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A GANG OF DEAD HELPERS. If you walk around Barrio Viejo just south and west of the Tucson Convention Center, you'll stumble across a couple of shrines--places where people still light a candle to Saint Christopher or the Virgin of Guadalupe, calling upon an ephemeral being to arbitrate any number of personal matters.

The most popular shrine in the neighborhood is El Tiradito--the ground zero of folk saint activity since it was relocated there in the late 1920s after a road-widening project. Folklorist Jim Griffith has been deciphering the 20-odd legends concerning "the little thrown-away one"--the name for both the guy caught in the legendary love triangle and the shrine's official moniker.

Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona and has studied traditional religious expression throughout the American Southwest and Northern Mexico for more than four decades. His new book, Folk Saints of the Borderlands: Victims, Bandits and Healers (Rio Nuevo Publishers, see Page 33), follows on the heels of his photographic text, Saints of the Southwest. He's collected the informal stories of a scraggly bunch of saints: one convicted murderer, two bandits and three faith healers.

"My job is neither to believe nor disbelieve these people existed. I'm just here to report," explains Griffith. "These saints yield power to the powerless. The folks in Barrio Viejo fought the Butterfield Parkway expansion back in the '70s to keep El Tiradito where it is. Their prayers obviously worked."

Griffith has focused on six "victim intercessors" for a couple of reasons.

"They either had the most historical importance or the greatest following," he explains. "But you'll notice that all they've done is gotten themselves killed."

The most popular of his ánimas or spirits is Pancho Villa--one of two bandits who are regularly prayed to. The other includes Jesús Malverde, patron saint of drug traffickers; convicted murderer Juan Soldado; and three faith healers: Teresita Urrea, Don Pedrito (who's real name was Pedro Jaramillo) and El Niño Fidencio (who went by José Fidencio Constantino S'ntora).

"Poor Juan Saldado. All he did was get killed, becoming immortalized at El Tiradito as the 'Dead Man.' But how he turned from villain to victim is a mystery to all of us," explains Griffith.

These spirits aren't your typical Vatican-bestowed saints.

"They're totally outside the highways of the institutional church. They have nothing to do with church structure. These individuals will be made saints by the Vatican three years after hell freezes over," quips Griffith.

He adds, "These are marginal people in marginal communities. It's a diversity of dead helpers. If you're Anglo, and you're not in the drug or drug intervention business, then you're not likely to have heard of them."

Griffith explains that folk saints, particularly in the Southwest and in Mexico, are recognized because of the history of conquistadors invading this area, imposing their Catholicism on native peoples.

"The local folks were exposed to the practices more than the institutions. People have been venerating dead bandits for millennia. We're dealing with different ways of being religious. It's not cautious or conservative like the Catholic Church. It doesn't matter if these saints were real people."

Like Jesús Malverde, for example.

"Here's this possible legendary dead bandit, a kind of Robin Hood character who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. And now, who's to argue if wealthy drug dealers are 'convinced' to yield over some of their money to the poor people in these communities?"

Present-day Mexican Catholicism is a hybrid of beliefs and practices. What resulted is a class-related division where the lower classes call on saints, helpers and supernatural healers to intercede in the harshness of daily life.

"It's a highly pragmatic form of Catholicism," explains Griffith.

The narratives around their saints, like Teresita, are quite diverse.

"What I've written is a distilled narrative about her life, a most tragic story. I almost want to ask, 'Will the real Teresita please stand up?' She's a sad and exploited person. The spiritists want her for their purposes. The contemporary feminists want her as their symbol. The Yaquis want her for their rituals. Lots of people are channeling Teresita. Poor kid; she's in high demand. She's a fascinating blend of innocence and spirituality," adds Griffith.

After several years of collecting religious ephemera--pamphlets, cards and other written materials--Griffith could not turn his back on these six unconventional, recurrent spirits.

"Once you find out about them, how can you not pay attention?" Griffith asks. "The stories are so great, and I just love visiting the shrines."

And what's Griffith's favorite shrine that he goes to nearby?

"Travel south along Highway 15 before Highway 21," he immediately responds.

"The shrine's been up since last spring, just south of the Nogales airport on the Mexican side. It holds about six people tightly. There, you will see the beautiful statue of the Most Holy Death. It's amazing."

Jim Griffith introduces six saints he's researched and reads from and signs his new book, Folk Saints of the Borderlands, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 29, at Barnes and Noble, 5130 E. Broadway Blvd.

For details, call 512-0889.

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