La Santa Muerte in Mexico
History, Devotion, and Society
- ISBN: 9780826360816
- Published By: University of New Mexico Press
- Published: September 2019
The cult of the Mexican folk saint Santa Muerte (“Holy Death” or “Saint Death”) has grown rapidly since its emergence into the public spotlight in the early 2000s. Santa Muerte represents death in feminized form and is worshipped by thousands (or millions) of people on both sides of the Mexican border. The majority of her devotees’ lives are characterized by vulnerability, precarity, or marginalization; she is popular among members of the working class (particularly women), gender and sexual minorities, sex workers, as well as those involved in Mexico’s ongoing drug war (including drug traffickers, police, and correctional officers). Though Hispanophone scholarship has engaged with the topic for decades, Santa Muerte’s growing popularity outside of Mexico—primarily in US metropolitan areas with a large Hispanic population—is mirrored by an expanding body of Anglophone scholarship. The outcome of a 2014 academic conference on Santa Muerte held in Groeningen, The Netherlands, La Santa Muerte in Mexico: History, Devotion, and Society puts a transdisciplinary spotlight on Santa Muerte’s meaning in the daily lives of people in Mexico. The book sets out to answer fundamental questions (who, how many, how, and why) relating to the saint’s devotees, as well as exploring the underlying roots and cultural context of the contemporary cult.
The book comprises an introduction by editor Wil G. Pansters, six topical chapters, and an afterword by Claudio Lomnitz. Pansters’ introduction provides a thorough overview of the terrain, surveying existing Santa Muerte scholarship and engaging critically with previous explanatory frameworks. More comprehensive than is the norm for edited volumes, Pansters’ introduction will undoubtedly prove a useful guide for scholars and students venturing into the field of Santa Muerte studies. Pansters cites two popular explanations for the saint’s tremendous popularity: on the one hand, the supreme miracle-working power her devotees attribute to her; on the other, the tragedy and desperation wrought by the ongoing drug war rendering an allegiance with death attractive. Pansters considers both explanations reductive, and highlights instead the millions of precarious lives rendered by larger failures of justice and social security in present-day Mexico—an experiential context in which the cult of Santa Muerte provides a source of comfort and meaning.
The essays collected in the volume approach its focal topic from differing angles. Benjamin T. Smith places the cult of Santa Muerte in a historical context, looking at the relationship between the Catholic Church and popular devotion. He understands the cult as one of numerous movements of religious revitalization in Mexico, linking these revivals to historical moments of destabilization and upheaval. Juan Antonio Flores Martos explores Santa Muerte against the backdrop of other instances of death veneration in Latin America. Anne Huffschmid interrogates the aesthetic aspects of the cult, while Regnar Kristensen argues that the particular familiarity with which devotees relate to Santa Muerte (frequently addressed in familial terms of mother, sister, godmother, etc.) comprises a key aspect of her cult and its appeal. A highlight of the volume is Judith Katia Perdigón Castañeda and Bernardo Robles Aguierre’s illustrated analysis of Santa Muerte tattoos, which represent an essential component of her cult in Mexico. Noting that devotees of Santa Muerte conceive of their bodies as living texts devoted to her worship, Castañeda and Aguierre contend that tattoos representing the saint must be understood within the framework of community, existing in a complex dialogue with the histories, experiences, and suffering of fellow devotees.
A single volume, inevitably, cannot cover all relevant angles. Given the complex femininity epitomized by Santa Muerte, not least in relation to the strong female and LGBTQ presence among her adherents, an in-depth gender analysis of the Santa Muerte cult would have made a productive contribution to the volume. Pansters and Huffschmid both touch on this topic, noting that Santa Muerte—through her frequent personification as a fierce cabrona (battleaxe)—destabilizes normative expectations of femininity in Mexico, challenging the idealized notion of the self-sacrificing mother and homemaker. This topic provides fertile soil for future, focused analyses of gender, which may also consider the complex materialization of Santa Muerte’s femininity through cultic practices of adornment (statues, which most often represent Santa Muerte as a skeleton, are frequently decorated with feminine dresses, flowers, and even long-haired wigs crafted from devotees’ hair).
A drawback of the fairly open-ended theme is a slight lack of cohesiveness, which further engagement between the individual contributors could have counteracted. However, Pansters’ comprehensive introduction and Claudio Lomnitz’s afterword go a long way in linking the book conceptually. Lomnitz’s afterword is succinct yet highly thought-provoking. Drawing on Erving Goffman, Lomnitz proposes that devotion to Santa Muerte—especially through visual markers such as tattoos—can be understood as a voluntary inhabitation of stigma transforming individual suffering and vulnerability into social identity. This is an astute observation with applicability to a range of religious symbols embraced by precarious subjects. As a whole, La Santa Muerte in Mexico makes a welcome contribution to an emerging scholarly field. Accessible and covering a rich diversity of topics and approaches, the book should be of keen interest to students and scholars of religion and culture in Mexico, as well as anyone interested in the growth and dynamics of new religious movements.
Manon Hedenborg White is associate professor in the history of religions at Malmö University, Sweden.Manon Hedenborg WhiteDate Of Review:August 25, 2022