Enduring discrimination and even persecution at times makes the fierce, female skeleton saint especially attractive to those who’ve been ostracized, taunted or even subjected to physical violence because of their alternative sexual orientation. World leading expert on Santa Muerte, Andrew Chesnut has observed this special attraction from the outset of his research eight years ago. Introducing us to Arely Vazquez, pioneering Santa Muertista in New York City we gain insight into how influential the skinny lady can be in the face of adversity and through times of change.
– Andrew Chesnut –
Dr. Andrew Chesnut is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the leading expert on Santa Muerte, the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas.
While the Lady of the Shadows is the saint of the margins par excellence, her strong appeal to one particular group, which has suffered persecution throughout the ages, is unparalleled. LGBT Santa Muertistas constitute an inordinately large sector of devotees in North and Central America and beyond. I had noticed her special attraction to those who aren’t heterosexual from the outset of my research eight years ago, but in the rush to publish wasn’t able to go beyond passing reference in my book. From the most prominent devotional leaders to anonymous believers, the disproportionate number of devotees to death can’t be ignored.
The majority of top Saint Death leaders in the U.S., Britain and the Philippines are LGBT, with gay men predominating. In Mexico the trend isn’t as pronounced, as the three most prominent devotional authorities there are straight. However, Doña Queta appears to be grooming a gay devotee as the successor to her Tepito throne. Among rank and file Santa Muertistas in Mexico images of the Powerful Lady have become commonplace at gay pride parades in Mexico City where rainbow-colored death saints process alongside their festive owners. On the other side of the border, the strong presence of LGBT devotees is particularly noticeable on social media where they seem to compose the majority of Euro-American Santa Muertistas on Twitter and in Facebook groups dedicated to the Bony Lady.
However outside of Mexico City, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, and a handful of more liberal cities, homophobia persists in large swaths of the country. In fact, in September, 2016, the Catholic Church organized a national protest called the “March for Life” of President Pena Nieto’s proposal to legalize same-sex unions on a national scale. With the Mexican head of state suffering from historically low approval rates, the church-based opposition movement has torpedoed his legalization campaign. Though it’s most likely that Mexico will eventually follow the same path of its North American neighbors and even a few in South America that have made gay marriage the law of the land over the past seven years or so.
It’s the enduring discrimination and even homophobia in rural and small-town Mexico that set the stage for Arely Vazquez to become the pioneering Santa Muertista in New York City who has appeared in numerous media reports and documentaries. Raised in small town outside of Acapulco, Arely started to feel uncomfortable with her natal male sexuality in her preteens. She quickly realized her attraction to other boys wasn’t acceptable within the social and religious confines of her hometown. In fact, when Arely confessed her sexual orientation to the parish priest, he instructed her to pray for conversion, which of course is still popular in some Evangelical and Catholic churches. Realizing life would be difficult for her in hometown, Arely moved to Mexico City in her late teens, and it was there that she discovered the skeleton saint through her aunt and quickly became devoted to death.
Arely’s new devotion to Saint Death helped her to move again, this time to the “other side” (as Mexicans often refer to the U.S.). She already had some relatives in New York City, which by the late 1980s was experiencing a boom in Mexican immigration. In her Queens neighborhood of working-class Latin American immigrants, Arely believes the Powerful Lady has empowered her to deal with the challenges of being a transgender immigrant who doesn’t speak English. Most significantly, the Bony Lady gave Arely the strength and courage to change her gender to female, which has entailed several surgeries and hormone therapy. It’s one particular surgery that Arely views as one of the great gifts of her matron saint. Several years ago I asked her what had been the most important miracle that the Pretty Girl had granted. She immediately clutched her bosom and exclaimed “these!” The breast implants had cost her thousands of dollars. Arely’s transgender friends and fellow devotees appear to have asked the White Girl for the same miracle.
The protective power of the Powerful Lady figures as another compelling draw to LGBT devotees. Enduring discrimination and even persecution at times makes the fierce, female skeleton saint especially attractive to those who’ve been ostracized, taunted or even subjected to physical violence because of their alternative sexual orientation. This is especially the case for the small group of Filipino devotees in Manila, all of whom are gay men. Devotional leader Yashagaro Hasegawa told me “Santa Muerte does not discriminate. I feel discriminated in Filipino society. There is the idea of making fun of the gay here in the Philippines. There are rules in the Asian culture so I have to be careful because of jobs, and I have to be respectful, to be on the safe side. Also when I’m out at night with the boys I feel her black robe protecting us from dangers in the street.” And since Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016, death squads targeting alleged narcos have made Manila’s streets even meaner.