Some places are inaccessible in the academic world. Or perhaps invisible. I couldn’t help but have Santa Muerte on my mind as I visited the Phoenix/Tempe area of Arizona. I knew from reading Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death that the skeleton saint has a large following in that area. Having been raised in a working class religion in a blue-collar household, I also knew that such trappings might not be entirely visible around a university setting. Arizona State is a huge school and my minimal free time on the trip only permitted a wander-radius of a couple blocks from around the campus. Many universities are, because of their property-value-lowering non-profit status, on the edge of sketchy neighborhoods where work-a-day people live. It didn’t seem that way in Tempe. The areas I reached all seemed to have that adobe-solid middle-class feel to them. Not that I go looking for seedy neighborhoods when I’m traveling by myself, but I do like to see stores that aren’t part of a chain, and to get a sense of local culture. For most academics, the pedestrian devotion to Santa Muerte is below the radar.
The concept has haunted me ever since reading Chestnut’s study—why would people find appealing to death attractive? Santa Muerte has the trappings of a Catholic saint, but she is, plainly put, death personified. She is a favorite among drug lords and criminals, and that is somewhat understandable. Her Hispanic devotees, I realize, often live lives of desperate poverty. The well-heeled saints of conventional religion might not be able to see things from their perspective. Although the Catholic Church continues to make saints, many of the traditional saints predate capitalism. Capitalism creates its own insidious disenfranchisement. I realized this already as a child growing up in a setting where just about everybody I knew had it better than my family did. For some to prosper, others must suffer in such a system. I knew which end I belonged on.
As in my visits to Santa Barbara (a much more conventional saint, by the way), Austin and Houston, in Tempe the Hispanic population was evident mostly in the menial labor sector. The person who makes your hotel bed or brings the hot plate of food to you in the restaurant. The person who mops up your spills or picks up your trash. And they are the ones who’ve made it into the earning bracket of the minimum wage. Why not worship personified death? Does not Santa Muerte remind them that we all face the same rictus grin at the end of our days? Isn’t it best to be on good terms before we reach that inevitable place? It was clear that on my visit I wasn’t going to be able to get far enough from prosperity to see the skeleton saint myself. At Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, waiting for my 11:30 p.m. flight back to cloudy skies, all the shops were closed. I passed by a boutique with local art, and there I possibly glimpsed her. A small statuette, possibly just the grim reaper, among other Day of the Dead motifs. Was it inspired by Santa Muerte? I would never know, I pondered, as the Hispanic airport attendants, still at work around me, were busy emptying the garbage.