Over the last week there’s been some national news coverage concerning the rapidly growing popularity of Santisima Muerte on the U.S. side of the border. One of the articles, written by Russell Contreras with the Associated Press, included a few quotes of myself from a phone interview between the two of us. Here’s the Yahoo! link for it:
With almost 3,000 (mostly negative, bigoted, and ignorant) comments and 1500 Facebook shares within just a day or so, it’s gotten quite a bit of attention. A Washington Times article followed shortly after:
And then there’s been a follow-up to the follow-up:
Add this to all the stories that have hit local U.S. papers and online venues around the U.S.-Mexico border, and it seems that La Santisima Muerte has crossed the border without bothering to get her passport stamped or applying for a visa! It also seems she has no intention of registering with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services any time soon, but she’s decided to settle in this country in the time-honored fashion of Coming In and Claiming the Land. I believe this is may be part of what’s rubbing some people the wrong way, aside from the unfortunate but unavoidable relation to the narco-gangs. Even if it’s not in the front of their minds (if they bothered to read their U.S. History lessons in school) there may be a trace of it somewhere in the back of their minds. Here is this pseudo-Catholic spiritual figure coming from Mexico, brought by Mexican immigrants (people who still have a good amount of Native American blood in their veins) with the seeming potential to re-claim a land that was once stolen from the Native peoples. This frightening potential of spiritual retribution for descendants of European aggressors may understandably be adding to the general negative response of the recent news coverage...among many other aspects of Santisima’s service, of course.
For this and other reasons, I feel compelled to write a few things that can be put out there from the point of view of white (non-Latino), educated, middle-class U.S. citizen who has found peace and happiness in the devotion and service of a generally grim-looking, Mexican figure. So much so that I’ve built and dedicated a public shrine to her and hold regular services in her honor. There are several aspects I want to address to attempt to provide some clarity for those curious readers who haven’t already slammed the door shut in a fundamentalist religious temper tantrum. This will obviously be from my personal point of view, branching from the foundational trunk of the teachings I received, and do not claim to be universal among all devotees of the Most Holy Death. This may be the beginning of a series...we’ll see.
One of the main questions being asked is, who is Santa Muerte, and where does she come from other than just saying she’s from Mexico? Beginning with the latter part of this question, to say the historical origins of La Santisima are murky would be an understatement. Until around 2001 her devotion was largely an underground phenomenon, and because of this her history has been widely debated. Possibly for decades, many Mexican devotees, out of what I believe to be Mexican nationalism mixed with a lack of academic evidence to the contrary, claim she’s the reincarnation of Mitchecacihuatl, the pre-Columbian goddess of the underworld, reborn as a Catholic saint. The late E. Bryant Holman, however, in his 2007 work, La Santisima Muerte: A Mexican Folk Saint, disagreed with this general assumption and pointed to a possible Italian origin with pre-Christian links to the Fates of ancient Greece, the Aztec association being a convenient, yet superficial, connection for national pride. Recently, in his 2012 publication of Devoted to Death—Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, Professor Andrew Chesnut, the leading academic in the English-speaking world, has uncovered evidence placing La Flaka firmly on a timeline dating back to the 1700s, as well as a possible European ancestress from Spain, known as La Parca. That’s generally about it as far as an historical summary, although you can bet there’s more to come in that area.
Now for the former part of the question, who is Santa Muerte? In my experience of her, she is Death: an anthropomorphic (kinda) manifestation of the event of when a living creature ceases to be alive. But not so plain, nor so simple. From an objective (as much as possible) point of view, that event is just that...the moment when a living organism expires. However, like so many other natural events observed by the human mind, this event became a force, and like so many forces, it eventually became a being. The world’s religions contains many, many deities and spiritual beings of death and the underworld. Pretty much all early pantheons have one or more of these beings. From a spiritual perspective, though, Death came into being as soon as life did and will manifest in any given culture throughout the world and throughout time. The details, including the appearance, the name(s), and the service (or avoidance), will vary and be shaped by the specific culture in question. Many times this manifestation will occur organicly within a polytheistic (or academic label of your choice) spiritual system, with the death-being evolving alongside other spiritual beings.
With Santisima Muerte, however, Death has manifested within a monotheistic system which just happens to allow for the lesser, semi-divine beings of angels and saints, and not only that but also in a nation where the vast majority of the people are raised within this system, ensuring the future of the influence of this system among the majority for at least several more generations. Then add to this a neighboring country that happens to be a major world power, which allows for religious diversity, and has a growing number of its citizens who are leaving the religion(s) of the their upbringing and seeking other more fulfilling spiritual practices (or none at all). The recipe gets better when you have a large number of people from the culture of origin, many who are poor and downtrodden (traditionally the majority of Santisima’s followers), immigrating to the world power country, which happens to be undergoing a multitude of changes as well as economic woes, and carrying with them this manifestation of Death, which has now had a least of couple of centuries of clandestine devotion to cement itself within its new image and service. Death is no fool. In a nutshell, we are witnesses to the (re)birth and evolution of a major spiritual being, one with power so great no one can escape it...not alive anyway.
What does the future hold for Santisima Muerte? Who knows?