Anyone who has visited a Mexican botánica, or spiritual store, can confirm that the country doesn’t lack for saints or spiritual iconography.
A wide variety of religious statues are typically on offer, along with an eclectic array of potions, herbs and other mystical products. While spiritual symbols like the Virgen of Guadalupe are officially recognized by the church, others are grass roots figures who exist outside of formal religion. Such folk saints have an even greater appeal to many Mexicans. Unmediated by the priesthood, they are often seen to act in a more direct way in the lives of their devotees. Here, is a summary of five of Mexico’s most famous folk saints.
The divine skeleton, Santa Muerte, is by far the most popular folk saint in Mexico. Often described as a narco-cult because of her popularity among the country’s criminals, Santa Muerte in fact has a much broader appeal. The cult has been described by religion expert Andrew Chesnut as the fastest growing devotion in the Americas. The saint is typically depicted in a bridal dress holding a scythe in one hand and a globe in the other. Followers make offerings such as candles, flowers and fruit, although more eccentric offerings such as bags of cocaine and rifles have also been reported. Altars are typically found in the homes of devotees, although authorities have permitted the construction of a few public shrines.
One such Santa Muerte site has sprung up in Las Juntas neighborhood of Tlaquepaque. Every Sunday, an ordained priest celebrates Mass, despite the fact that the devotion is condemned as satanic by the Catholic Church.
In life, Juan Castillo Morales was a convicted child murderer who was executed in Tijuana in 1938. In death, the Mexican private became known as Juan Soldado (Juan the Soldier) and he inspired devotees to proclaim not only his innocence but his holiness.
Although Soldado’s wife testified that he had murdered eight-year-old Olga Camacho Martínez, rumors soon spread that Soldado had been framed by a superior officer.
Certainly, the evidence against him was patchy. His trial lasted a single night, there were no witnesses to the crime and police did not even check his fingerprints against the evidence.
Nevertheless, Soldado was sentenced to die by the cruel practice of ley de fuga (law of flight) and was told he could escape to freedom across the border if he managed to avoid the firing squad’s bullets. Inevitably, he was shot multiple times in the back and died on the scene.
Whether Soldado was guilty or innocent is in many ways beside the point. His popular canonization is an appropriate symbol for very turbulent times. The border town of Tijuana had been devastated by the Great Depression, the end of U.S. alcohol prohibition had hit tourism and the church had lost touch with many of its devotees.
Into the void steps the poor, young Soldado – martyred by the authorities as he tried to escape to the border. Fittingly, he has become the unofficial patron saint of undocumented migrants.
The folklore hero Jesús Malverde is still relatively unknown outside of Mexico, although “Breaking Bad” fans may recognize his signature necktie and moustache after a porcelain bust with his likeness appeared in the hit TV series.
While Malverde’s historical existence is not properly verified, he was reportedly a bandit from the coastal state of Sinaloa who was captured and hanged in 1909. To make an example of him, authorities denied Malverde a formal burial and his body was left to rot until a pile of bones fell to the ground. Sympathetic locals threw stones over these remains and made petitions to his soul. After numerous reports of miracles, Malverde acquired a saintly reputation. He is often referred to as the “generous bandit,” or the “angel of the poor,” and like Santa Muerte, the devotion has taken particular hold among Mexico’s poor and marginalized.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s thousands flocked to the village of Espinazo in the dry northern state of Nuevo Leon to visit the famed curandero, or folk healer, Niño Fidencio.
Known as “El Niño,” (the boy) because of his high-pitched voice and youthful appearance, Fidencio attracted pilgrims from across the country and beyond. He learned of his healing vocation one day in 1927 as he sat exhausted under a pepper tree in the city. Today, the tree remains an important site of pilgrimage to devotees.
Following the vision, Fidencio began receiving visitors and offering healing remedies but never charged for his services. He famously performed operations without anesthesia, making – allegedly painless – incisions with a shard of broken glass.
Physically and mentally ill patients gathered around El Niño in such numbers that a temporary encampment sprang up to accommodate them. Crowds sometimes spent weeks waiting for treatment in “el campo del dolor,” or encampment of pain. Even President Plutarco Elías Calles visited El Niño for treatment.
Following his death in 1938, streams of pilgrims continued to visit Espinazo and the official Fidencista Christian Church was formed in 1993.
Virgen de la Bala
Regarded by many adherents as the antithesis to Santa Muerte, the Virgen de la Bala (Virgin of the Bullet) is a gold-coated sculpture that has attracted devotees in the crowded Mexico City district of Iztapalapa.
Standing at only 30 centimeters in height, the sculpture was credited with miraculously saving the life of a woman in the 17th Century. A violent Spanish husband tried to shoot his wife after accusing her of infidelity and she grabbed the sculpture for protection, where the bullet lodged.
“In reality, she should be called the ‘Bullet-proof Virgin,’” says art historian Nain Alejandro Ruiz.
Owing to the legend, the image has inspired particular devotion among women in Iztapalapa, which the National Commission of Human Rights identifies as the district with the highest rates of rape and violence against women in Mexico City.
Many see the Virgin as a protector of the innocent. “If bad people have Santa Muerte, we have our Virgen de la Bala,” said Iztapalapa resident Hermelinda Hernández.