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Jose Carlos Aguiar, Leiden University

Cultures of Illegality. The Expansion of the Devotion to the Santa Muerte in Mexico

Since the early 2000s, shrines and sanctuaries devoted to Santa Muerte, the skeleton saint, have mushroomed across Mexico. Until the 1990s, Santa Muerte was believed to be the protector of Satanists, drug barons and piracy sellers, and the cult was clandestine. However, in the current context of expanding violence in Mexico, the Santa Muerte has ‘come out from the dark’, and turned into a popular saint widely visible in marketplaces, streets and ‘sanctuaries’ specially built for her. This new form of religious belief synthesizes the ongoing security crises and implosion of institutional life in Mexico. Although this may seem at first glance a unique phenomenon, similar processes are visible in a number of Latin American countries, including Argentina, Peru and Venezuela. On the basis of first-hand ethnographic material, this paper examines the cultural resources that legitimize illegality within the larger Latin American context, where popular saints loom out of the world of criminality.

Jose Carlos G. Aguiar

José Carlos G. Aguiar (Ph.D. University of Amsterdam, 2007) is an anthropologist specialised in urban studies, cultures of illegality, digital piracy, intellectual property and borderlands. He holds a position as assistant professor in the Department of Latin American Studies, Leiden University. Aguiar has conducted extensive fieldwork in Latin America, and has been distinguished as National Researcher (level 1), Consejo Nacional para la Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT), Mexico. He is councillor for the Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, section of the American Anthropological Association, and has been a visiting fellow at the Free University of Berlin (2012, 2013).