Oct. 4, 2017
New documentary on the ‘Skeleton Saint’ features VCU expert Andrew Chesnut
Chesnut will host a screening of the documentary at VCU on Halloween.
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Virginia Commonwealth University religious studies professor R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., is featured in a new documentary about the fast growing devotion to Santa Muerte, a Mexican folk saint that personifies death and has an estimated 10 million to 12 million devotees.
Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and professor of religious studies in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is the foremost expert on Santa Muerte. He also is the author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint” (Oxford University Press, 2012), the first in-depth study of Santa Muerte in English. The book’s second edition was recently released.
The documentary, “Santa Muerte: A Folk Saint In Texas,” explores the rise of Santa Muerte worship in communities across Texas, and features the perspectives of devotees, scholars, the media, and members of the clergy about Santa Muerte’s controversial significance as a folk saint, its condemnation by the Catholic Church, the impact it has on religious freedom and the place it holds among censored female deities.
Chesnut said the documentary is a “superb” examination of the Skeleton Saint.
“The filmmakers approach Santa Muerte from many different angles, including the Catholic perspective, so viewers are left with a well informed and balanced perspective on Santa Muerte's appeal in Texas and beyond,” he said. “Texas has the second largest number of devotees behind California, so the focus on the Lone Star State is appropriate. Since I was at the University of Houston for 11 years before coming to VCU, I did some of the research for my book, ‘Devoted to Death,’ in the Bayou City.”
There are several factors behind the growing popularity of Santa Muerte, Chesnut said.
“Most importantly, the Mexican folk saint of death has quickly developed a reputation for being the speediest and most efficacious miracle-worker on the Mexican religious landscape, not to mention in the U.S. and Central America as well,” he said. “Unlike Catholic saints who tend to specialize in one or two types of miracles, Santa Muerte is a considered a powerful multi-tasker who delivers on petition of all sorts, but mostly related to health, wealth, and love.”
Additionally, he said, it is important to realize that devotion to Santa Muerte has grown amid a time of much death in Mexico.
So many devotees ask the skeleton saint for a few more grains of sand in her hourglass of life.
“With some 200,000 deaths over the past decade in the ongoing drug war, Mexico is surpassed only by Syria in the number of dead,” he said. “As the saint of death, Santa Muerte has a special appeal to those Mexicans and Central Americans who feel that the Grim Reapress could come for them at any time. So many devotees ask the skeleton saint for a few more grains of sand in her hourglass of life.”
“Finally, since death is the great equalizer, her reputation for accepting all devotees, regardless of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality is most appealing to people who've felt discriminated, especially LGBT folks, among whom she has a huge following,” he said.
The documentary was produced by Texas Folklife, a nonprofit organization in Austin, and was supported in part by Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division of the Economic Development Department.
The documentary is being screened this week in Austin and San Antonio, and Chesnut is being featured as part of panel discussions following the film.
At VCU, Chesnut will host a screening of the documentary on Halloween at 5:30 p.m. in room 1164 of the T. Edward Temple Building, 901 W. Main Street. The event will be free and open to the public, and costumes are encouraged.
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