“The Cult of Santa Muerte-The All-Encompassing Saint”
Carmen Sensin’s “Growing Devotion to Santa Muerte in U.S and Abroad” NBC News, 29 December 2014 (http://nbcnews.to/1yV9PSc) is an interesting insight into the growing Cult of Santa Muerte. Originating from Spanish Colonialism in Mexico, Santa Muerte is the female representation of Saint Death with an estimated 10-12 million followers in the US, Mexico and Central America. Today, her popularity is rising as people flock to Santa Muerte due to her lack of discrimination and acceptance of diverse people, such as members of the LGBT community and sex workers. Many believers still identify themselves as Catholics, but have lost faith in the traditional Saints and instead decide to pray to a Saint who has the power to grant petitions of any request in the quickest way.
However, Sensin mentions that one of the greatest concerns with the Cult of Santa Muerte is its affiliation with Mexican drug traffickers and criminals. Mexico has seen a particular rise in exorcisms and, ritual sacrifices have been reported in association with the movement. For example, in 2012 more than 8 people were arrested in Mexico for the alleged sacrifice of three individuals whose blood was poured around an alter for Santa Muerte.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with the Cult of Santa Muerte, Sensin does a great job at providing a general overview on the new movement. However, one may question if the use of the word ‘cult’ is directing the ordinary reader to take a negative standpoint on the group. Throughout recent history, the word ‘cult’ has grown to become a loaded term with very negative connotations (Hexham & Poewe, 1987). Nevertheless, it is important for readers to look beyond the stigmatized view of cults, and consider broader ideas such as those of James T. Richardson who argues that a cult is a group “counter to that of the dominant culture” (Hexham and Poewe, 1987). Since the worshippers of Santa Muerte are mostly still Catholics, they merely look to her to help them quickly with any problem that traditional dominant Catholic saints could not provide. Santa Muerte provides support even for those asking the most odd requests, such as having a drug delivery go to the right person or even so far as inflicting harm or death upon another individual.
Thus, with the unrest in Mexico and undercurrents of greater social acceptance in the USA, it is easy to understand why many people have turned to Santa Muerte. As Hexham and Poewe (1987) discuss in “Understanding Cults and New Religions”, literature, such as Sensin’s article, often fails to relate these new religions to their cultural contexts (p. 7). Mexican culture and way of life is in danger, with the government essentially declaring a war against the drug trade, and Catholics and non-Catholics alike are finding solace and retreat in the Santa Muerte- someone who represents unconditional support. Further, the rise of popularity in the USA could be attributed to the social change that has overtaken the early 21st century. Many minority groups who have traditionally been frowned upon or shunned from mainstream society are gaining momentum in social change movements. As the public opinion shifts to a more open and unbiased one, it could be viewed as as a logical choice to start worshipping a Saint who also has an open and unbiased opinion on who she answers to.
Suggested Reading: http://www.vocativ.com/culture/photos/santamuerte/