Book examines the patron saint of drug traffickers, prostitutes, insecure lovers and forgotten segments of Mexican society

“Devoted to Death” explores the growing cult following of Santa Muerte, the “holy saint of death”

Book examines the patron saint of drug traffickers, prostitutes, insecure lovers and forgotten se...

Virginia Commonwealth University Professor Andrew Chesnut recalled exactly when he first became interested in writing about the folk saint Santa Muerte. It was in March 2009 when news reports indicated that the Mexican army had bulldozed dozens of homemade altars to the folk saint along the U.S. border.

“I was immediately intrigued,” said Chesnut, Ph.D., Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and professor of religious studies. “I remember wondering – what has she done to provoke the Mexican army to demolish 40 shrines?”

Chesnut spent nearly two-and-a-half years working to answer that question, examining Santa Muerte and her growing cult of followers in Mexico, Central America and the United States. His findings are included in his new book, “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” just published by Oxford University Press.

“While this book will certainly appeal to an academic market, my real intent was to reach out to the general reader,” said Chesnut.

Though condemned by the Mexican government and the Catholic Church, Santa Muerte thrives among criminals, the downtrodden and those concerned about lovers with cheating hearts.

“She is seen as a love magician by Mexican women who think their boyfriends and husbands are cheating on them,” Chesnut said. “The women believe Santa Muerte can bring them back.”

Chesnut said that before 2001 Santa Muerte was a largely unknown figure of the occult, but in the past decade, awareness and devotion have grown rapidly.

“Most Mexicans self-identify as Catholics. And while there are myriads of saints to turn to, many see her as fast-acting,” said Chesnut. “A lot of devotees see her as number two only to God in the power she has over life and death. And at a time when people are looking for fast miracles, like finding a job, they turn to a saint that can answer their prayers promptly.”

Chesnut said despite opposition from church and state, followers are devoted to the folk saint because she does not discriminate. And in a country with a sharp divide between poor and rich, death becomes the great leveler.   

“She offers a special appeal to those who feel death is close in their lives,” Chesnut said. “Who better to ask for a few more grains in the hourglass of life than death herself?”

It is Santa Muerte’s perceived power over life and death that leads criminals, particularly drug traffickers, to become her most faithful followers.

“She has been identified as a patron saint of narcotics traffickers,” Chesnut said. “Some traffickers believe there is no better way to guarantee safe passage of their drugs to market than to call for the intercession of Santa Muerte.”

Chesnut said news reports in Mexico have reinforced the saint’s reputation of protecting traffickers but Santa Muerte is actually a multi-tasker.

“There are varieties of colored candles, each with a specific purpose: a black candle will bring harm to others, a purple candle will bring healing and a red candle is for affairs of the heart,” Chesnut said.

Santa Muerte is generally represented as a skeletal figure, wearing a long robe and usually carrying a scythe and a globe. Chesnut also found shrines and shops in the U.S.

“I found evidence of Santa Muerte’s influence in large American cities,” said Chesnut. “And it wasn’t until later on, that I searched for her in Richmond. And I found evidence here – votive candles for sale in several shops and a couple of figurines. And at one religious articles shop, almost half of their sales are related to Santa Muerte artifacts. And there’s a temple there, too.”   

Chesnut gathered research by interviewing devotees, including a trip to the cult’s main altar in Mexico City. He traveled there with his wife, a native of Mexico.

Chesnut said he was a little worried that followers would be reluctant to talk to a foreigner about their beliefs but those concerns faded when the altar’s high priestess approved of his interviews. Followers were eager to share their stories.

Still, he said working in an area frequented by drug traffickers and criminals added an element of danger to the research.

“But nothing ever happened,” Chesnut said. “I guess Santa Muerte was watching our backs.”

Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and professor of religious studies, holds a copy of his new book, “Devoted to Death.” A votive candle depicting Santa Muerte is in the foreground. Photo by Mike Porter, VCU Office of Communications and Public Relations
Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and professor of religious studies, holds a copy of his new book, “Devoted to Death.” A votive candle depicting Santa Muerte is in the foreground. Photo by Mike Porter, VCU Office of Communications and Public Relations