Believers Flock to Underdog Icons of the People


A soldier accused of the rape-murder of a girl and executed by firing squad would seem an unlikely candidate for sainthood.

But for the poor and the downtrodden who come daily to the tomb of Juan Castillo Morales near the U.S. border, he was a man wronged by the system, a symbol of those failed by justice.

As the story goes, the mob that handed him over to be killed in February 1938 realized too late that the penniless soldier had been framed by a superior who had committed the crime. Burdened with guilt, people placed stones at his unmarked grave and soon began talking about the miracles he had performed.

Affectionately known as “Juan Soldado,” or Soldier John, he was later adopted as the unofficial patron saint of the impoverished Mexicans who cross illegally into the United States in search of a better life.


Details surrounding the circumstances of Juan Soldado’s death vary, but most believe he was ordered by a higher-ranking officer to dispose of the body of Olga Consuela Camacho. In doing so, he stained his uniform with her blood and was chased down by a mob. The army quickly declared him guilty, and he died in a hail of bullets as he ran across a dusty hillside in what is now part of the cemetery.

Juan Soldado is among a group of unofficial saints not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church but who are worshiped by people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

His shrine is a testament to the hardships of border life and the suffering of migrants who pass through the region’s rough cities.

Taped to one wall is a Texas wanted poster seeking a man for the murder of a Mexican American woman. A note scribbled in English on it reads: “This is the man that killed my daughter, I ask that you help me by bringing him to justice. Thank you. ‘Gracias.’ ” The poster said the man is believed to have fled to Mexico.


A handwritten note dated 1995 reads: “I thank God and the spirit of Juan Soldado for the miracle granted that saved this person from kidnappers.”

Another note thanked Juan Soldado for reuniting a man with his family. Attached to it was a letter from the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez saying that the man’s request for an immigrant visa was approved.

“He is very miraculous,” said Luis Jimenez, 60, who prayed at the tomb with his wife on a recent afternoon.

Jimenez said Juan Soldado came to his rescue after he broke his ankle when he fell in a ditch while crossing the border. Jimenez, who was alone, thought he would die out in the isolated desert, but then a pickup truck drove past and spotted him. The California family agreed to drive him back across the border to a hospital in Mexico.


“I believe Juan Soldado sent them to find me,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez, who settled in Tijuana, has visited the tomb every month for the last two years to give thanks.

Many of the region’s folk saints were underdogs with checkered pasts who battled the system or were failed by it.

Among them is Jesus Malverde, a Robin Hood-style outlaw from the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa. Hanged in 1909 and believed to be one of Mexico’s first marijuana growers, today he is the unofficial patron saint of drug traffickers.


Malverde’s tomb is in Sinaloa’s state capital, Culiacan, but there is also a small shrine to him outside Tijuana. Vendors sell leather braided necklaces with dual pictures of Juan Soldado and Malverde.

In Chihuahua state across from El Paso, Texas, believers venerate “Santa de Cabora,” a girl believed to have healing powers but who was expelled from Mexico because of her links to Indian uprisings before the Mexican Revolution.

In South Texas, the faithful pray at the shrine of Don Pedrito Jaramillo, a liquor supplier who is said to have healed the poor through herbal medicines and faith healing.

“Conditions have defined the region’s popular saints. They are saints not stemming from mystical holiness but rather from profaneness,” said Manuel Valenzuela, a Tijuana sociologist who has written a book about border saints and folklore.


Throughout Latin America, people turned to folk saints because they felt ignored by church and government and trapped by their circumstance--something that holds true even among today’s followers, Valenzuela said.

One recent afternoon, aging farmers, secretaries, housewives and migrants trickled into Panteon I, Tijuana’s oldest cemetery, where Juan Soldado is buried.

Some quietly wept as they knelt in front of a ceramic bust of the boyish-looking soldier. Others whispered in his ear. Children kissed his chipped, plaster face.

Worshipers have adorned his shrine with paintings, flowers, wreaths and marble plaques, some dating back to 1959.


“There must be something to him because the people keep coming daily,” said Jesus Mendoza, 59, who has been the cemetery’s caretaker for nearly two decades. “This is the only cemetery that is open every day, and it’s that way because so many people want to see him.”