Santa Muerte: Drugs, Death, and the Dispossessed

Manya Beri, Gaurang Singh, Advika Pandey, Shreya Sharma, Brishti Bose

The Saint of death demonstrates how different identities can be associated with an icon, but the icon does not necessarily need to be associated with a singular identity.

The photo showcases a deity, La Santa Muerte, with traditional offerings, including cash, cigars, alcohol, and other similar pleasures of the “flesh” (Thompson, 2004). The essentialism accorded to her depiction as bones show that she is amoral; she does not judge anyone and signifies that everyone is equal in death. The cult worship of this Saint of Death has boomed in the last few decades, becoming especially popular amongst dispossessed sections of society in Mexico, Central America, and the USA. The reaction of the State and Church to this unconventional and dangerously “deviant” deity has been unexpected (Leland & Martin, 2017). There have been mass demolitions and attacks on her shrines by the Mexican army, widespread sanctions by the Church for exorcisms of her followers, and multiple national security reports analysing her worship by the US Department of Defence and the FBI (Leland & Martin, 2017). This essay will take a closer look at the communities worshipping this Saint, explicitly focusing on the LGBTQ community and the Mexican Drug Cartels. 

St. Muerte, a “contemporary manifestation of a fierce liminal deity connected to marginality, inferiority, and outsiderhood” (Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, 2015, p. 1), appeals to diverse communities for several reasons. The most obvious is that she exemplifies someone who accepts everyone and does not discriminate against individuals for being different or authentic to themselves. Hence, while shunned and ostracized by the Catholic Church and larger society, the LGBTQ community finds unique support from the Saint of death. As postulated by Moodie, death is the greatest equalizer (Carr, 2016, p.1). Here, heterosexuals and individuals from the LGBTQ community share a common destiny that is free from discrimination. The Church and State view Santa Muerte as a deviant saint who provides unsanctioned solace to individuals outside of both the law and the Church (Lorentzen, 2016). Assuming the Church to be the mainstream normal, it can be allegorical to the traditional understanding of the Self. Opposing this, Santa Muerte would be considered the “Other.” The “Other,” in being different from the “Self” on various grounds, is a possible danger to the “Self.” When the Self interacts with the Other, there is always the potential of differences being transformed into relations of threat and conflict (Rumelili, 2007, p. 21). The cult of Santa Muerta is therefore perceived as a threat by the Church and its followers (thus gaining the reputation of a cult).

 The cult operates against mainstream institutions such as the State and the Church. While harshly discriminating against immigrants of Mexico, America’s immigration policies have historically been immensely crude towards the LGBTQ community. They have been described as “constitutionally psychopathic inferiors” with “abnormal sexual instincts,” even being barred from entering the country in 1917 (Lorentzen, 2016). It is no surprise then that many from the LGBTQ community, especially transgender sex workers, who felt rejected by the State and the Church, find refuge in a figure like Santa Muerte, whose image and status offends their hierarchy (Lorentz, 2016). Several sex workers believe that the non-judgmental icon of the dead Saint welcomed Jesus into the world of the dead, perhaps their way of incorporating a Catholic belief even after feeling abandoned by the Church (Lorentzen, 2016). They look to her for protection from persecution, given their status as social outcasts. Santa Muerte’s Church ordains LGBTQ members into priesthood, allows same-sex marriages, and welcomes those otherwise unaccepted by society (Lorentzen, 2016). Further, embodying trans-identity, the Saint acquires both a female and male shape, making it more inclusive (Lorentzen, 2016). The appeal of the deity, which provides respite from the policing of bodies, comes from her position outside of gendered binaries created by the State and Church wherein each identity is limited to a particular set of responsibilities and expectations (Young, 2005).

  The Saint of Death or the “Pretty girl” (Thompson, 2004) boasts of followers from varied walks of life, but the most bizarre group, in contrast to the LGBTQ community, seeking her protection are the Mexican Drug Cartels. These hyper-masculine groups, where soldiers are lauded as “real men” and violence is the currency of every interaction, make for engaging followers of a female/gender fluid saint (Serena, 2018). The cartels lead precarious lives where each day is fraught with risks and uncertainty, almost on edge between life and death. The Saint becomes the natural choice of deity for such identities since they need spiritual patrons who help them survive even as they hurt others (Thompson, 2004). Moreover, the traditional supernatural force in their surroundings, the Catholic Church, is vehemently opposed to their trade and practices, making it imperative for them to resort to unconventional religious practices like the worship of Saint Muerte. The deity is not opposed to pleasures of the flesh and enjoys a wide variety of luxuries that drug cartels themselves have a knack for; cigars, alcohol, chocolates, jewellery, clothes, and exotic reptiles like boas (Thompson, 2004). 

It is interesting to note that most temples of Saint Muerta are located on the US- Mexico border (Bragg, 2014). Immigrants believe that the presence of the Saint on borders will grant them safety and protection from death and make their transition between borders smooth. The location of the temples of the Saint bears implications on how immigrants belonging to different socio-economic categories perceive and navigate spaces. Unlike the LGBTQ community, where the Saint is a marker of identity, it becomes a medium for most migrants to channel their hopes and insecurities. While they might adhere to more traditional beliefs under safer circumstances, the precariousness of the border space makes the journey of utmost priority. Worshipping the Saint becomes a matter of escaping death rather than making prayers for other material aspects of life.

Symbols and icons provide an instrument for shared solidarity and expression amongst social collectives and organizations. These symbols can then be incorporated in a larger resistance against existing hegemonic power structures and become a rallying point for the historically disempowered. La Santa Muerte has come to be one such icon and has been popularly embraced by more than one community seeking to resist the imposition of State power structures. In part due to interpretation by her diverse set of followers, the malleability of the icon ensures that she is not labelled as belonging to a single identity. The Saint of death demonstrates that different identities can be associated with an icon, but the icon does not need to be associated with a singular identity.