Already under fire for sensationalism and a lack of sensitivity in his CNN series “Believer,” Dr. Reza Aslan adds insult to injury in basing his trailer for the upcoming episode on Santa Muerte almost entirely on my published research and media interviews. His appropriation of my research without attribution is both surprising and galling after having told me in a recent e-mail “I can guarantee you there is nothing unique or proprietary about your knowledge of the religion.”
My book, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, is the first and only academic study in English on what is now the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas (a fact Aslan lifted from me). I will show how almost all of Aslan’s major points in the trailer are taken from either the pages of my book or the myriad media interviews I’ve given since it was published by Oxford University Press in 2012.
Santa Muerte as an icon for those left behind by the Church and those who could die at any minute - In a recent Daily Beast article based on I talk a gave at Atlas Obscura in New York City I was quoted saying...
“Today, many who follow her consider themselves Catholics (to the chagrin of the Catholic Church, who has condemned this impostor saint as satanic). But with particular devotion to Santa Muerte, they find a religion and holy figure that is accepting of all. Death doesn’t discriminate, so, naturally, neither does its leader.”
Citing my lecture, the author continued, “Because of this inclusivity, the Cult of Santa Muerte has found particular popularity among fringe groups: the LGBT community, sex workers, the drug cartels, even young millennials (OK, their fringe status is just in their heads).”
On Santa Muerte’s appeal to those who could die at any moment I’ve been quoted in many news stories over the past years, most recently in an interview with Catholic News Agency. “Paradoxically, a lot of devotees who feel like death could be just around the corner - maybe they’re narcos, maybe they work in the street, maybe they’re security guards who might be gunned down - they ask Santa Muerte for protection.”
Santa Muerte is a syncretistic religion. The index of my book lists “syncretism” being referenced no less than eleven times throughout the text, including “...now the Church is compelled to compete for Mexican souls with a heretical folk saint that is a medieval-ish byproduct of indigenous interpretations of Catholicism and syncretism with native religious practices and more recently with African-Cuban Santeria. (pp. 113-14).
“Little Old Ladies” Venerating Santa Muerte in Secret. In the section titled “Death to Him” in Chapter 1 of my book I write of “... groups of women dressed in black kneeling before an altar of the skeleton saint, clutching lighted candles, chanting in unison prayers for domination of the men in their lives. With cries of ‘Most Holy Death, torture him, mortify him,’ the female devotees sought to enlist the supernatural aid of the Powerful Lady, who they hoped could help them assert control over their errant husbands and boyfriends. (pp. 33-4)”
Special appeal to those ostracized by the Church, especially criminals and LGBT folks. I have an entire book chapter, “Black Candle: Protection and Harm” devoted to explaining the skeleton saint’s popularity among criminals, especially Mexican narcos, such as the cartel assassin known as the “Stewmaker” (el pozolero) for having purportedly murdered some 300 men by dissolving them in vats of acid (p. 98).
In terms of her great appeal to LGBT folks on both sides of the border, I have written an entire article “Sex and Death: Santa Muerte’s Strong LGBT Following,” been quoted in numerous interviews, such as this one with NBC News, and make numerous references in my book, including the performing of same-sex marriages by self-proclaimed Santa Muerte “archbishop” David Romo (p. 114).
Santa Muerte is the fastest growing folk religion in the Americas. While there is no hard data on the growth of this dynamic new religious movement, I was the first scholar or journalist to make this assertion, based on eight years of research. One of the first times I was quoted making this statement and adding an estimate of some 10 to 12 million devotees in North and Central America was in this 2014 Vice piece. Since then it’s been repeated and recycled in numerous articles on Saint Death.
In short, Dr. Aslan’s trailer for his “Believer” episode on Santa Muerte is essentially an abbreviated narration of some of my major research findings. I can only imagine how the episode itself appropriates the past eight years of my scholarship on the Bony Lady.