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Border Miracles : Believing Good Fortune Will Follow, the Faithful Flock to Tijuana Shrine

Times Staff Writer

The supplicant approaches on her knees, hands folded in prayer, nearing the shrine that, she says, will bring her miracles. As she inches her way through the cemetery walkway, her mother places narrow strips of tattered carpet on the hard concrete path, easing the way.

“He was a martyr; I have faith in him,” explains the woman, Teresa de Pulido, after completing her prayers at the shrine.

“He helped my other daughter in San Antonio, Texas, become legal,” adds her mother, Sara Mora del Melgosa, a resident of the Mexican interior state of Michoacan who says she visits the Tijuana shrine at least once a year. “I believe in Juan Soldado.”

Juan Soldado--literally, John the Soldier--is the sobriquet of a former infantryman, Juan Castillo Morales, dead and buried 50 years, who is revered as a friend and miracle worker for the dispossessed of this border city.

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Victim of Execution

Executed by a military firing squad for his alleged role in the murder of an 8-year-old girl, Castillo, widely viewed as an innocent victim, reigns as a kind of unauthorized patron saint of bawdy Tijuana--despite disavowals by the Roman Catholic church hierarchy.

In particular, Castillo is viewed as a protector of undocumented immigrants in the United States, whose loved ones often stop here to request that Juanito, as he is alluded to endearingly, assist their far-flung family members in obtaining legal residence papers. Migrants frequently stop by at Castillo’s shrine, situated in a city cemetery just three blocks south of the international border, before proceeding on their sometimes treacherous journeys to the north. Others make the trip from the United States to give thanks for their new lives.

Indeed, Castillo’s shrine, constructed above his grave by worshipers, is adorned with copies of amnesty documents, green cards, and other U. S. immigration documents acquired, many believe, through the heavenly graces of Castillo. “We give thanks to God, who, through the intercession of the soul of Juan Soldado, granted the immigration of our two children, Ernesto and Carmen,” wrote Jose and Ana Diaz, who included color snapshots of their children along with their hand-written letter.

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Others offer gratitude for services rendered, from restoring health to reuniting lost loved ones to the birth of children.

“I give thanks to God, to the Virgin, and to Juan Soldado, for having returned my sight,” wrote a woman from Guadalajara.

In a culture where so many ordinary people view themselves as victims of injustice, the story of Juan Castillo has struck a responsive chord for generations. The solder is widely believed to have been framed by his general, an influential man who everyone here believes was the real killer of the girl.

“Juan Soldado was innocent,” proclaims Jose Resendez, a 72-year-old vendor who, from his yellow wooden cart near the cemetery gates, hawks flowers and small black-and-white likenesses of the cherubic-appearing infantryman, some framed in gilded gold-replica and others embossed in crucifixes and key chains. The photos and ceramic likenesses of Juan Soldado adorn many Tijuana households.

Pilgrimage to Site

The depth of reverence will be particularly evident on Wednesday, El Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead)--known as All Souls Day among U. S. Catholics--a highly spiritual time when Mexicans pay tribute to their departed. In this 50th anniversary of Castillo’s death, many are expected to make the pilgrimage to Panteon No. 1, the city cemetery near where Castillo was executed at the age of 24 and where his remains were interred.

The unofficial sanctification of Juan Soldado represents an urban and borderlands twist on the folk-religion legends that are ubiquitous throughout Mexico and Latin America, where so many small communities boast saints and miracle workers unrecognized by the Vatican but revered by local residents as readily accessible spirits, warts and all. Images of such apocryphal saints, some of whom are renowned for their drinking exploits and otherwise less-than-savory behavior, are often displayed at local fiestas.

“In almost every pueblo in Mexico, there is some kind of a figure who serves as a kind of intermediary with the heavens,” notes Lourdes Becker, a Chula Vista photographer who researched the case of Juan Soldado for an exhibition last year at San Diego’s Balboa Park. “It’s hard to talk directly to God. Talking to Juan Soldado is much easier.”

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Nonetheless, little seems to be known about the life of Castillo, beyond the fact that he apparently was born in the state of Jalisco, and, during 1938, was a young soldier serving at a military barracks in Tijuana, then a border outpost of 15,000 inhabitants. It was a tense time throughout Mexico: President Lazaro Cardenas had nationalized the oil companies and had shut down Tijuana’s Agua Caliente casino; the president’s nationalist program faced intense opposition from Catholic leaders and others.

Olga Consuelo Camacho was an 8-year-old girl who lived near the barracks. On Feb. 14 or 15, according to various accounts, her parents sent her to a nearby store; she never returned. The next day, her bludgeoned body was discovered near the Army camp. An oft-repeated account here is that the corpse was found when Castillo, at the behest of his general, went to collect the remains for burial. The young soldier was immediately arrested, though he had supposedly been assured that nothing would happen to him.

Talk of Mob Justice

Some older residents still recall the outcry here at such a heinous crime. There was talk of mob justice.

“All the parents were very agitated,” recalls Maria de Jesus Orozco, a lively and alert 84-year-old great-grandmother who lives near the cemetery and still recalls the commotion. “They wanted to lynch Juan Soldado.”

Justice was swift. Castillo was court-martialed and sentenced to die. A firing squad ended his life, according to popular accounts, on the morning of Feb. 17, 1938.

“They gave him a few seconds to run, then they shot him down,” recalls de Jesus, who says she was one of a large crowd that witnessed the execution. “At first, he refused to run, imploring, ‘I want to speak to my general! I want to speak to my general!’ But the commander of the battalion told him they would shoot him where he stood if he didn’t run, that running was his only chance. So he ran.”

Some say he went quietly. Some say he died cursing his executioners.

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Either way, Castillo was gone. But the larger-than-life legend of Juan Soldado had been born.

Afterward, sympathizers gave him a proper burial in cemetery next to the spot where he was shot, prayed for his soul and cleansed the blood from his execution site. The next day, however, the blood had returned, and, according to legend, could never be removed--a phenomenon that apparently helped spawn the stories of Castillo’s miraculous powers. Soon, he was credited with curing illnesses, bringing good luck, finding husbands--and, as times and needs changed, with fixing immigration papers.

Today, the site of Castillo’s grave has been converted into a full-scale Latin American shrine, complete with crowns of flowers hanging from the rafters, dozens of votive candles, crucifixes, and sundry items of thanks for an array of “miracles” rendered--including the many copies of immigration documents. Baby clothing, family photographs and hand-written letters bedeck the simple one-room structure; there is also a diploma from Point Loma High School in San Diego.

Donations in Box

Inside, the heady, funereal aroma of old flowers and candles is almost overwhelming. Benefactors place donations in a locked metal box. (The cemetery crew chief says he doesn’t know what becomes of the donations; others assume that the funds are distributed among cemetery workers.)

Atop the shrine’s tin roof, some worshipers have left the remains of crutches, plaster casts and at least one artificial limb--all of which were presumably no longer needed once the petitioners prayed to Juan Soldado. A simple ceramic bust of a uniformed Castillo sits atop the structure like a chimney, rising alongside a wrought-iron cross.

Caritina Villa, a big-hearted woman who moved to Tijuana several months ago from Yuba City in Northern California, and now lives a few blocks from the cemetery, is one of a number of voluntary caretakers.

“For me, Juan Soldado is kind of a lawyer, or middleman between mankind and the Virgin,” Villa explains with a smile while showing a visitor about the shrine. Every few weeks, she places excess material in a bin beside the shrine to make room for new testimonials of thanks.

Conversation with mendicants demonstrates that belief in the ex-soldier’s powers remains strong. Villa credits Castillo with a bevy of good fortune she has experienced, including the recent acquisition of a pickup truck that was lent to her by a friend.

“I know a man who had a bad heart; the doctors said there was nothing he could do,” relates Antonio Flores, a burly father of 11 from Tijuana who, on a recent afternoon, was dropping off a wooden sign of thanks to Castillo. “The man came and prayed to Juan Soldado, and he was cured. The doctors asked what kind of medicine he had taken. He told them the truth: He had taken no medicine.”

A few hundred yards from the cluttered site of Castillo’s grave is a small brick enclosure, also a revered spot, at the point where Castillo is believed to have fallen. At the head of a stone monument, a white military police helmet, presumably an allusion to the victim’s military service, sits atop a cross, flanked by flowers. There is no longer any sign of blood, but fetid water from a faulty sewage connection keeps the spot moist.

“You saved me from the prison that was awaiting me,” one Salvador M. Gonzalez wrote in a plaque dated 1950. “May God allow you to enter His sainted kingdom for making this miracle for me.”


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