The devotion to Santa Muerte

Since the late 1990s, the folk saint Santa Muerte has gained much visibility in marketplaces and yerberías (stands for healing and magic) in Mexico. Firstly believed to be an urban cult, the devotion to Santa Muerte quickly spread to nearly early corner of Mexico and, through the Mexican diaspora, beyond the national boundaries. Santa Muerte is believed to be a powerful miracle worker, very effective for questions of money, love and familiy relations, heatlh, employment and protection or even revange. Nowadays Santa Muerte has devotees in Central America, Colombia, the United States, Canada and Spain. One can even see her image, a skeleton dressed with the veal of the Virgin Mary, in tattoo parlors in Amsterdam.

Yet, the devotion to Santa Muerte is controversial. In principle, it venerates the death and it has been described by the hierarchy of the Catholic church as an anti-religion. Upper classes are amazed, sometimes suprised, by the growing visibility of Santa Muerte in the public space. From this hegemonic view, the devotion promotes anti-values such as death, violence and the lifestyle of drug-traffickers.

The image of Santa Muerte is closely related to the underworld of criminality. Altars have been found in numerous jails in Central and Nortern Mexico, where prisoners come in contact with the devotion. The Mexican government has led campaigns to destroy Santa Muerte shrines in towns and on the roads in the states of Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, across the Mexico/US border. But the state's attempts to bring down the devotion seem to have little impact, since the small temples are quickly rebuilt or moved to different locations. Evenmore, the image of Santa Muerte is now engrained in the Mexican iconography and urban landscape, since it strongly resources on long-standing representations of death to win legitimacy.

In the dawn of the 21st century Santa Muerte emerged ‘from the darkness’, and became a defining feature of Mexico’s urban culture. The cult has found a fertile soil among large groups of informal workers, unodcumented migrants, single mothers, sexual minorities, prostitutes, and shady actors who are connected to the world of criminality. Santa Muerte is believed to be a ‘powerful’ miracle worker, but it also is an cultural object that materialises death and absence, as much as justice and acceptance. How could an underground image become a cultural icon? What does the image represent and how does its meaning vary? To what extent is Santa Muerte an expression of narco-cultura? What does this tell about the context of violence and impunity in present-day Mexico?

Santa Muerte and the quest for justice in Mexico

Mexico is currently facing one of the most severe crisis of impunity and violence ever recorded. Rampant corruption, inequality, summary executions and kidnappings, and the collapse of the political and institutional life, define daily life in Mexico. The appareance of illegal mass graves across the country has shed light on the horrorific scale of violence, visible in the massive disposal of dead bodies. Thousands of bones have been found since the early 2010s in ranchs and montains, but also in extermination camps not far away from urban areas. Mexicans deal with violent death and its industrial scale on a daily basis, questioning the dignity of human life and respect to remains, trying to make some sense out from the bones pilling up across the Mexican geography.

Larger sectors of society, particularly those already in a vulnerable position, feel unprotected towards the scalating conflicts among and against criminal organisations, and the state's inability to curb the spiral of violence and guarantee security. Within this context, devotees believe the only available form of justice is death, and death is thefore experienced as an essential form of social justice and equality. For many others, the skeleton of Santa Muerte repesents the deceased ones, who were victim of deadly violence. The bones of Santa Muerte give materiality to loved ones who have gone missing and were never found back.

Upcoming book

Based on ethnographic material collected in Mexico and the United States among devotees and their spiritual leaders, this research looks into what Santa Muerte repersents about the ongoing crisis of security and legitimacy in Mexico. The multi-sited study on the cultural geographies of Santa Muerte will lead to a number of activities and publications. A monograph is expected for publication in late 2017.

The research is part of the project ‘The Popular Culture of Illegality: Criminal Authority and the Politics of Aesthetics in Latin America and the Caribbean’, financed by the Dutch organization for scientific research NWO (project number 360-45-030).