WAMU 88.5 : Morning Edition

Digging Into The History Of Mexico's Grim Santa Muerte

Play associated audio
A shrine to Santa Muerte in Mexico.
Dan Morales (http://www.flickr.com/photos/moralesdirect/468794066/)
A shrine to Santa Muerte in Mexico.

Although he’d studied and traveled in Mexico for years, it wasn’t until 2005 that Andrew Chestnut first heard of Santa Muerte.

"I first ran into her in Mexico City, on the cover of a glossy magazine," Chestnut says. 

For the past ten years, drug cartels in Mexico have been worshiping Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a robed skeleton lady. But that devotion isn't necessarily sanctioned or shared by Catholic officials, or the Mexican authorities. In 2009, the Mexican army bulldozed more than 40 Santa Muerte shrines along the U.S.-Mexico border.

That's when Chestnut, a Catholic Studies scholar at Virginia Commonwealth University, decided it was time to learn more. Her popularity is now spreading beyond the Mexican borders, Chestnut wanted to know why she has such widespread appeal.

"She's what we call a folk saint, a saint who hasn't been canonized or approved by the Catholic Church," Chestnut says. "She heals, she takes you to your destination in the afterlife, she is the patroness of matters of law and justice."

Chestnut talks about Santa Muerte almost as though she's a person, and for many of her followers -- whose numbers are reaching 7 million -- her actions have real consequences.

"She has quickly developed a reputation as the most prompt and efficacious miracle worker," Chestnut says. 

He visits shrines all over Mexico, where millions of worshipers go to ask Santa Muerte for help. Other worshipers are there to give thanks. While visiting one shrine, Chestnut saw an extremely well-dressed devotee making an offering. 

"And he told me a whole gripping story about how he was there to give thanks to the saint of death because she had released him from his kidnappers," Chestnut says.

It's stories like these that have skyrocketed Santa Muerte's popularity. Before 2002, she was known to relatively few people, but during the last ten years, she has become well-loved by both sides of the Mexican drug wars. 

"There's an entire municipality in which half of the 400 police officers actually wear Santa Muerte image stitched onto their police uniform," explains Chestnut 

The Mexican government and the Catholic Church are now waging a war on Santa Muerte, but her following continues to grow in Mexico, as well as among immigrants in the U.S. and around the world. Chestnut explains that, for many people living in misery, Santa Muerte may seem like the best place to turn.

"People who work in the streets are exposed to death on a daily basis," Chestnut says. "So who better to ask for a few more days of life here on earth than the saint of death herself?" 

NPR

For Penn & Teller's Magical Partnership, The Trick Is Telling The Truth

The duo Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller are back on Broadway. They both talk — yes, even Teller — with NPR's Scott Simon about magic, danger and the remarkable endurance of their 40-year partnership.
NPR

At The Purple Pie Place, Where The Crusts Are Just Sweet Enough

Bobkat's Purple Pie Place is a fixture in Custer, S.D. From chicken pot pie to strawberry rhubarb, Trevor Yehlie and his family have been baking and serving pies at the local favorite since 2009.
NPR

Empire Strikes PAC And Other Punny SuperPAC Names

My Cat Xavier For a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow superPAC backed Hank the Cat in the 2012 Virginia Senate election. Xavier also cared about naps, treats, and prison reform.
NPR

Despite Host Controversy, Amazon Takes A Chance On 'Top Gear'

The trio that made Top Gear the world's biggest car show will return to the small screen in a new show for Amazon Prime. The BBC canned one of its hosts last year after a fight with a producer.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.