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  • La Santa Muerte: A Folk Saint in Texas by Charlie Lockwood, Cristina Ballí
  • Heather Joseph-Witham
La Santa Muerte: A Folk Saint in Texas. 2017. By Charlie Lockwood and Cristina Ballí. 23 min. DVD format. (Texas Folklife, Austin, TX.)

La Santa Muerte: A Folk Saint in Texas is a short documentary film that provides an in-depth perspective on the rise of the La Santa Muerte, Saint Death, or Holy Death figure in Texas. There have been numerous news reports and YouTube videos regarding the phenomenon, and this film certainly answers a need for a more analytical perspective on this figure. The film also highlights how people possess incredibly contradictory perspectives about controversial figures like Holy Death. In the documentary, the Santa Muerte figure is examined as a folk saint, an object of Satanism, and a supernatural helper—monikers that are held and believed by different people, illustrating the discrepancy of perception.

The filmmakers chose their experts well; all have tremendous and differing insight into aspects of La Santa Muerte worship. A key voice is R. Andrew Chesnut, a Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in Latin American Religion and is the author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press, 2001). He notes that folk saints exist because people believe in them, yet they are not canonized. He explains that followers are proliferating in Texas among Mexican immigrants, due additionally to the increasing conversion of people of many ethnic heritages and professions. Chesnut makes two very compelling points about believers. The first is that two of the most important figures in Mexican American culture are female: Holy Death and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Secondly, he asserts that Santa Muerte is appealing to those who worry or believe that death is coming for them soon, which is so universal that the magnetism of the figure will likely grow. Another expert consulted is Malgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, Professor of Hispanic Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio, author of Fierce Feminine Divinities of Eurasia and Latin America: Baba Yaga, Kālī, Pombagira, and Santa Muerte (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She views these divinities as demonized goddesses, connecting death and female power, sex, and rage. While many see these figures as diabolical, she calls La Santa Muerte “a saint of last resorts.” A figure “that is asked for things that an official saint cannot be asked for,” La Santa Muerte has particular appeal to outsiders and people living in marginal situations. Oleszkiewicz-Peralba also discusses how government institutions hold disdain for this worship as devotees often escape official channels of control.

Differing opinions are also presented in the film. Marisela Guevara, who is a curandero or traditional healer, views Santa Muerte as strong, beautiful, and useful to her clientele who have specific requests. Priscilla Murr, a Jungian psychoanalyst and author, states: “I do feel it’s very positive, and I feel it’s positive because it puts people in touch with a transcendent energy which includes both the dark and the light and it is very energizing for them.” She opines that people must find their own ways to believe and express their spirituality. Beliefs about the Santa Muerte focus on humanity, life, and death.

A final perspective on Santa Muerte worship is from the Most Rev. Michael D. Pfeifer, O.M.I. Bishop Emeritus, who states: “Santa Muerte is not holy. It’s all about promoting Satanism, it’s a cult, it’s been condemned by the church, just recently.” He is concerned with how strong Santa Muerte is, particularly near the border. He believes that the saint makes “something evil look good.” Pfeifer sees the skeleton, often dressed in mantles similar to those of Mother Mary, as a corruption of both religion and culture, which he perceives as a negative influence [End Page 123] on those who believe that their devotion protects them.

This documentary relies heavily on fieldwork and interview materials, and all of the informants are knowledgeable and engaging. News reports where worshipping activities occur provide additional information. Often, the media views Santa Muerte worship as “strange beliefs from a distant land” that are tied to...


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