R. Andrew CHESNUT. Santa Muerte: Devoted to Death; The Skeleton Saint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 221. ISBN972-0-19-976465-5.
Reviewed by Anneris GORIS, La Esperanza Center, 502 West 165 Street, NY, NY 10032

The Skeleton Saint (la Huesuda), the Skinny Lady (la Flaca or la Flaquita), the White Girl (la Niña Blanca), the White Sister (la Hermana Blanca), Most Holy Death (Santisima Muerte), the Pretty Girl (la Niña Bonita), the Powerful Lady (la Dama Poderesa), Angel of Death (Angel de la Muerte), the Lady of the Shadows (la Dama de las Sombras), the Bald Lady (la Pelona), or the Godmother (la Madrina), has millions of followers from all walks of life (pag.11). The saint, however, “has a special appeal to assailants and others [living] on the margins of Mexican and American law” (pag.14).

According to Chesnut, Santa Muerte became a public cult in 2001 (pag.8), and some devotees became followers by their own initiative, the recommendation of friends and family members, or were visited by “la muerte.” The folk saint is “united to … devotees by nationality and often by both locality and social class, [and personifies] death itself… not a deceased human being” (pag.6) who “stands alone as the sole female saint of death” (pag.7). While her “asexual skeleton form contains no hint of femaleness, her attire and hair style, do” (pags.7 and 8).

Is Santa Muerte a new religious movement? Chesnut posits that: “The cult … has yet to develop a unified creation myth for her, but she…figures as one of the most potent supernatural healers on the Mexican religious landscape” (pag.198). He adds that “Her potency and popularity derive from a couple of factors; … a concern with faith healing, the need for a social leveler,… a supernatural advocate,… and her miracles granting capacity (pag.198 and 199). Chesnut concludes that “the Powerful Lady’s capacity to work miracles on multiple fronts,… means that a growing number of [people] will become devoted to death” (pag.200).

What is the origin of Santa Muerte? According to Chesnut, “Mexicans are… likely to regard the skeleton saint as an adapted version of an indigenous … goddess of death” (pag.28). He explains that “for many Mexicans the realities of indigenous history and the myths of nationalism converge to give the White Sister a local birthplace in pre-Columbian Mexico” (pag.28). Some people think that: “it is … Mictecacihuatl,” while others say she represents “a Pretty Girl… [who was] born to Purepecha parents in a village of Michoacan” (pag.189). Her origin has been traced to Santa Ana Chipitiro, a town in Mexico (pag.28), and to the bubonic plague (Black Death) in Western Europe (pag.30). But, for Chesnut, she originated in medieval Europe when the “Spanish friars employed the figure of the Grim Reaper as a tool for evangelization,” and was later refashioned into the skeleton saint (pag.189).

Santa Muerte is a transnational miracle worker who accompanies her devotees in their crossing into the United States, but her cult is strongest in border towns, and also in Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, and New York where Mexicans and Central Americans have settled (pags.9 and 10). There are religious shops selling paraphernalia, and temples where devotees attend masses, celebrate weddings, baptisms, do rosaries, participate in pilgrimages, ask for miracles, and for the favors of health, wealth, and love (pags.10 and 21). People also ask for jobs, protection, the neutralization of enemies, and for the law to stay away (pag.15). The “world’s largest Santa Muerte statues” is located in the temple grounds in Ecatepec (pag.17), and her popularity now eclipses every other saint in Mexico except Saint Jude (pag.4). Cult leaders propagate the practice despite “escalation offense against the skeleton saint” (pag.45) by the Mexican government.

The “Color votive candles of death represent the most important of ritual objects”… and indicate “important aspects of her spiritual work with devotees” (pag.20): brown is used for the history and origin of the cult (Chapter 1), white represents beliefs and practices (Chapter 2), black signifies protection and harm (Chapter 3), red means love and passion (Chapter 4), gold conveys prosperity and abundance (Chapter 5), purple indicates healing (Chapter 6), green stands for law and justice (Chapter 7), and the seven-color candle denotes multiple miracles (Concluding chapter).

This book is an important journey into the Mexican religious cult of Santa Muerte, who, as the author states, accompanies immigrants in the United States where she is also gaining devotees from other cultural backgrounds.


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