For the most part, folk saints emerge from a pious tendency of Latin American Catholics to pray for and venerate their dead. Throughout Latin America, to take one example, there are cults to what are known as angelitos, or little angels: baptized infants who die before the age of reason. Not only are their graves colorful expressions of folk piety, festooned with toys and other mementos, but some even become centers of pilgrimage where the faithful ask the dead infants for supernatural favors.
In a couple of cases, these figures have become the patrons of less than legal activities. The two most significant cases here are Jesús Malverde of northern Mexico and Gauchito Gil of Argentina. Malverde, a Mexican Robin Hood-like character of legendary origins, has become the patron of drug traffickers, and many corridos (popular ballads) are written in his honor, praising that dark and violent culture. Another such Robin Hood character appeared on the other side of the continent in the form of Gauchito Gil: an Argentine cowboy executed for desertion from the army in the 19th century. He has since become the patron of thieves and other violent thugs. While there are devotees to these figures who are not lawbreakers and live ordinary lives, the “saints” popularity has grown precisely because of their criminal followers.
The most disturbing devotion, and perhaps the most popular one at this point, is the Mexican and Argentine cult to Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. Of very recent origin, the reason why death has been “canonized” in recent years is far from clear. Though usurping traditional imagery of the Grim Reaper and the danses macabres of medieval origin, most devotees are not quite clear as to who or what they are praying to in this skeletal figure. Some think it is the angel of death, others the Virgin Mary in skeletal form. In any event, most have begun to leave any mimicry of Catholic piety behind in favor of New Age, spiritist, and other pagan ideas. Furthermore, the cult has been propagated by devotees living at the margin of society.
These stories, though colorful in themselves, portray the two-sided reality that Catholics of Latin-American origin bring to this country. On the one hand, these people often have a more acute sense of the importance of death and the afterlife than mainstream American culture. The phenomenon of the folk saint often emerges out of the exhortation by the Church to pray for the dead so that they might be loosed from their sins, as we read in the Second Book of Maccabees (12:46). On the other hand, the folk saint, as in the case of the “narcosaints” of Jesús Malverde or Santa Muerte, can become an excuse to circumvent the Church in the quest for supernatural aide for sinful activities. Though the boundaries are not always clear, the line between devotion and fetish is one that has to be preserved in these cases.
As with the story of St. Martin of Tours, it is up to the hierarchy of the Church to decide which devotions foster virtue, piety, and love of God, and which are merely supernatural quick fixes that make a mockery of real faith. While the Church in this country should foster the good tendencies that often underlie these cults and also encourage popular devotion to official saints (the Virgin Mary, St. Jude, St. Martin himself), it must combat the superstition at the heart of many of these unapproved devotions.