Santa Muerte, south of Nuevo Laredo, México. Photo by Not Home.
Santa Muerte, south of Nuevo Laredo, México. Photo by Not Home.

Santa Muerte: Saint of the Dispossessed, Enemy of Church and State

La Santa Muerte has crossed the US/Mexico Border for over a decade, accompanying her devotees on their arduous journeys north. Also known as La Flaquita (The Skinny One), La Niña Blanca (The White Girl), La Niña Negra (The Black Girl), Señora de las Sombras (Lady of the Shadows), La Huesuda (Bony Lady), La Niña Bonita (The Pretty Girl), La Madrina (The Godmother), and more reverently, La Santísima Muerte (The Most Holy Death), she is a beloved saint of dispossessed peoples. I first met Santa Muerte in 2002 during fieldwork with undocumented migrant transgender sex workers from Guadalajara, Mexico, who lived in San Francisco.[1] Santa Muerte featured prominently on home altars in their single-room occupancy hotel rooms. I had not encountered the saint before and was surprised by her obvious importance in their lives. Thus began over a decade of following Santa Muerte to Mexico, California, the US/Mexico Border, and even small towns in northern Wisconsin. In the early years of my research, few people in Mexico would talk to me about her, and few in the US knew of her; she was either underground or unknown. Now, the Bony Lady is “out” and very visible. Since early 2000, worship has grown dramatically in Mexico and in the US, especially among migrants. I came to understand her popularity among migrants and LGBTQ communities in Mexico; she is associated with those living precarious lives and/or engaged in dangerous undertakings. What surprised me, however, was that government entities both in the US and in Mexico, shared my interest in the Bony Lady. The Drug Enforcement Agency, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Mexican government, and the Mexican military all actively oppose the worship of Santa Muerte. A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) law enforcement bulletin claims: “Santa Muerte informational training can prove so stressful for some law enforcement and public safety officers that they can become physically ill and pass out. This has happened more than once. Programs and writings concerning wellness and spirituality can provide ‘spiritual armor’” (Bunker 2013).

Devotee with Santa Muerte necklace. Photo: Jerry Berndt
Devotee with Santa Muerte necklace. Photo: Jerry Berndt

The Roman Catholic Church also fears the skinny saint. The Church in Mexico and the Vatican forbid her worship. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, declared, “It’s not religion just because it’s dressed up like religion; it’s a blasphemy against religion” (quoted in Guillermoprieto 2013, n.p.). The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico City claims that the Holy Death is in “direct opposition to the teachings of the Church and proper worship” (O’Connell 2009, n.p.). Both church and state actively oppose an unofficial saint worshiped by millions in Mexico and in the United States.

Santa Muerte perfectly embodies opposition to contemporary US responses to undocumented migrants, as well as historic (and contemporary) church and state exclusion of LGBTQ migrants. This essay explores the US obsession with the southern border as a means of keeping the “body” of the state pure; the role the Roman Catholic Church plays in caring for undocumented migrant bodies; the legal and social limbo faced by unauthorized persons in the United States when they are no longer physically outside the border, but in the “outside of the inside” (Kuntsman 2009); and how borders and immigration policies control and reproduce gender and sexuality. The extended discussion about borders, whether between nation states, genders, or legal statuses, provides the context for understanding the ever-increasing popularity of Santa Muerte. Finally, the essay returns to the central question of why both church and state oppose and feel threatened by Santa Muerte. The subversive Santa Muerte, favored by undocumented migrants, including LGBTQ migrants, provides solace and protection against both church and state, while also reflecting their liminal, precarious lives.



The US/Mexico border is the world’s most militarized border zone between two friendly countries, making it “one of the most contradictory geopolitical lines in the world” (Cantu 2009, 59). In 2013 Senator John McCain proudly proclaimed, “We’ll be the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall” (quoted in Johnson 2013, n.p.). The border region resembles a low-intensity conflict war zone. Military-style checkpoints exist on roads far north of the border, with warrantless searches allowed within 100 miles. Local citizen residents are subjected to multiple stops on a daily basis.

The dangerous crossing for migrants, moreover, does not end when they cross the line separating the two nations, but in fact extends far north of the border itself. Between 1994 and 2012, 6,000 bodies were recovered along this treacherous terrain. These numbers do not include those whose bodies have never been found, thus greatly underestimating the actual number of migrants who have died attempting unauthorized crossings. The border thus offers a striking example of the “everyday death worlds” described by the essays in Queer Necropolitics, in which the “distinction between war and peace dissolves in the face of the banality of death in the zones of abandonment that regularly accompany contemporary democratic regimes” (Haritaworn, Kuntsman, and Posocco 2014, 2).

The emphasis on borders is surprising given increased global connectedness and the weakening of the neoliberal state. According to Wendy Brown (2014), borders are performative; they “function theatrically, projecting power and efficaciousness that they do not and cannot actually exercise” (25). In a time of the erosion of nation-state sovereignty, walls provide a stark image of power; they may project strength, but they signal weakness. Hastings Donnan and Thomas Wilson write of the “body politics” of borders: “The relationship between state borders and the human body is thought of in terms of a biological metaphor: the body embodies a state system of spatial control, or acts as an outer skin protecting a national social order” (quoted in Van Schendel 2005, 316). For their own protection, national bodies eject foreign intrusions. Undocumented immigrants are at times represented using metaphors of illness, disease, parasites, and plagues that threaten, “weaken, and even kill the nation” (Chavez 2013, 117). Donald Trump claims he will build a wall running the length of our southern border to protect us from “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists” and “the infectious diseases pouring across the border” (quoted in Zerbib 2015, n.p.).

Impossible Subjects

A border separates the inside from the outside and, as the nation’s skin, delineates not just the territory of a nation but also the people who belong in the territory. Once “inside,” however, unauthorized migrants live in a legal and social limbo—on the “outside of the inside.” The unauthorized are in a paradoxical situation. As Cymene Howe (2009) writes, “Undocumented migrants cannot claim full citizenship because they are effectively betwixt and between—that is, in a liminal condition of nation state membership” (45). Yet for the unauthorized, it is virtually impossible to obtain US citizenship that would offer them rights because normal “migration channels for undocumented migrants are largely foreclosed due to migrants’ illegal status” (45). They are what Mae Ngai (2004) terms “impossible subjects,” trapped in a vicious cycle. She writes, “Immigration restriction produced the illegal alien as a new legal and political subject, whose inclusion within the nation was simultaneously a social reality and a legal impossibility—a subject barred from citizenship and without rights” (4). Yet these impossible subjects are here, living in a country where persons/subjects with full rights live side-by-side with non-citizens who are less than full persons legally (and socially).

The Church, the Migrant, and the Neoliberal State

In a climate of fear and social exclusion, religious groups and organizations often emerge as champions for the unauthorized. Immigration lawyers, human rights organizations, and religious groups visit detention centers and provide legal counsel, as well as record human rights abuses. The Catholic Immigration Legal Network (CLINIC), for example, is one of the largest networks of community legal assistance for migrants. Alternatively documented migrants are understandably afraid of using services provided by the government. Thus, churches and religious organizations find themselves in the role of providing legal aid, medical assistance, food banks, shelter, English classes, and other needed services. The privatization of social services for immigrants in the US provides an example of the neoliberal state increasingly removing itself from their provision. Religious organizations often serve as sites of last resort.

In Mexico, Catholic groups run most of the shelters, medical clinics, and comedores (soup kitchens) on the train routes migrants take to cross the country. The San Juan Bosco shelter in Nogales, Mexico, for example, houses 350 migrants per night; a million migrants have passed through its doors over the last three decades. Along the US/Mexico border, religious groups help migrants who have been deported or are in-transit. They provide shelter, food, clothing, sturdy boots for desert crossings, phone calls home, counseling, medical care, and record human rights abuses.[2]

The preceding reflects strategies of neoliberalism, in which the state retreats from providing social assistance and reduces public expenditures. At the same time, the immigrant threat narrative fuels fears about immigrants, claiming that they overuse public services; 2/3 of US citizens say immigrants “should not be eligible for social services” (Chavez 2008, 10-11). And, as Tanya Golash-Boza (2014) notes, “although neoliberalism demands the state cut back in social services, at the same time, the state strengthens enforcement,” including against undocumented migrants (n.p.). Fearing the state’s legal apparatus, migrants turn to church-related groups that serve as mediating institutions between them and what is seen as a hostile larger world.

Sexuality and Immigration Policy

The Church and the neoliberal State seem to be at odds when considering the worth of undocumented persons. The Catholic Church resoundingly disagrees with current US government immigration policies and lobbies for dismantling the border wall, closing detention centers, reunifying families, and offering paths to citizenship for all undocumented. The Catholic Church does, however, agree with the US government, at least implicitly, on the policing of sexuality and LGBTQ bodies.

Sexuality and immigration are intertwined in multiple and complicated ways. Immigration policies shape concepts of nationalism, more specifically of reproductive, heteronormative nationalism. Immigrant women's sexuality has been viewed as a threat to national security, to be contained through strict border monitoring practices. The Page Act of 1875, for example, was designed to exclude anyone entering the United States for “lewd and immoral purposes” from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country.” Immigration law constructs women’s sexuality as potentially dangerous (and heterosexual), but also, through its emphasis on family reunification, as procreative. The majority of authorized immigrants to the United States come with family reunification visas; the Immigration Act of 1965 allotted 74% of all visas to family members. The US Catholic Bishops’ biggest lobbying point for immigration reform concerns family reunification.

Although women are valued if they are part of a heteronormative family, they are also paradoxically viewed as threats due to their ability to procreate. Nativist fears of “anchor babies” and Latina fertility have entered current presidential debates, contesting ideas of nation and citizenship. The Border Patrol video game, for example, features a pregnant woman, the “Breeder,” running across the border; the game’s objective is to “keep them out at any cost.” Anthropologist Leo Chavez (2008) terms this the “Latino threat narrative,” in which Latina fertility is feared by the state, media, and civil society. This threat is serious enough that some presidential candidates favor repealing the birthright citizenship granted by the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution.

The high level of sexual assault and rape experienced by migrant women crossing the US-Mexico border further demonstrates the fear of, and need to control, women’s sexuality. Adi Kuntsman (2009) writes, “The border comes into being through violent encounters between those who cross it and those who are assigned—and/or feel entitled—to protect it” (99). Sexual assaults and rapes committed by Customs and Border Patrol agents are significantly higher than for other law enforcement officers.

Border and immigration policies also construct and control sexual identities. LGBTQ migrants have suffered a history of exclusion from the US. In 1917, “constitutional psychopathic inferiors” were barred from entering the country. Constitutional psychopathic inferiors included “moral imbeciles, pathological liars, swindlers, defective delinquents, vagrants, cranks, and persons with abnormal sexual instincts” (quoted in Howe 2014, 216). The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 banned “all aliens afflicted with psychopathic personality, including homosexuals or sex perverts” (216). Gay men and lesbians were barred from entry given their status as “sexual deviates [sic],” according to revisions in immigration law in 1965.[3] The US systematically excluded LGBTQ individuals through policies based on notions of pathology. US immigration history clearly reflects the policing of borders to control genders/sexualities. It was not until 1990 that Congress repealed the statutory provision denying entry to “psychopathic personalities” or “sexual deviants.” Same sex couples were ineligible for family reunification visas until the Supreme Court declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in a 2013 decision.

Kuntsmans (2009) asks, “How can queer immigrants belong to the nation given that both nationalism and immigration are usually imagined in heterosexual terms?” (1). Similarly, transnational feminist scholar M. Jacqui Alexander (2013) writes, “Loyalty to the nation as citizen is perennially colonized within reproduction and heterosexuality” (64). The sense of a precarious liminality, of being permanently in transition, never ends for many unauthorized persons. For LGBTQ migrants, this sense of lack of incorporation into the social body is intensified due to the double exclusions of migration status and genders/sexualities. Analyzing the experiences of more marginalized migrants enhances our understanding of the role of borders, the intent of immigration policies, ongoing nation building, and national identity. Looking at who is “out” tells us who is “in.”

Santa Muerte

Photo: Jerry Berndt
Photo: Jerry Berndt

The preceding discussion provides a context for the popularity of Santa Muerte and church and state opposition to her worship. My introduction to Santa Muerte came from undocumented migrant transgender sex workers in San Francisco. Three years of fieldwork in the community focused on spiritual practices and religious cosmologies crafted as they crossed borders, both geopolitical and gendered, to survive diverse marginalities and liminal existences. Theirs were bodies in transition crossing multiple borders--geographical, national, economic, cultural, gender. In the process they “created spiritual agency within structural systems hostile to sex work, transgender persons, and border crossing individuals from the South” (Howe, Zayarsky, Lorentzen 2009, 4).

The study participants were from Guadalajara, Mexico, which despite being relatively gay-friendly, is a conservative Catholic city. All grew up Catholic and felt rejected by the Church. Rodolfo Contreras, a former Jesuit, observed, “The orthodoxy of the Catholic Church has made them feel like they are unworthy and that they do not have the right to be present at a religious service. The Church has generated guilt, embarrassment and marginalization” (quoted in Howe, Zarasky, and Lorentzen, 21).

The perception that the traditional Catholic Church had rejected them compelled them to seek spiritual guidance and protection in unofficial icons, such as Santa Muerte, who reflected their own structurally precarious positions in society.

Santa Muerte appears as a female skeletal figure wearing a dress and a long hooded cloak. Her clothes come in a wide array of colors from bright yellows to somber blacks and browns to vibrant green and neutral white. She may hold a scythe in one hand and a crystal ball or globe in the other; at times she also carries the scales of justice. Appearing as she does, a female skeleton complete with the Grim Reaper’s scythe, wearing a large cross and carrying a skull, it is not surprising that her saintly status scandalizes the Church hierarchy.

Scholars hold divergent theories concerning Santa Muerte’s origins.[4] Some scholars and devotees claim that prehispanic death cult practices of the Mexicas merged with Catholicism to create Holy Death. They point to the deities Miclantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, who reigned over the region of the dead, as precedent. Others think that she arose from Yoruba traditions brought to the Caribbean by African slaves, similar to Haitian Vodou and Cuban Santería. This claim is buttressed by the legend that she first appeared in the nineteenth century to a healer in Veracruz, the Mexican state with the strongest and most visible Caribbean influences. Several Mexican scholars insist that Santa Muerte is a European archetype of death, tracing her origins to skeletal figures, such as La Parca, which gained prominence during the plagues and epidemics in medieval times and were later transported to the Americas.

Yet the women[5] in our study did not know or care about the scholars’ theories concerning Santa Muerte’s origins; her presence in their precarious present was what mattered. In this lifeworld, she symbolizes death’s eventuality and appears as death’s incarnation. Some of the sex workers believed that Santísima Muerte welcomed Jesus Christ into the world of the dead. As death’s incarnation, she helps them avoid death. Artemia says, “…she helps me in the street, to stay away from risks…. She exists, she exists, of course; we are all going to die. Death exists and she protects me from all of the dangers around me” (quoted in Howe, Zarasky, Lorentzen 2009, 27). Similar to a vaccine, Santísima Muerte “injects just enough death to ward away its coming” (27). Who better to help migrants survive their “everyday death worlds” than the saint who introduced Jesus to death, who moves between life and death—the ultimate liminal figure.[6]

Santa Muerte’s popularity in Mexico exploded after 2001. Two very public sites emerged: a public sanctuary/shrine created by Enriqueta Romero in Tepito, a large, poor neighborhood in Mexico City, and a Santa Muerte sanctuary founded by David Romo of the Traditional Apostolic Catholic Church Mexico-USA in Colonia Morelos, a rough neighborhood of Mexico City near Tepito. The Bony Lady now claims some ten to twelve million followers in Mexico, Central America, and the US; religion historian Andrew Chestnut claims it is the fastest growing religious movement in the Americas (Sesin 2014).

The Skinny Lady’s followers come from all walks of life, including artists, actors, gang members, police, sex workers, prison guards, drug traffickers, and LGBTQ individuals.[7] Tómas Prower (2015) writes, “La Santa Muerte is a non judgmental deity” who “gives no preferential treatment” (14). Prior to her more public worship emerging in the last two decades, she was worshipped clandestinely by those “whose professions put their lives in constant danger, especially at night. Other than thieves and prostitutes, these included bartenders, taxi drives and mariachi players” (38).

Her current popularity, however, comes primarily from Mexico’s poor, marginalized, and dispossessed. Prower claims that the catalyst for her more recent upsurge in followers is the increased poverty and inequality that followed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The number of worshipers increased dramatically as the poor and marginalized turned to “the saint of desperation and last resort” (Prower 2015, 38). The Mexican journalist José Gil Olmos (2010) calls her the Virgin of the Forgotten and writes, “Those who come to la Santa are those in the streets, unprotected from violence, the unemployed that look in their wallets for the last coins, housewives daily trying to feed their families, young people without a future, underemployed professionals”[8] (143).

Shrines to Santa Muerte can also be found throughout the United States. Los Angeles boasts the most shrines and temples, although large numbers of devotees exist in Chicago, Miami, New York, Houston, and Tucson. She can be found outside of cities, as well; I recently found a group of worshippers in a small farming community in northwest Wisconsin. Arely Gonzalez of Queens, New York, hosts one of the largest celebrations for La Flaquita every August. [9] Gonzalez, who is transgender and an immigrant, says she suffered discrimination in Mexico and was kicked out of Catholic churches. In the US she leads a community of Santa Muerte devotees. González says that for LGBTQ believers, the Santísima acquires both a female and a male shape, which makes her cult more inclusive.

Church Opposition

Worship of Saint Death is a grave error and if any man, woman or Catholic continues this, it will be through ignorance or because they already left the Catholic faith.José Luis Chávez, Archbishop of Oaxaca (quoted in Santamaría 2013, n.p.)

The movement’s rapid growth over the last decades has led to conflict between devotees of Holy Death and the official Roman Catholic Church. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, calls Santa Muerte worship a “degeneration of religion” (quoted in Lombó 2103, n.p.). Most pilgrims and devotees, however, see themselves as devout Catholics; Santa Muerte is just another saint. Paintings in Puebla’s Santa Muerte church depict her seated with Jesus and the church regularly takes busloads of parishioners to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Jose Roberto Jaimes voices a typical perspective, “I also believe in God, in the Virgin, and all the saints, but I am more devout to [Saint] Death. She is the one that helps me the most” (quoted in Dreher 2013, n.p.). Rituals, prayers, masses, altars, prayers, rosaries to Santa Muerte are nearly identical to standard Catholic practice. Some Santa Muerte priests insist that their temples are part of the official church. The worship of Santa Muerte poses no problems or contradictions for her Catholic followers.

Gustavo Arellano, although not a devotee, sees an “aesthetic duality” between Santa Muerte and our Lady of Guadalupe—“Our Lady with all her colors and those stark representations of Santa Muerte” (quoted in Lomax 2012, n.p.). John Nova Lomax (2012) writes:

Centuries ago, mestizos and Mexican Indians felt the Church was not meeting their needs and a miracle arrived, just in time: Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here was a representation of the Virgin Mary that looked like them…And now here comes La Flaka [sic]. In today’s Mexico, death has more power than life. To have hope within all this despair, you must implore death itself to give you what you want. (n.p.)

The Church’s opposition to Santa Muerte angers Arellano, since it goes against Latin American Catholicism’s historic ability to merge indigenous traditions with Catholic doctrines. He fumes “They get up and say, ‘These saints are right and these saints are wrong’” (quoted in Lomax 2012, n.p.).

Catholic officials offer theological explanations for their opposition to the popular saint. Cardinal Ravasi says that because Christ defeated death, worshipping a death figure links followers to God’s enemies: death and Satan (Chestnut 2013). “Religion celebrates life, here you have death” (quoted in Lombó 2013, n.p.). Pope Francis, in his recent visit to Mexico, praised Mexican “popular piety” and the “treasures of popular religiosity” while also obliquely condemning worship of Santa Muerte and those who “embrace their macabre symbols to commercialize death in exchange for money” (quoted in Agren 2015, n.p.). Mexican bishops claim that Santa Muerte is an idea rather than a person, whereas “the Church canonizes people of flesh and blood…it does not canonize other facts or other things” (quoted in Avila 2013, n.p.).

The Catholic Church, as noted earlier, shares with the state a desire to police sexuality and LGBTQ bodies through religious beliefs and practices. This shared positioning also helps explain, in part, harsh reactions to “deviant” saints such as Santa Muerte. She may provide solace, but it is unsanctioned solace to those not only outside of the law, but outside of the church. She “unabashedly counts…LGBT community, prostitutes, thieves, drug smugglers among the most devoted” (Prower 2105, 4). In Mexico, LGBTQ individuals often look to her for protection from violence, given their status as social outcasts. Prower writes that to find a saint who “will never judge you for your sexual orientation or identity is comforting” (15). David Romo, head of the Traditional Apostolic Catholic Church Mexico-USA, performs wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples and ordains LGBTQ individuals into the priesthood. Clerical celibacy is not required; premarital sex and all contraception are allowed.

One can understand why the Roman Catholic Church would oppose unsanctioned saints. Santa Muerte approves of those rejected by the Church. Her church ordains women, LGBTQ individuals, and divorced people; allows same-sex couples to marry; and embraces those who may live outside the law. Mexican Catholic bishops point to sensational crimes that feature Santa Muerte to claim that followers are Satanists (even if unwittingly). Chestnut (2013) argues that the Church’s opposition to the worship of Santa Muerte is similar to its campaign against evangelical and Pentecostal churches. All challenge the Roman Catholic Church’s hegemony in Latin America and its steep decline over the last decades.

State Opposition

The opposition to Santa Muerte by governments is more difficult to understand. The Traditional Apostolic Catholic Church Mexico-USA founded the Sanctuary of Holy Death in Mexico City in 2002 and registered as a religious organization in 2003. President Vicente Fox, under pressure from both the Catholic Church and his conservative Catholic base, revoked the church’s status as a religious organization in 2005, claiming that the qualifications of a religion had not been met and removing it from the roster of organized religions. The legal action resulted in demonstrations throughout Mexico City and increased press attention. The Mexican government has also regularly destroyed public shrines to Santa Muerte. In 2009, days before Easter, President Felipe Calderón ordered the army to bulldoze nearly forty shrines to Santa Muerte along the US-Mexico border. Many of the shrines and altars had been “created for safe passage into the United States and for general protection” (Prower 2015, 44). Andrew Chestnut (2012) asks, “What on earth had Saint Death done to deserve such an aggressive desecration of her holy sites at the hand of the Mexican government?” (4).

The government claims that the worship of Santa Muerte is a threat to national security. National security theorists Robert J. Bunker and Pamela L. Bunker (2014) write, “An action-reaction cycle of ‘spiritual conflict’ may now be evident in Mexico between the Catholic Church and the gang and cartel adherents of the narcocultura form of Santa Muerte worshipers” (n.p.). Although they are referring to the Mexican Church in the quote, they later link this to an ongoing Mexican Army program of destroying Santa Muerte shrines as part of the government’s war against the drug cartels. It is also significant that their essay on Santa Muerte appeared in the Small Wars Journal.

The Mexican government is not alone in fearing the Skinny One. When I first learned of Santa Muerte in early 2000, the only academic article I found written in English was a military intelligence report commissioned by the US Department of Defense (Freese 2005). The report’s author was charged with analyzing the “death cult’s” ties to drug lords and criminals. He concluded that although some narco-traffickers might worship her, she was primarily a saint for the dispossessed.

More recently, the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin featured a three-part series on Santa Muerte, written by Epochal Warfare Studies scholar Robert J. Bunker, who called Santa Muerte the “bad-girl counterpart to the Virgin of Guadalupe” (2014, Part 1). Bunker claims we need to recognize

the spiritual insurgency component of the narcotics wars…. Evidence suggests a rise in deviant spirituality and that drug traffickers may worship a perverted Christian god and various unsanctioned saints such as Jesus Malverde, Juan Soldado, and Santa Muerte (2013, Part 1; emphasis added).
Officer performance and safety issues, primarily those of an emotional or mental nature, need consideration during investigations of crime scenes involving Santa Muerte altars and ritualistic activities, even benign ones…. For specialized federal assistance, the FBI can provide training in management of death investigations and spirituality (2013, Part 3; emphasis added).

The Subversive Saint

Photo: Jerry Berndt
Photo: Jerry Berndt

Both the Mexican and US governments are partially right to fear Santa Muerte, but not because of alleged links to drug traffickers. Freese (2005) concluded that, as long as political despair and socio-economic inequality characterized life for Mexico’s most marginalized, worship of Santa Muerte would continue to grow. Santa Muerte, he writes, appeals to “people on the fringe of Mexican society-indigenous peoples, the poor, criminals” (n.p.) Bunker acknowledges:

This rise in deviant spirituality has not come as a surprise. Mexico still contains a significant population of persons living in poverty and feeling disenfranchised by a government system perceived as being based on patron-client relationships and the influence of wealthy ruling families. This underclass produces a disproportionate amount of unsanctioned (folk) saint worshipers—though only a small percentage of them end up as killers for gangs and cartels. (2013, Part I)

The FBI’s focus is on the “small percentage,” rather than on the poor and disenfranchized, who by Bunker’s admission are the vast majority of the Pretty Girl’s followers. Most devotees feel that both the government and the church have failed them. The political despair in Mexico poses more of a threat to the government than small border shrines visited by poor and working class people or migrants facing perilous journeys. Santa Muerte embodies resistance by those disempowered and rejected by church and state.

Achille Mdembe begins the essay “Necropolitics” (2003) by claiming, “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides…in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who may die” (11). Under certain conditions (slavery), death can be seen as agency or a “release from bondage” (39). Santa Muerte, who is death, allows her followers to resist their status as the living dead (40). David Metcalfe (2014) writes:

…she represents a very real enemy to the power of death as a negative force…All areas of liminal resistance represent a breach in the world order…and those forces in place to maintain that order reach with varying levels of violence towards anything that threatens their position, transgender individuals, strong women, heterodox devotional traditions….This is the threat that Santa Muerte poses to the current social structure…why mainstream media, orthodoxies and officials all react with such disgust and abhorrence to her presence in the world. (n.p.)

Holy Death is death, she moves between life and death, she protects her followers from death, and she understands those who live close to death (border crossing migrants, transgender sex workers, the desperately poor). By embracing Holy Death, her followers resist and negate death’s power, thus posing a threat to exclusionary social orders and everyday death worlds.

Metcalfe is correct in claiming that church and state react with “disgust and abhorrence” to Santa Muerte. The disgust and abhorrence they demonstrate mirrors their response to her followers: undocumented migrants, transgendered sex workers, and producers of “anchor babies.” Both church and state engage in a “performative aspect of disgust” that helps “produce a collectivity by drawing boundaries between (some) bodies” (Kuntsman 2009, 50). This disgust is as much about excluded bodies as it as about Santa Muerte; she is the embodiment of those outside the boundaries of acceptability. The Mexican transgender sex workers in our San Francisco study, for example, suffered multiple marginalizations and social exclusions, including race, class, undocumented status, sexual identity, and risky (illegal) occupations. They embody how

normalizing regimes produce heterogeneous, marginalized subjects and positionalities in relation to a valorized standard of reproductive sexuality between biologically born male-female couples who belong to the dominant racial-ethnic group and the middle class. (Luibhéid 2008, 171)

Santa Muerte is the perfect saint for boundary crossers. She dissolves the boundaries between life and death. She and her followers face strong borders, whether physical walls dividing nation states, boundaries of genders/sexualities, or divisions of class, wealth, legal status, race, and power. Metcalfe (2014) writes that Santa Muerte

stands as a loving matron for those who accept lives lived in the liminal areas of social identity…whose devotion occurs in the borderlands of social upheaval…. She vividly represents the growing disparity that exists not only on an economic level, but also on the level of social understanding between those who exist within the official comfort of privilege and those that exist outside of protection of mainstream institutions. (n.p.)

Holy Death accepts all, whether undocumented, sex worker, transgender, criminal, homeless, poor, marginalized, or drug dealer. The Bony Lady may be one of the most inclusive of devotional figures. Arely Gonzalez says,

She does favors to all, without exceptions. Death does not discriminate; she is the only one that is truly fair. She takes the rich and the poor equally. She is the saint of the poor, the one who does not have blue eyes. She looks more like us. (quoted in Cortes 2014, n.p.)

The Pretty Girl is viewed with fear by state and church as a diabolical force. The skeletal saint and her followers seem pretty powerless when pitted against the Mexican government, the Mexican military, the Catholic Church, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Defense. Yet by embracing Holy Death, her followers resist "contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death (necropolitics)” (Mbembe 2003, 39). She provides not only solace, but strength to the marginalized, the excluded, the socially isolated, the inside of the outside, the “illegal,” and those crossing borders.

Lois Ann Lorentzen is Professor in the Theology and Religious Studies Department and Director of the Master in Migration Studies at the University of San Francisco. Recent work includes the edited three-volume series:Hidden Lives and Human Rights in the United States: Understanding the Controversies and Tragedies of Undocumented Immigration and the co-edited Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana: Politics, Faith, and Identity in New Migrant Communities. She has published articles and conducted extensive research on religion and immigration, religion in Latin America, gender and migration, and grassroots environmental movements in Latin America.


 [1] Thanks to Susana Zayarsky for her excellent fieldwork in both San Francisco and Guadalajara, Mexico, over the course of two years.

 [2] The latest report published by the Kino Border Initiative, a bi-national Catholic organization, found that more than one-third of deported migrants experienced some type of abuse or mistreatment at the hands of US immigration authorities, including theft, physical abuse, verbal abuse, and inhumane detention conditions, such as overcrowding, excessively low temperatures, lack of adequate food, denial of medical treatment, and being held for over twelve hours in facilities without beds (Danielson 2015).

 [3] The American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of psychology disorders as recently as 1973.

 [4] My colleagues and I have written in more depth about these theories in an earlier essay (Howe, Zayarsky, and Lorentzen 2009).

 [5] The participants in our study self-identified as women.

 [6] The recent visibility of transgender actors in TV shows, such as Transparent and Orange is the New Black, and Caitlin Jenner’s glamorous Vanity Fair cover might lull us into thinking violence against transgendered individuals is a thing of the past. Murders of transgender individuals, almost all women of color, reached its all-time high in 2015 (Stafford 2015). Jennifer Finney Boylan (2015) has written eloquently of the radically different lives of the handful of “privileged” transgender individuals compared to the majority.

 [7] Santa Muerte is particularly popular in Mexico among police, drug traffickers, gang members, prison inmates, and sex workers—in short, those who live close to death. Her larger social base, however, is among very poor people who may be excluded from the formal economy. Although she is popular among some artists, intellectuals, politicians, and actors, Holy Death’s primary constituency is among the marginalized.

 [8] Translation by Lois Ann Lorentzen.

 [9] Arely and her Santa Muerte shrine are featured in an essay and video, written and produced by Adrian Fernandez Baumann, as part of the Faith in the Five Boroughs series. See

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