From killer to folk saint

SUN JOURNAL

Miracles: A soldier accused in a girl's death and executed by the military has become a saint-like figure to believers.

August 12, 2002|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TIJUANA, MEXICO -- There are the facts about the life and death of Juan Castillo -- and then there is what people believe.

The story begins nearly 65 years ago. One of those who should be able to tell it is Virginia Alegre. She is 80 and can remember when only barbed wire separated Tijuana from the United States. She can remember when the soldier, who thousands of people now believe works miracles in their lives, was accused of raping and murdering a little girl.

And she is sure she met him, though facts dictate that could hardly be true.

Over a month's time in 1938, Alegre says, she visited her brother in the Tijuana city jail and met and several times spoke with the accused soldier named Juan Castillo who had the town outraged.

That's fiction, given what historians know about Castillo's case. But with folk faiths, the truth is less interesting than the tall tales that sprout around them and grow like redwoods.

What is true is that very quickly Juan Castillo, in death, became "Juan Soldado" -- John Soldier -- a folk saint who performs miracles for believers. Thousands of pilgrims visit his grave at Municipal Cemetery No. 1 every year.

They scrawl requests for the kinds of things considered miracles in a poor person's life: money for an operation, a job, help in getting a husband out of prison or a son to stop drinking. This being Tijuana, the tomb is only yards from the border, and eventually what people asked most of Juan Soldado was help in crossing.

Faith in Juan Soldado grew from an event that reads like a tale from the Middle Ages. In 1938, Tijuana was a town of 8,000. One day in February, an 8-year-old girl named Olga Camacho went missing. A day later, she was found raped and murdered.

Military police charged soldier Juan Castillo with the crime. That night, believing military authorities would transfer the soldier out of the region, mobs formed near the military jail where Castillo was kept under tight guard, without visitors. City hall was burned. The military, working to stop a lynching, perhaps staged one of its own.

Interrogators supposedly got Castillo to confess. The next day he was court-martialed. He was taken to a hill. A firing squad applied what's known in Mexico as the ley fuga -- law of escape. Castillo was told to start running. They shot him down as he ran. It is said that he cursed them as he died.

"The evidence in the newspapers was pretty strong. They had fingerprints, hairs, blood," says Paul Underwood, a retired historian from San Diego State University who is writing a book about Juan Soldado. "The problem is that when they did this, they didn't have the laboratory expertise [to test the evidence]. Once they got that confession, they hurried it right through. That raised some eyebrows. Did he really do it? I really don't know."

Tijuana has none of Mexico's colonial past. In 1938, it wasn't much more than a drugstore, gas station and racetrack. There was no organized religious presence in Tijuana. A national government campaign against the Roman Catholic Church had banished the only priest to the United States.

In this institutional vacuum, Castillo's swift death became his passport to unofficial beatification. People began questioning his guilt. Soon Juan Castillo had become "Juan Soldado" -- another poor man victimized by authorities.

Rumors spread: He granted miracles. Before long, the man once accused of rape and murder was adored as a saint.

"I interviewed people in the cemetery who said if the authorities say he was guilty, he probably was innocent," says David Ungerleider, a Jesuit priest, vice president of the Universidad Iberoamericana in Tijuana and a social anthropologist who has written on Juan Soldado.

"It's a popular, grass-roots, people's logic. It's a pattern that's repeated. Look at St Francis of Assisi. He was badly judged by the system and his parents. People said, `Here's a pretty saintly guy, then.'"

Ungerleider believes faith in Juan Soldado is healthy for a town where everyone is from someplace else.

"It gave people something to latch onto," he says. "If you have somebody from Oaxaca, someone from Michoacan, someone from Veracruz, the only point they would coincide is Juan Soldado, because he's from here. It's unfortunate the church won't follow up on it."

The Roman Catholic Church rejects the faith in Juan Soldado; priests are known to refuse to bless statues of the man. The press has dubbed him the "Immigrant's Patron Saint."

But as anyone at his grave will tell you, "Juanito" is for all kinds of people with all kinds of problems. The plaques at his shrine are as anonymous and desperate as the people who leave them:

"Thank you Juan Soldado for saving my marriage ... M.J. Olvera." "With all my heart I thank Juan Soldado, who in my hour of anguish you gave me protection by relieving my son of his mental imbalance ... J. Guadalupe Flores." "Thanks for the miracle ... Eva T."

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