Thursday, February 24, 2011

Saint Death - A Uniquely Mexican (and Strange) Phenomenon

A Saint Death Figure For Sale In a Store
"Saint Death" seems to be a  primarily Mexican phenomenon, although I have recently been informed that there is a "San la Muerte" in Argentina.  The following of "Saint Death" is not tied specifically to any one other Mexican cultural feature, but rather a hodge-podge of several of the most important ones.  Saint Death is a unofficial sub-cult (sub-cult because it seems have many individual followers from various other religions, without being an official part of any of them - although it seems to be trying to emerge as an official religion). Adherents worship Death as cult object, or at least (much more commonly) ask it for favours as a saint.  Saint Death is almost invariably represented by a grim-reaper like statue of just about any size (I've seen key-chains and human-size statues,) but it can also be portrait.  People will ask Saint Death for many things, ranging from money, to a husband, to protection while working the night shift, to success in a crime they're about to commit.

Before saying much else there are some very, very important things to note about the cult of Saint Death:

This is not officially accepted or tolerated by Catholicism.  (Originally I said "in no way Catholic" but some one pointed out that that statement is "tendentious.") The Catholic Church of Mexico has officially condemned the cult as satanism, and teaches that even the least committed adherence is unacceptable. (Out of pure curiosity,  I consulted a Catholic deacon, and confirmed it on the internet.)   This is very confusing since the part that is trying to emerge as an official religion actually has rites which are based on the Catholic liturgy; one group actually calls itself "catholic."  Even more confusing is that many members of the real Catholic Church ignorantly keep Saint Death icons thinking that it is a legitimate saint.  These last two reasons specifically brought the Catholic Church in Mexico to condemn the cult; it doesn't have strong enough presence in the U.S. yet to have brought any official statement from U.S. bishops.

It is definitely not Protestant or any other Christian group.  Most protestants in Mexico will be very quick to condemn this kind of superstition.  For the reasons mentioned above, many think that it's one of Catholicisms many faults.  But here's a dark little secret: my mother-in-law believes that her father, my wife's grandfather, who is a staunch convert to Protestantism  (which is supposed to mean opposition to all of Mexico's superstitions) is hiding a little figure of Saint Death in his bedroom, hoping it will help him discover the gold from the Mexican Revolution he's certain is buried in his land. I'm sure his pastor doesn't know about that one ...

(See Looking for a pot of Gold? Perhaps a heart of Gold? Grandpa Pedro, Part 2)

Saint Death, With Fake U.S. Bills and Canadian Coins
It's predominantly working class.  Like the "curse of the eye" bracelets , this is a superstition with a very strong following in the working class, and seems to cross religious, regional and lifestyle borders withing the working class.  Although, from my experience, it seems to be much more urban than rural.  (So, it could be that my wife's grandfather, living out in the isolated hills, really doesn't know what it is; he says someone gave it to him for good luck.  Although this doesn't justify his hiding it.)  The main altars for Saint Death (yes, there are public altars - they are centered around the statue figures seen above) are located in Mexico City, with the most famous one in the very poor downtown community of Tepito, which is also the city's largest street market, a great place for everything cheap, stolen and illegal.  That one is dressed as a bride. It's the only public altar I've seen, although numerous others exist.

(Compare:The Curse of the Eye, and The Morning Edition - Exotic Mexico)

It's not associated with the original Day of the Dead Celebration.  As with Catholicism, followers of Saint Death have integrated traditional elements of Day of the Dead into their rites, and even have a special celebration on Nov. 1, which is the first Day of the Dead.  But from what I understand, the Day of the Dead celebration is in honour of the souls of friends and relatives who have passed away, and does not celebrate "death" as a element in itself.  I think that the Day of the Dead can be celebrated in accordance with Catholic beliefs, but I still have to check both the Catholic and Protestant view of this celebration.  In any case, most people who celebrate don't make any connection to "Saint Death," unless they are already followers.  ( Click here to read more about the Day of the Dead)

Most people who worship or adore Saint Death do so in secret. For this reason, I've seen very few people with their little figures.  I have seen some in buses or taxis.  As noted above, the open following of Saint Death is becoming more common.

A "Natural Store" Selling a Bazaar (but common) Combination of Items
One very strange feature of these figures is that they are sold in "Health Food Stores" - "Tiendas Naturistas."  These stores are not like the vegan hippie shops up in Canada or the U.S.  They don't sell TVP, soy-milk, natural peanut butter or quinoa; in Mexico, quinoa is sold as a candy rather than a health food. Rather they sell a supply of natural remedies (tree barks, leaves, seeds, etc.), along side ingredients for common spiritualism (or "witch craft" if you like,) superstitious objects (like the anti-curse-of-the-eye "deer's eye" bracelets), items for the Day of the Dead (when in season), Catholic icons and images, and Saint Death statues.   This very strange mix also makes the confusions mentioned above difficult to unravel, and strengthens the perceived connection between all of these things in the eye of the common public; thus my emphasis on the lack of a real bilateral connection between Saint Death and anything else found in those stores, except perhaps the superstition items; I don't believe, that most of its adherents even practice any sort of witch craft, although I could be wrong.

This is one of those Mexican things closely tied to superstition, and verging on being its own brand of spiritualism; it probably hits rock-bottom on the list of Mexican cultural features I would actually want to participate in.  Although it would be pretty hard to convince me to put one of those evil-eye bracelets on my child as well, I could see myself buying one of the bracelets just as a specimen to show people (not to use); on the other hand, I don't think I could find a place in all my curiosity for a Saint Death figure, even as a specimen.  It is, however, a very interesting and unique cultural phenomenon.

What I've written here is based primarily my personal experience, and is, for that reason, quite incomplete. For more in-depth and better researched information, see Arturo Vasquez's posts in his blog "Reditus":

For information about "San La Muerte" in Argentina, read:

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