Spreading Knowledge: Santa Muerte as Religion

Mexico Holy Week

Santa Muerte Visibility

My research focuses on Mexican female sex workers’ Santa Muerte veneration. Why does Mexico’s underclass embrace this skeletal female figure as patron saint? How did this religion spread from Mexico City to the Borderlands? To US?  One important aspect about the Santa Muerte religion is the way it emulates Catholicism. Devotees attend mass, pray, and worship other Catholic deities and Jesus Christ. Why does the Catholic Church condemn Santa Muerte Devotion as blasphemous? These questions are addressed in my final paper, but it is important to highlight the transnational aspects of this religion. The commercialization and migration route of La Santa furthers the spiritual (private) worship of this Saint, which has evolved into religious (public) worship. It is through this migration that the new Santa Muerte religion has captivated the minds of U.S. law enforcement, scholars, and magazine publishers.

Meanings and Cultural Significance

La Santa Muerte signifies liberation for Mexico’s poor. She has become a symbol of equality for the people who live in danger zones, such as the Borderlands. In the documentary Whore’s Glory, female sex workers obtain protection from violence and harassment through Saint Death’s intervention. She has the power to enact revenge onto those who do harm. Through verbal invocations of magic prayers, men and women seeking her favor make physical material offerings. Some believe that Santa Muerte originated as an underground hybrid religion that incorporated Pre-Hispanic Gods and Spanish elements. In particular the skeletal aspect of the image of Saint Death is reminiscent of the Aztec Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Dead. Her role in love magic was imported from Spain, where “sorceresses” would use the “power of words” to seduce men into marriage; only through marriage could a Spanish woman gain value in society. Because of the Catholic Church’s active pursuit of religious “others” during colonial times, there was no freedom to practice Native and alternate spiritualities publicly.  The new revival of Santa Muerte cult incorporates spiritual elements from African and Pre-Hispanic religions. Santa Muerte emerged from the impoverished crime streets of Mexico City’s urban ghetto El Barrio de Tepito. This impoverished neighborhood is synonymous with Mexico City’s black market of drugs and counterfeit goods. It is recognized that it was here that a woman decided to make her worship of La Santa public by making a shrine outside her home. The enduring religion continues to grow, despite condemnation by the Mexican Catholic Church. The feminine characteristics of La Santa, reshape Mexican female identity as not a passive motherhood, but an active livelihood in search of survival.

U.S. Criminilization-Reinforces Mexican Government

Because of the increased public visibility of La Santa Muerte, through commercialization and migration there seems to be an accompanying social anxiety by U.S. and Mexican Law Enforcement in attaching murder as an influence of the cult. The Mexican Government declared a war against La Santa by ordering soldiers to destroy public shrines along U.S.-Mexico border. In characterizing a social profile for drug traffickers, U.S. law enforcement has portrayed Santa Muerte worship as criminally affiliated. The U.S. media has helped publicize this figure as dangerous and anti-Christian through various news articles that link Santa Muerte and criminal intent with Mexican followership. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin features “Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings” by Robert J. Bunker, Ph.D. , a report on the potential influences of the religious cult on the illegal drug trade murders (Bunker, 2013). The implications of this report for Santa Muerte followers in the U.S. are clearly in alignment with those of the Mexican government and Catholic Church. Because the Santa Muerte religion is not organized and lacks a central leader, it becomes an easy target for Mexican and US authorities. Government leaders and officials use Santa Muerte as a way to ignore structural issues responsible for the thousands of Mexican killings and deaths.


The Catholic Church’s influence on same-sex marriage debates

In the United States, there are 38 states which have banned same-sex marriage and 6 states that allow civil unions, but not marriage. This means that there are merely 12 states that recognize same-sex marriage in the United States. It is evident that a great majority of citizens of the United States are invested in creating a homophobic atmosphere within the United States. 

While the issue of same-sex marriage remains extremely controversial in modern politics, there are many factors that can influence an individual’s public opinion of certain proposed laws and policies. Such factors include the religion and the culture of the individual, as these aspects help to construct one’s identity in his or her own community. From the very beginning of the same-sex marriage proposals, religious groups, such as the Catholic Church, have persistently opposed these same-sex marriage bills on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The Catholic Church is one such example of a kind of religious institution which maintains a great sphere of influence. The Catholic Church has gained immense political power to influence its members in their political issues, as well as their personal beliefs. The Catholic Church has been notorious for its political stance against homosexuality, using quotes from the Bible as the source of reason behind this opposition. According to Leviticus 20:13, “If a man also shall lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them”. This clearly homophobic quote is used by modern Catholics to condemn homosexuals and to refuse the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Furthermore, surveys offer a source of statistics that can help to define the cause for this unwillingness to support same-sex marriage in the United States. A survey conducted in 2003 by the Pew Research Center indicates that while approximately “59% of Americans oppose and 32% favor same-sex marriage…that ratio jumps to more than six-to-one (80% to 12%)” for individuals with “high levels of religious commitment” (Schuman, 2108). This study suggests that individuals with a more religious background tend to oppose same-sex marriage proposals. This statistic indicates that the Catholic Church does in fact possess a political influence on its members.

In 2001, it was estimated that approximately 76.5% of Americans identified as “Christian, including over 50 million Catholics and over 33 million Baptists”. With their sphere of influence reaching more than 50 million Americans, the Catholic Church retains a large portion of the voting population.

Similarly to the dehumanization of the natives by the Europeans, the Catholic Church has condemned homosexuals as extremely sinful individuals who blatantly rebel against the word of God. In Leviticus 20:13, the Bible illustrates homosexuality as sinful and claims that “[homosexuals] shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them”. This blatantly violent image suggests the right of Christians to put a man “to death” if the individual engages in homosexual acts.

Ultimately the Catholic Church, along with other religious groups, retains the power that allows them to impose a sphere of influence on the political beliefs of their congregation members. Although the United States has twelve states that have legalized same-sex marriage, there are thirty-eight more states that do not recognize the legality of same-sex marriage.  With a transnational perspective, it’s obvious that despite the strong religious presence and the Catholic Church’s stance on same-sex marriage, Argentina has been able to adapt to modern issues and allow the passage of same-sex marriage. While the United States could learn from Argentina’s example, it encompasses an entirely different religious and cultural setting which makes simply copying Argentina unlikely.

I told my small discussion group I’d post this but I would recommend it to anyone. Its pretty interesting and relatively short

Response to Link Between Same-Sex Marriage and Immigration

Response to Link Between Same-Sex Marriage and Immigration


My main motivation to attain an education has been to become an immigration lawyer one day to help those that are discriminated and underrepresented because of their legal status. Before the course, I had never thought about the intersection between immigration and the lgbt community.  People who are both queer and undocumented are almost invisibilized within the national discussion of the issue.  The truth is that there is no legal path for them to legalize their status in the country. Same-sex marriage continues being a major national debate with no clear end.

I found Julio Salgado’s work not only amazing, but also inspiring that he is not afraid to express what it means to be an undocumented queer of color.  My favorite image is the one of the male with the butterfly wings for multiple reasons. The most obvious are the variety of colors used. The words written on the wings are not only strong, but also in both English and Spanish. I also liked that the characters body figure is very realistic as opposed to the typical Abercrombie and Fitch model. Salgado’s paintings challenge many different issues at the same time, which I just find fascinating.

Furthermore, the short interview video with him is not only insightful, but also very educational. I learned what “gold star” means in the lgbt community –somebody that has not had sexual contact with a person of the opposite sex. My favorite part of the video is when Salgado says “You cant eat your undocumented cake and deport it at the same time” because it is a reality that the nation faces.  The United States government and society at large benefit from the labor of immigrants, yet they are alienated and framed as not belonging here and interfering with the “American way of life”. When in reality they only contribute to facilitating it for very cheap.

Re: It’s Free! Swipe Yo EBT Music Video

This video reinforces the stereotypical imagery attached to the receipt of government assistance. The “welfare queen” makes a comeback in this music video spoof/right-wing propaganda. The fact that the main character/singer/video producer is a colored woman should not add any legitimacy to the oversimplistic portrayal of California’s African American communities. The Tea Party has embraced Chapter Jackson’s simplistic work as “gospel” and evidence of the detrimental effects of government assistance on the Black community. The characterization of African American females as unfit mothers via alcohol and drug abuse is nothing new in popular culture and mass media. From Halle Barry’s portrayal of a drug addicted careless mother in Losing Isaiah and the “Black crack babies” news media frenzy, to Mo’nique’s recent portrayal of “Mary Lee Johnston” in Precious, it is clear that the colonial legacies of real “motherhood” continue to be a constructed in opposition to the Black female. Chapter’s lyrics–“All you have to do is fuck and nine months later you’re in the big bucks” construct “Black motherhood and sexuality” as an easy way to obtain government assistance and monetary gain. By portraying promiscuity, drug/alcohol abuse, fast food consumption as facilitated by EBT use, the video perpetuates a self-imposed “culture of poverty” through misuse of government resources.




Generating Discussion: The Shifting Boundaries of Mexican Sexualities and the Push for Sexual Diversity



Cantu’s ethnographic research focused on explaining the development of gay and lesbian tourism in Mexico and its effects on the construction of Mexican sexual identities. By examining the political economy of sex labor and its subjectivity of Mexican homosexual identities, he characterizes the contradictions of Mexican “queer” tourism.  The fabricated transnational “queer” space and the pursuit of a genuine sexual freedom are driving the political empowerment of marginalized sexual communities. In other words, the establishment of sex markets in Mexico encouraged the expansion of sexual identities, which resulted in a more open and public view of homosexuality. Ironically, Mexico’s sex tourism is highly dependent on the influx of U.S. travelers, which influences the alignment of native sexualities to fit U.S. mainstream sexual identities. The asymmetrical economic interdependence between U.S. and Mexico forges new Mexican “queer” identities. Since Mexican sexualities are negotiated through merging sexual markets, organization and public visibility of a politicized transnational “gay” identity is reproduced.


The “de ambiente”  helps promote an authentic notion of Mexican “queerness”  through cultural expression. Cantu argues that culture is birthed through social economic processes, which explains the appropriation of the symbolic phrase. The term “de ambiente” means “of ambience” and it promotes a lifestyle that creates a fun, comfortable, entertaining atmosphere; this epitomized group identity is clearly aligned with the service oriented sexual labor force. Cantu explains how dominant repressive sexual ideologies historically constructed homosexuality in relation the non-normative “gendered roles performed in the sexual act” (p.141). This construction of homosexuality based on notions of passivity and “otherness” derives from the National “macho identity”, which perpetuated the subjectivity of feminized bodies. Because of the gender inequality that structures Mexico’s social and political sphere, bisexual activities privilege the active male. US “gay” identity cannot fully be reproduced in Mexico because of the socio-economic barriers embedded in the social structure. Yet, recent economic forces and the re-organization of urban space have provided opportunities for new alternative sexual identities that challenge and reconstruct Mexico’s monolithic and iconic male identities.


Cantu cites Ian Lumsden’s Homosexuality, Society, and the State in Mexico to delineate three forces that are responsible forthe social construction  and  policing of homosexuality in Mexico: 1) The struggle for maintenance of traditional Mexican sex-gender identities versus the creation of new identities linked to intensified sexual commodification as part of the growing sex tourism economy. 

2) The consumption of American popular culture by Mexican youth –through mass media communication, technological literacy, and foreign financial investment-including transnational business developments.

3) The affiliation and connection with the U.S. Latino community that reside in the Southwestern border states.


Mexico’s economic realignment compliments the U.S. capitalist system. Cantu argues that as result of international trade  policy adoption, such as GATT and NAFTA, the economic links between the U.S. and Mexico have established a strong bi-lateral market interdependency that overrides the  transnational social and cultural problems related to the asymmetric power relationship between U.S. citizens and Mexican nationals. This problematizes the sovereignty of Mexico as an autonomous entity because monetary priorities take the center stage in political discourses. The maintenance of political, social, and cultural ties with the U.S. further complicates the link between sexual identities and the tourism industry; this results in expanding the cultural export of National Mexican sexual identity.


Cantu’s analysis of the Borderlands as a post-modern reconstruction of colonial sexual dominance situate the U.S.-Mexican border as both a physical and ideological location that reinforces unequal politics of gender and sexuality. The subjective attributions of “homosexual” branding on male bodies actively serves as a barrier to migration and mobility up “North” of the border. Ironically, it is through migration and migration routes that sexual norms, behaviors, and identity among Mexican men and women are re-framed into identities that promise political empowerment through the economic benefits of “queer tourism”. Mexico’s  urbanization and the development of tourism industry were successful in mobilizing labor, which led to the development of gay and lesbian communities and of queer tourism. Cantu identifies the creation, commercialization of Mexican “gay” culture in public spheres, and the emerging “gay and lesbian” movement as important factors in the country’s engagement with queer tourism. Based on the historical establishment of red light districts in Mexico as national efforts to urbanize the country during the postrevolutionary period, Cantu argues that the tension of deviant sexual identification and labor was managed through the symbolic social distance represented by zonas de tolerancia. These “zones of tolerance” allowed for the maintenance of socially marginalized identities, while simultaneously leading to economic gains for Mexico. The U.S. was also able to profit from the establishment of “red light districts” located on the U.S. -Mexico border.


 The active resistance to incompatible sexual identity labels is visible in the increased political activism, which denies the image of a depoliticized, submissive, and passive homosexual male. Through a transnational appropriation and re-imagination of the U.S. “gay” identity, Mexican self identification of  “gai” aligns  political agency through the adoption of a highly visible identity. There is also a sense of resentment on behalf of an older, privileged Mexican homosexual generation, who reminisce of a time when the expression of sexuality was a private affair, maintained through underground networking. Although it is clear that “gay” tourism has democratized homosexuality as a universal identity, it is important to note that in a Mexican context homosexuality is stratified through race and social class.


Cantu’s analysis raises important questions about the legitimacy of Mexico’s “queer” tourism in relation to the local communities and businesses. To what extent are Mexican “gay and lesbian” businesses involved in the political activism for equal rights and sexual diversity?


Generating Discussion: Gay Circuits of Tourism

Jasbir Puar’s article “Circuits of Queer Mobility Tourism, Travel, and Globalization” began the huge task of theorizing queer tourism in an increasingly globalized post-colonial world. The article began with a story about a 1998 gay cruise that attempted to land in the Cayman Islands and was denied. The denial of the gay cruise ship-docking lead to condemnation of the Cayman government by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the United States’ President. For Puar, such an incident opened up many questions around queer tourism. In her article Puar discusses how at the time of publication not much was written about gay tourism. The few articles written were mainly from the British academy, and they all focused on a European gay subject. In order to counteract what’s been written already Puar mapped the current gay tourism industry mainly by looking at industry statistics of gay and lesbian couples and their income, and also by doing field research at two gay travel conventions held in San Francisco and New York City.

Within the article the consumption patterns of queers from the West are examined, specifically the various types of queer consumption that happens during these cruises. For instance within her article she talks about how there are different types of tourists from sex tourists who are looking to hook-up with natives to the activist tourists who want to meet local queer communities. In particular she discusses how there are three shifts happening with the queer tourist industry. The first is that gays and lesbians are no longer having to market themselves to travel agencies because through market research companies are starting to believe that gays and lesbians are profitable to market to. The second point is that vying for gays to visit places is happening less and less by the travel industry and more by nation states and providences. Lastly gays are starting to demand tourist locations outside of the West.

Puar also critiques the statistics that marketing companies come up with because of data gathering means which come in the form of surveys given to gay magazine readers. For her decentering the affluent gay magazine readers and their wants in traveling are also important. Puar raises the important question of what other types of queer tourists are there, for example what about people who use tourism to get access to affordable sex reassignment surgery, cross-dressing holidays, and women’s music festivals? Puar then goes on to also challenge the viewing of space as predominantly heterosexual and to challenge the idea that gay tourism allows the upsetting of heterosexual space. For her she sees such an argument as lacking the disruptions of gender, race, and class that gay tourism might also face.

Questions about who gets affected by gay tourism is also looked at in the article when Puar discusses how many times queers of colors aren’t included in gay travel literature, but rather are portrayed as the natives. In what Puar quotes as an example of imperial nostalgia she talks about the binary that Western queer tourists buy into that includes the queer modern and primitive native. The pull to attract Western gay tourists has also led to the reimaging of various nations’ history to include queerness to some degree. Such tourism can also be seen in tours marketed to queers of color who can go and tour the “motherland” from where they originated and learn about their native cultures.

For Puar all of these consumptive practices of queers from the West need to be evaluated by understanding who is doing the serving in these economies of tourism. What are the conditions like not just for the gay consumer, but also the service workers who experience exploitation at the hands of such tourist ventures? While posing more questions than answers this piece seems to serve as an article that attempts to tantalize its readers about the under theorized nature of queer tourism in the hopes of enticing more people to research and theorize about it.

For me this article relates directly to my research project in the class that looks at an LGBT travelogue project that followed a lesbian couple around the “developing world” to discover the leaders of a global gay rights movement. From reading the blogs and watching footage of the couple’s travelogue I’ve come to realize the complexities that queer tourism has especially when the couple that embarked to make the travelogue are bi-racial and both raised in San Francisco. The trailer attached below has themes that hark back to Puar’s idea of a cosmopolitan gay elite who can travel across borders easier than queers who are attempting to do so for work.

The questions I want to raise around the article are as follow:

— Do you think queer tourism, especially to countries whose major income is tied to their tourism industry, will create an imperialistic relation between the mainly Western tourists who are desiring to go to non-European tourist locations and the countries they visit?

— Jasbir Puar argues in her article that the myth of the wealthy gay and lesbian cosmopolitan citizen is what drew these tourist companies to originally attempt to tap into the “gay” market, but as Puar stated many times lesbians make less than their heterosexual and gay counterpart couples because of sexism in the workforce. How does this along with the existence of non-wealthy queers complicate ideas of queer folks being a golden “recession-proof” population to market to?