A black candle next to a figurine
Santa Muerte's visage, typically depicted in symbolic votive candles (red for love, gold for prosperity, purple for healing), has been in such high demand as a symbol of healing during the pandemic that sellers in religious goods stores in Mexico have created candles like this one (left, next to a small statue of Santa Muerte) in a new color — a deep shade of mauve — specifically for coronavirus healing.

Scholar says Santa Muerte, 'the newest plague saint,' has been a beacon of hope during COVID-19

Santa Muerte, ‘the fastest-growing new religious movement in the Americas’ with an estimated 12 million followers, has grown in popularity during the pandemic, says VCU professor and author of ‘Devoted to Death.’

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A nurse caring for older adults with COVID-19 in Veracruz, Mexico, credits a gold Santa Muerte medallion — worn as part of her faith in the Skeleton Saint — with keeping her safe from COVID-19 throughout 2020, when resources were scarce and vaccines nonexistent. It’s one of many stories Virginia Commonwealth University professor Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., has heard about folk saint Santa Muerte, whom he calls “the newest plague saint,” as a protector and healer among devotees in Mexico, the U.S., Central America and beyond.

Chesnut, who’s been studying Santa Muerte since 2009 and authored the 2012 book, “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint” (Oxford University Press), says the protectress of death’s international popularity even before the pandemic made it “the fastest-growing new religious movement in the Americas” — a trend that has riled the Catholic church, which denounces the worship of Santa Muerte “on an almost weekly basis in Mexico,” Chesnut said.

A portrait of Andrew Chesnut
Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D.

Chesnut co-authored an article in 2020 on Santa Muerte in the time of COVID-19 with Kate Kingsbury, D.Phil., of the University of British Columbia. As he continued to conduct research in Mexico this summer, Chesnut observed that the pandemic has accelerated the movement’s growth, particularly in places where access to health care has been limited. The icon’s visage, typically depicted in symbolic votive candles (red for love, gold for prosperity, purple for healing), has been in such high demand as a symbol of healing during the pandemic that sellers have created candles in a new color — a deep shade of mauve — specifically for coronavirus healing.

Chesnut, a professor of religious studies and the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies in the School of World Studies at VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, spoke with VCU News about Santa Muerte’s growing popularity during the pandemic and the effect it’s having on the religious landscape of the Americas.

What can you tell me about Santa Muerte as a religious following and faith during the pandemic?

Mexico, along with the United States, has been one of the countries hardest-hit by COVID-19. About half the country lives in poverty. So, as you might imagine, a lot of folks don’t have access to decent medical care. There is a national health system, but it only really covers maybe 15-20% of the population. And so, in that kind of void, the supernatural becomes an important source of healing and protection. 

As documented in “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” I have a whole chapter on Santa Muerte as a healer. Many folks look to her as a supernatural curandera, or healer. As paradoxical as that might seem — I mean, why are folks looking to Death for healing? — they believe that Santa Muerte as a representation or personification of death has power over life and death, so, who better to ask for a few more days, weeks, months, years in her hourglass of life that she holds than Holy Death herself?

We’ve interviewed scores of devotees and devotional leaders who feel like Santa Muerte either has protected them from getting COVID-19 or attenuated the effects when they’ve gotten it and has also acted as a major healing influence when they or their loved ones have gotten COVID-19.

In a recent talk hosted by Oxford University, you called Santa Muerte “the newest plague saint.” Tell me about plague saints and why Santa Muerte fits your definition of a plague saint.

So the Grim Reaper first emerges during the Black Plague, the bubonic plague of 14th century Europe, in which an estimated one-third of all Europeans — about 20 million people — go to an early grave. Death became so intimate because so many Europeans are dying so quick. That’s when artists first come up with the image, the personification of death in the form of a human skeleton with a monk’s robe and scythe. In addition to the figure of the Grim Reaper, in the Mediterranean Catholic countries — Spain, Italy, Portugal — there is the Grim Reapress, a female version.

But in addition, a couple of Catholic saints became plague saints, in that they became the favored saints to petition for protection from the plague. One of the main ones was Saint Sebastian. Saint Sebastian, if you’re familiar with his iconography, they usually show him being murdered. He was a Roman saint who was martyred and shot full of arrows. One of the main nicknames of Santa Muerte is Doña Sebastiana, which is derived from Saint Sebastian. Another major plague saint is Saint Roch, who is often depicted with open sores, and he also became a major saint of protection during the Black Plague.

My idea was: The newest plague saint, who provides protection and healing from COVID-19, is Santa Muerte. Her role very much is one of continuity with the Medieval Catholic plague saints of Sebastian and Roch.

What trends have you seen in terms of how faith in Santa Muerte and its associated iconography have changed during the pandemic?

Santa Muerte has all these different colored votive candles, and each color symbolizes a major theme of devotion to her: For example, red is for love and passion. Gold is for prosperity and abundance, and purple is the main color for healing. Yellow is specifically for overcoming addiction and substance use, and white is used as a multipurpose candle for healing as well.

Soon after the pandemic emerged in early 2020, they came out with a new specific Santa Muerte coronavirus votive candle that, where it’s sold in the botanicas down here in Mexico, has done very well. So, if you throw in the new coronavirus candle, there’s actually four different candles for healing, and that indicates the paramount importance of healing in her repertoire as a miracle-worker. There’s all kinds of prayers that have been invented for both protection and healing, invoking Santa Muerte for COVID-19 as well. 

Some of her most important miracle-working fronts, in addition to healing, are prosperity, abundance and protection, in the context of the ongoing narco-violence in Mexico. Since 2006, some 300,000 Mexicans have lost their lives — have been murdered, frankly — due to horrific narco-violence. Until Russia invaded Ukraine, the only country with more violent deaths in the entire world during this period was Syria. However, none of the other major themes in the cult has three candles like health and healing do, and now with coronavirus, we have four. 

When I started my research on Santa Muerte in 2009, I had no idea that faith-healing would be such an integral part of her popularity because who would imagine that this kind of fierce-looking Grim Reapress is petitioned for so many miracles and favors of health and healing? That was one of the great surprises of my research.

Are there any stories from your most recent research that are enlightening examples as to how devotees have been praying to Santa Muerte during the pandemic? What have you seen?

One of the most poignant stories that really sticks out is a frontline worker, a nurse from the Mexican state of Veracruz, who was attending to patients, older adults with COVID-19. And this was before the vaccinations had come out, and, of course, she wore all the proper masking and all the proper medical garb for it, but, you know, there was no vaccination at that point. So she would wear a gold Saint Death medallion as she went about her business caring for those who were ailing from COVID-19. She never came down with COVID-19, and she really felt like her faith in the Bony Lady (a popular nickname) and constantly wearing her gold medallion of the Skeleton Saint, while she attended to ailing COVID patients, was really what saved her.

There’s a fair number of Mexicans who believe that we all have a designated hour of our death, so she felt like, for many of these patients who were succumbing to COVID-19, it was because it was their time to go because God sets a certain day and hour for us all to expire. She used this very common Mexican expression; she said, ‘Cuando te toca, te toca’ which means, ‘When it’s your time to die, it’s your time to die.’ But she felt, because of her great faith and always faithfully wearing her gold medallion of the Skeleton Saint, that in a pre-vaccination COVID-19 world when it was so dangerous and so easy to catch the virus, she was saved by Holy Death.

Have you seen a lot of growth in Santa Muerte’s following during the pandemic?

Santa Muerte is the fastest-growing new religious movement in the Americas. I estimate there’s some 12 million devotees. The great majority of devotees have only become devotees since devotion went public in 2001. So I think devotion to her has only mushroomed during the pandemic as, again, so many Mexicans and a significant percentage of Americans and also Central Americans don’t have access to standard health care and so they look to the supernatural realm for that.

One would surmise that, during the pandemic, devotion to her has only grown. While there is no formal count of her following, we can partially measure the growth because she has a really robust presence on social media. Last time I counted a couple years ago, there were over 1,000 Facebook groups, including many for only English speakers. In fact, I curate one of the leading ones, and, every day, we have like seven or eight new people requesting membership. Some of these Mexican Facebook groups have 50,000-60,000 members. I think it’s fair to conclude that her devotion has only continued to grow.

Social media has really been an important part of the globalization of her devotion. There’s now devotees everywhere — Europe, Australia, Philippines, all over Latin America —in large part thanks to social media, where folks from across the planet share photos of their altars, ask for advice on devotional matters and more.

How has the Catholic church reacted to Santa Muerte’s growing popularity?

As the faith has spread into the U.S., the Archbishop of Santa Fe New Mexico and a couple Texas bishops have denounced Santa Muerte. Almost on a weekly basis in Mexico, some priest or some bishop will make a pronouncement rebuking Santa Muerte as satanic, basically, and that’s for two reasons.

First, with religious competition, most Mexican devotees will still tell you they’re Catholic. They don’t see any contradiction between worshiping a saint of death and also continuing their devotion to other Catholic saints. Maybe they don’t know that the church has condemned Santa Muerte; maybe they don’t care. But still, the great majority will tell you they’re Catholics. When you probe a little deeper, you find out that these folks are mostly more ‘cultural Catholics’ who don’t go to Mass on a regular basis, who really don’t participate in the institutional church. Nonetheless, the Church sees it as terrible competition, and the Church in Mexico and Latin America has already been losing millions of members to Pentecostal churches, and now you have this new heretical folk saint, who is wildly attractive to folks as well.

Second, there’s the theological rejection that, if Christ gave his life on the cross so that believers could have the possibility of eternal life, then what are you doing worshiping a figure of death? Because, in a way, the last enemy vanquished by Christ was death. And so, whether they realize that or not, how the Catholic Church sees it is devotees who are worshiping Death are really engaging in unintentional Satanism. So the rebukes and denunciations of Santa Muerte happen on a really regular basis in Mexico.

What implications does the trend of Santa Muerte being a plague saint have —from a religious perspective, from a media and pop culture perspective — in how Santa Muerte is portrayed?

My second book (“Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy”) I wrote on religious competition in Latin America. And, while the majority of Mexicans and Latin Americans still are Catholic, long gone are the days when the Catholic Church had a monopoly on religion and 98%, 99% of Mexicans, Argentines, Brazilians were Catholic. What you have today is a relatively free religious marketplace where different religious groups compete with the Catholic Church and compete with each other for the souls of Latin Americans. If you feel like the Catholic saints weren’t doing the job — particular Catholic saints, let’s say Saint Jude, who’s the patron of lost causes and is the most popular Catholic saint in Mexico and among Latinos and Latinas in the United States — now you have a new option who’s really not Catholic.

Pentecostals are big on faith-healing. And if you are not happy with the strict norms of behavior in Pentecostalism, in which you are not supposed to drink or smoke and women aren’t supposed to wear jewelry or cut their hair and such, Santa Muerte requires no type of behavior modification because she accepts everybody as they are. So, if you want to continue to lead your life as you are and you’re happy with it, but you really need protection from COVID-19 or narco-violence, then she’s the new saint on the block for that. So she’s the latest dynamic new religious option in the Mexican, Latin American and also the American religious marketplace.