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Why Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde Are Not Just “Narco Saints”

art folk catholicism folk religion jesus malverde latin american culture narco saints santisima muerte

I can’t count the number of references I’ve seen over the past 15 or so years to Santa Muerte being a “narco saint,” with the implication (or even the straight-up assertion) that she’s a saint for drug dealers, boom, like that’s the whole picture. This kind of statement is incredibly reductionist and oversimplified. It ignores nuance, never mind facts, and it betrays a lack of respect for the (sub)culture(s) from which she springs and a total lack of concern for understanding folk religion – in Mexico or in general.

Seriously, it’s insulting and dismissive even if you *are* a drug dealer. It would be reductionist even if it were true that only those associated with the drug trade in Mexico venerate this folk saint. That it’s not even true just makes all that rhetoric exhausting (and those who uncritically repeat it lazy).

Even though this interview in Vice is called “Narco-Saints Are Melding Catholicism with the Drug Trade in Mexico,” it’s not one of those pieces that just focuses on the narco saint argument. That might have been where the journalist (or the editors) started out, but it’s a little better than the title would suggest.

It’s a very readable interview with a professor of World Arts & Cultures at UCLA, and the occasion is an exhibit he curated in 2014 called Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners. The journalist might not start out sounding like all that much, but he makes a really astute observation in here towards the beginning:

When you say researcher, I’m thinking not just people like you who are doing historical research but people who are, you know, researching their own lives through religion.

– Jules Suzdaltsev

They don’t pause and unpack that — “researching their own lives through religion” — but boy, I wish they had. I’ll have to file it away for now until I have time to expand on it, but it definitely ties into my ongoing attempts to articulate this stuff about narrative and personal mythology and why it’s so critical — not just for personal spiritual practice but for what I can only think to call “psychic wholeness” at this exact second. (If that doesn’t make sense yet, sorry – I’m working on it! Gradually!)

Anyway, this is not the first or the best piece to look at some of the nuances of vernacular religion or popular piety in Mexico or more generally, and in fact it doesn’t have a lot of depth at all, tbh. But if you don’t know what any of this stuff is even about, it might be worth a look as a very accessible, non-technical (albeit bite-sized) introduction. And even if you do already know what all of this is about, it features some really cool artwork so it still might be worth a look.

I’m especially a fan of Edgar Clement’s La Trinca. Let’s see if this embed feature will work.

Editing to add:

I didn’t go into Jesus Malverde at all here – I kinda ran out of time – so my title ended up being inadvertently misleading. Here’s a pretty decent news piece from 2019 at the Courier Journal on how Jesus Malverde figured in a couple’s drug trial. The piece directly tackles the question of who venerates Jesus Malverde, why, and whether the stereotypes are fair.

Hopefully this goes a tiny way towards fixing my “false advertising” with the post title – sorry about that!


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