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.


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?


Whore’s Glory and the State-Sanctioned Brothels of the Borderlands


Whether we use the words “sex worker” or” prostitute”, the implications are the same for the women who are categorized by these terms because of their labor. Sex workers inhabit taboo worlds where contradictions of deviant social behavior and religious constraints converge to forge identities; they must navigate through male sexual dominance and the scrutiny of an all-encompassing religious community that shuns their important function in the grand scheme of things.


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Whore’s Glory: A Global Red Light District Overview

In the new globalized world, prostitution and sex slavery has evolved into a billion dollar industry. A recent documentary by Austrian director Michael Glawogger Whore’s Glory attempts to open up a dialogue about the transnational reflections of female sex workers. The film showcases three international locations that have legal red light districts and how the male public sphere cultivates these zones as being essential to their sexual needs. The locations include Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico. After thinking about the section that focused on the work conditions endured by Mexican prostitutes near the U.S.-Mexican border, I realized that most of the women displayed a sense of control over their clients and lives. How can we reconcile instances of sexual freedom through the commodification of sex? Prostitution is universal, highly gendered, and complex. After watching Whore’s Glory, I was intrigued to better understand the working conditions of sex trade workers in red light districts. The director of the film is able to frame both the benefits and dangers of life within the districts without imposing judgements. Each country has its own  social and cultural norms, which dictate the interactions between the service provider and clientele.


Does legalization of prostitution improve the lives of sex workers?

How do red light districts operate?

Who stands to gain from legalization of prostitution?

What are the socio-economic factors that contribute to the legalization of prostitution? 

Director’s comments on the film.

An article about the dark side of prostitution.

An article about the benefits of legalizing prostitution.

An article about female oppression and prostitution. Image