’s her reputation among gringos, anyway -- to the extent that she has any reputation at all, which is just barely. And it is utterly, deeply, hopelessly misguided, as Chesnut establishes in no uncertain terms. For most of her career, the Pretty Girl (the list of her monikers seems endless) specialized in helping women with unfaithful boyfriends or husbands. “For he who cheats me in love,” runs one prayer to Santa Muerte, “I ask that you make him come back to me, and if he ignores your strange voice, Good Spirit of Death, let him feel the force of your scythe.”
No doubt some petitioners were more specific about just where she might aim it.
We are not in the realm of orthodox Christian theology here, by a large margin. The White Sister is a confluence of pre-Columbian and Catholic beliefs. She combines elements of New World mythology (Aztec and otherwise) with European iconography of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Grim Reaper. Chesnut notes that this syncretism continues among contemporary followers, who sometimes put Hindu or Buddhist statues upon her altars.
The first document to mention her by name is a report to the Inquisition from 1797, although it's certainly possible she'd developed a following long before that. The memo indicated that one group of Indians was using a statue of a skeleton they called Santa Muerte in peyote rituals. This was the sort of thing the Inquisition discouraged, and it could be very persuasive when making that point.
“Neither Mexican nor foreign observers recorded her presence again until the 1940s,” writes Chesnut. Anthropologists began reporting prayers and ceremonies to her around the country. Until the late 1980s, her role was strictly that of Cupid’s enforcer. But then the drug gangs began to petition for help in their trade. In either capacity -- romantic or criminal -- calling on her was, until quite recently, an occult practice: “Santa Muerte was venerated clandestinely,” Chesnut writes. “Altars were kept in private homes, out of public sight, and medallions and scapulars of the skeleton saint were worn hidden underneath the shirts of devotees, unlike today when many proudly display them, along with T-shirts, tattoos, and even tennis shoes as badges of their belief.” While the Nike Dunk High Santa Muertes don't have the Lady's picture on them, they do bear her name and initials. The author indicates that a Santa Muerte thong is available. At this point two styles are available, both somewhat anxiety-inducing.
Her more visible role in the public square (or the religious marketplace, if you will) came about almost accidentally. In 2002, customers noticed the Santa Muerte altar at the back of a small tortilla shop and asked the owner if they might pay homage. She agreed. Soon the place was full of flowers and candles, and people made pilgrimages to it. Eventually it became necessary to open a separate shrine, because all the veneration was making it hard to cook tortillas, let alone sell them.
In the decade since then, writes Chesnut, “hundreds of thousands of devotees have placed their hands on the glass of the encased altar,” which is reverently wiped down each night. Other entrepreneurs tapped into the Bald Lady’s following. And she has taken on more and more tasks, as signaled by the various colored candles that devotees light in her honor: red to call on her traditional powers in love, gold for help with money, and green for matters involving the law or justice. Purple candles are for faith healing. Criminals light black candles to appeal for help in their work, as do otherwise law-abiding citizens craving vengeance. But the white kind, expressing devotion and gratitude, are much more popular.
The black candle is, Chesnut notes, “among the slowest selling and rarely appears at devotional sites on Mexican roadsides and sidewalks.” The author says he seldom saw black candles even on private altars. The notion that Santa Muerte is a patron saint of the drug cartels is extremely one-sided: her appeal has spread through all sectors of society. Policemen and prison guards call on her protection. Rumor has it that there are even Santa Muertistes within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church – extremely discreet ones, presumably, since she has at least one bony toe dipped in spiritual currents that might well be heretical or blasphemous.
“Those looking for a supernatural being who will deliver on petitions considered morally dubious or even sinful in the Christian context need look no further,” writes Chesnut. “The nonjudgmental, often amoral Saint Death of the black candle will grant favors that canonized saints will not consider. And so it’s not surprising that the Grim Reapress proves to be particularly appealing among those who specialize in activities that cause harm to others and also to [those] seeking protection from the specialists in death and destruction.”
Nor has she abandoned her mandate to deliver philanderers “bound hand and foot” to the feet of their women. Or failing that, to answer another prayer: “Most Holy Death, torture him, mortify him.”
Devoted to Death is fascinating, and a continuous revelation. The Skinny Lady may look sinister, and she's certainly not to be trifled with, but something about her is terribly human. As demigods go, she is the salt of the earth. Devotees feel a special intimacy with her because she is, as one of them told Chesnut, “an old battle-axe, like us.” She also has appetites. Lighting a candle will get her attention, but she gets thirsty, and while water is acceptable, she prefers something stronger. She enjoys tobacco, but won’t turn down marijuana.
Two years ago, a Santa Muerte church in Mexico City began performing same-sex marriages. The clergyman speaking on her behalf said: “What we bless is the love these people feel; love isn’t gendered.” Her following has now spread far north of the border -- Chesnut describes finding candles and statues for her cult in a Washington, D.C., botánica. As the culture wars continue, you definitely want the Angel of Death on your side.
Like the Mexican tradition of giving children little skulls made of sugar on the Day of the Dead, this half-pagan demigod comes from someplace far outside the Puritan sensibility. Santa Muerte lurks somewhere in Jose Posada’s etchings, which both mock vanity and celebrate ordinary existence. “Fear makes us turn our backs on death,” wrote Octavio Paz, “and by refusing to contemplate it we shut ourselves off from life, which is a totality that includes it.” Even someone who might not care to have a supernatural being around can love her, if only as a symbol. Give the smiling Lady a strong drink and a good cigar. It’s not like it's going to kill her.