Andrew Chesnut on Santa Muerte
Date: June 11th, 2017

Many people are familiar with the Virgin of Guadalupe and an object of faithful devotion within Mexico, but fewer folks know about Santa Muerte, the “skeleton saint,” which has witnessed a growing devotion within the past two decades.  Prof. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, is one of the very few scholars to write about this fascinating folk saint and he joins us to talk about his book Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (being released in its second edition later this year).  After a bit of reminiscing about UCLA, where both Tony and Andrew were contemporaries in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Prof. Chesnut discusses how he came upon this research topic.  While initially wanting to write about the Virgin of Guadalupe, his passion took him in another unexpected direction.  Andrew then explains how a folk saint differs from an official Catholic saint, and gives us a sense of how devotion to Santa Muerte has grow in recent years, reaching upwards of an estimated 10 – 12 million devotees worldwide.  He also covers all the various nicknames of the saint (including Bony Lady, Bald Lady, and even “Bad Ass”), as well as how she came to grow in popularity in recent decades.  The deeper history of Santa Muerte is rather murky, though, and Prof. Chesnut notes that some of the earliest mentions of the name date back to the late 18th century.  There are parallels between some of the “grim reaper” imagery found in Spain at the time, and this may have transferred over to the Spanish colonies and became part of the syncretist form of religion that was practiced amongst a wide swathe of the population.  We then talk about how individuals interact with Santa Muerte, focusing on the variegated purposes this folk saint has and the different colored candles used in devotions.  Black candles are frequently used for supernatural protection and/or vengeance and have given Santa Muerte the reputation of being the “narco-saint” for its use by criminals and within the Mexican penal system.  Despite this more malevolent reputation, Santa Muerte is also the focus of a number of other devotionals revolving around healing and consecration (white candle), love and marital problems (red candle), prosperity (gold votive), justice (green), and enlightenment (brown), to name just a few.  Andrew also relates the story of David Romo who founds the first Santa Muerte temple in Mexico City in 2003 and how he eventually ends up being arrested for running a kidnapping ring.  We finish off with some final reflections on what Andrew has learned over the decades he has been studying Latin American religiosity, noting how he was surprised to find how much faith healing matters to individuals, and we also review what his next research project will be focusing on, namely Catholic death culture.  Recorded: May 19, 2017.



Prof. Andrew Chesnut’s bio at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, by R. Andrew Chesnut (2nd edition coming soon with Oxford University Press).

Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy, by R. Andrew Chestnut.

Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty, by R. Andrew Chesnut.

Andrew Chesnut’s columns at the Huffington Post and his Twitter feed.


Ruth Melkonian on Latin American Protestants.

Christopher Hale on Religion & Protest in Mexico.

Andrew Johnson on Pentecostals in Prison in Brazil.

Brian O’Neel on Saint Who? Some Holy Unknowns.

Brian O’Neel on the Saints of January.

Brian O’Neel on the Saints of February.

Tony Carnes on a Journey Through New York City Religions.

Tony Carnes on Jesus’s Auto Body (and Soul) Shop, Blessed Pizza, and NYC Religions.

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