Santa Muerte is the fastest growing religion in the Americas, said Andrew Chestnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, in a lecture on Wednesday.
Santa Muerte is the Mexican folk saint of death. Folk saints primarily include Hispanic women who were considered miracle workers during their lives but were not officially canonized by the Catholic Church.
“Latin America is very strange in that it is the most Catholic region on Earth … but somehow the 10,000 Catholic saints weren’t enough for Latin America,” Chestnut said. “So in a void of … people who resonate better with Latin Americans, they created folk saints.”
Followers of Santa Muerte have broken off from the Catholic Church to create their own religion as the Catholic Church continuously condemns the folk saint, Santa Muerte, since it doesn’t align with their beliefs.
The majority of Santa Muerte followers are from the working class, and the religion has attracted more marginalized groups, contributing to its growing following, Chestnut said.
“She has become known as a multifaceted, multitasking miracle worker,” Chestnut said. “One of the advantages she has over Catholic saints is that she doesn’t specialize in one aspect. Santa Muerte does it all.”
Santa Muerte has also become associated with organized crime. Chestnut said the first time Santa Muerte was reported in the media was following the death of UT student, Mark Kilroy, in 1989. Kilroy was kidnapped from South Padre Island during spring break and used as a human sacrifice in Mexico.
“It is true that she has become the preferred religious deity for Mexican cartel members, because if you’re a cartel member you’re scraping by death,” Chestnut said. “So who better to ask for more time alive than death herself?”
Jennifer Graber, associate professor of religious studies and organizer of the lecture, said she wants people to look beyond the sensationalized reports of Santa Muerte.
“It’s such a fast-growing movement, yet so few people outside of the religion understand what it is,” Graber said.
Gabriela Kane, Latin American studies graduate student, attended the lecture wearing a Santa Muerte shirt. Kane said she is fascinated with death and Santa Muerte.
“Embracing death is something that is unique to the worship of Santa Muerte,” Kane said. “Santa Muerte offers love, but it’s a different type of love than most religions.”