Aug 25, 2022 - World

More alienated Latinos are turning to unofficial saints

Statues of Santa Muerte, Jesus Malverde and Saint Jude in Colonia Doctores of Mexico City.

From left: Saint Jude, Santa Muerte and Jesús Malverde in Colonia Doctores of Mexico City. Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Chesnut.

Devotion to unsanctioned Catholic folk saints is one of the fastest growing religious movements in Latin America and is surging in the U.S., experts say.

The big picture: Some Latinos who feel alienated by Christian traditions are turning to saints not sanctioned by the struggling Catholic Church for spiritual guidance around love, crime and money.

Details: Catholic canonization of saints often takes years of thorough reviews of miracles performed and of the figure's contributions. Believers say unsanctioned saints offer divine assistance to steal gas, move a drug shipment, cross a border, or bless an LGBTQ+ romance.

  • They're gaining devotees in Mexico and the U.S., said Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan chairman in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
  • Though the exact number of followers is difficult to determine, Chesnut said its growth is undeniable: statues, clothing and candles in their honor can be found in stores and other public places in the Southwest and major U.S. cities, and especially in Mexico.
  • "Some folks have become disenchanted with organized religion. Other folks who might be LGBTQ+ are alienated by both Protestant and Catholic Church positions on gay marriage. These Saints offer an alternative."

La Santa Muerte, a skeleton figure that resembles the Grim Reaper, is the most well-known.

  • Known as Holy Death, she appeals to people seeking help with a lover, carrying out vengeance and landing a better job. Although originally tied to cartels, devotees now include members of LGBTQ+ communities and the middle class.

Jesús Malverde, sometimes referred to as the "angel of the poor," is reportedly based on the legend of a Robin Hood figure from the Mexican state of Sinaloa in the early 1900s.

  • Most recently, the Elvis-resembling saint was strongly identified with the Sinaloa Cartel, whose soldiers asked him for protection. But a new 80-episode fictional Netflix series about Malverde has expanded his popularity in Mexico.

Santo Niño Huachicolero, a perversion of the Roman Catholic image of Santo Niño, depicts the Christ child with a can of gasoline and a hose.

  • He's the patron saint of gas thieves who ask for help to avoid arrest, prevent fires and protect their families from a different kind of flame.

St. Jude, an official Catholic Saint of Lost Causes, has been adopted by some cartels and marginalized youth.

  • Chesnut said if a St. Jude statue is holding his staff in his left hand, devotees can ask for help to carry out less-than-legal activities.

The other side: "We must distinguish true saints from false saints and superstitions," Most Rev. Michael J. Sis, Bishop of the Roman Catholic San Angelo, Texas, Diocese, said in a statement in 2017 over the growth of the folk saints.

  • Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the President of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, also denounced the Santa Muerte practice as "sinister and infernal" in 2013. He called it a "blasphemy of religion."

Yes, but: A forthcoming book, "Undocumented Saints: The Politics of Migrating Devotions," by William A. Calvo-Quirós, argues that racism, violence and poverty gave rise to the saints.

  • Calvo-Quirós told Axios that the folk saints represent the community who revere them and that devotion crosses borders. They don't need permission from churches or government officials to exist.
  • "Saints emerge many times during periods of extreme crisis so they can become the ties to tell the story of our community," said Calvo-Quirósm, an assistant professor of American Culture and Latinx Studies at the University of Michigan.
  • Devotees feel these folk saints don't judge them or look down on their request for miracles under extreme difficulty, Calvo-Quiró said.

Subscribe to Axios Latino to get vital news about Latinos and Latin America, delivered to your inbox on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Go deeper