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Regnar Kristensen, University of Copenhagen

The moral economy of La Santa Muerte

The cult around the Santa Muerte has caught the attention for its rapid growth and its popularity among vulnerable populations living on the edge of life and the Law. Scholars have documented how devotees seek her help to protect, heal, and bring prosperity in exchange for a promise made to her. It is widely believed that if the promise (manda) remains unfulfilled, the Santa Muerte will become irritated. It appears that people who live with danger seek relief from violence in the very epicenter of it, i.e. from death herself. Saint Death is, however, also often described as an all-loving mother or sister willing to help with no obligation of repayment. The paper explores the complex and, at times, paradoxical nature of the exchange between devotees and La Santa Muerte. It proposes to reconsider the classic schemes of exchange and reciprocity in favor of generalized, balanced, and negative reciprocity in the same intimate social unit. This challenges not only the anthropological analysis of exchange, but also both orthodox and popular Catholic understandings of sainthood: the exchange is neither purely altruistic nor merely dyadic and balanced. Rather the exchange between the Santa Muerte and her devotees merges the two, including relationships of negative reciprocity without the social intimacy between devotee and the saint necessarily falling apart. The paper is based on an anthropological fieldwork about the exchange of promises for favors between the Santa Muerte and her devotees (mandas), as well as the gift exchange collectively carried monthly in street ceremonies in Mexico City. The decentralized yet mimetic dissemination of the cult in nearly identical street altars is analyzed according to this plasticity of reciprocity. It is furthermore argued that the few charismatic devotees who have tried to centralize leadership have failed, because they did not take into account this particular moral economy.

Regnar Kristensen

Regnar Kristensen is an anthropologist from the University of Copenhagen. He has for several years studied the Santa Muerte cult, wrote an entire dissertation about it, and counts as one of the best informed researchers of the topic. He is currently writing several articles about the relationships between the Santa Muerte and devotees, the growth and distribution of the cult as well as the semiotics of the cult. He published Postponing death: Saints and security in Mexico City (Copenhagen: KĂžbenhavns Universitet, Ph. D. Series, nr. 68, 2011).