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Sainted Sinners 

James Griffith's 'Folk Saints' tells the tales of bad guys posthumously gone good.

Right off the bat, I admit that I probably went into the business of English lit out of dearth of memory for dates or facts and the lack of inclination to learn anything that didn't have a story line or human drama. So, when I say I devoured with relish (salsa?) James Griffith's new study of Borderlands "saints," I mean this scholar's book has high entertainment value.

That should come as no surprise to a community used to the pursuits and style of "Big Jim" Griffith. Folklorist Griffith, former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, has been kind of a people's historian for nearly four decades.

In Folk Saints, he examines the phenomenon common among the Mexican-American border poor and working class of venerating particular figures after their deaths. Outside the sanction of the Catholic Church, these figures are adopted as "saints," capable of interceding for petitioners in need directly to God. Focussing on six "saints," Griffith sets them in historical context, relates the often conflicting reports of their lives, speculates on the process that folk-canonized them and tells his own personal tales of seeking and discovering the religious memorabilia associated with them.

Griffith opens with the story of how he and a friend stumbled on the existence of Juan Soldado. Traveling on International Highway 15 south of Magdalena, Sonora, in 1982, they saw a chapel erected for "el ánima (the soul) de Juan Soldado." The facts of this figure's life are in dispute, but his existence and influence after death are not. Juan Soldado was Juan Castillo Morales, a private in the Mexican army stationed in Tijuana during a period of civil unrest. On Feb. 13, 1938, a young girl was found raped and murdered. Castillo Morales was arrested by civil authorities; a lynch mob stormed the jail and incapacitated the police; the military then took control and executed him four days later. The following day, a woman placed a stone on his death site, along with a request for prayer. Soon, other commemorative stones, along with reports of miracles, began to appear. Thus, Griffith writes, began the "transformation from a hated murderer to a martyred folk saint."

Griffith visited the cemetery in Tijuana where a chapel has been erected in an apparently thriving miracle enterprise. He counted more than 200 thanks offerings to Juan Soldado for assistance granted: for saving a child, for seeing someone through a difficult time, for success in school, for "saving me from the very big prison."

Juan Soldado is representative of the six folk saints Griffith elaborates on in the book: While a poor population believes in him, the Catholic Church considers his a cult of superstition. Griffith asserts that there exists in Mexico a fundamental distrust of authority that supports making heroes or saints out of those in the margins. That Juan Soldado was killed by authorities, his followers say, suggests comparison with Jesus Christ.

Jesús Malverde shares with revolutionary Pancho Villa a Robin Hood quality. Malverde may well be a fiction. Legend has him a bandit out of Sinaloa at the turn of the 20th century. Said to have robbed the rich and given to the poor, he meets the "marginalized" (for folk-sainthood) requirement by opposing Sinaloa's Governor Francisco Cañedo. He meets the "violent death" requirement in a number of possible ways--betrayal by compadre, dispatch for reward by a henchmen, coup de grace by partner--but the stories have his body hung from a mesquite tree as warning from the governor. His transition to "intercessor" relates to the burial of Malverde's bones. In one account, his first miracle is saving a muleteer--lost with his cargo of silver and gold--who prayed to him for help.

Meeting another need of the poor are Griffith's last group, the healers. Teresita Urrea, of Clifton and Caborca, who died in 1906, is reportedly still active in healing through "materias," mediums in a spiritual movement. And also active after death is the playful, child-like El Niño Fidencio. Known for using his "gift from God" and knowledge of herbs to restore sight and cure ulcers, he is famous for simultaneously foiling a plot on his life and curing the president of Mexico of leprosy.

Griffith's book is appealing and accessible. Documented and endnoted, it could satisfy requirements of academe, but, written in the casual diction and cadence of a storyteller, it can entertain and inform. And if you're anything like this reader, you might consider meandering across to the relics vendors in Magdalena to see if you can't pick up a Malverde or Juan Soldado prayer card or two. As one good Catholic, questioned about the devotional indiscretion of visiting a Malverde chapel, quipped, 'Why not? It can't hurt anything, and it might help." That goes for Folk Saints, too.

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