23 February 2008

The making of a saint.

There is a saint currently being venerated in Mexico and in Mexican communities in the United States who is fairly new to the American saintly scene. He has come to the attention of the general American public because of late he has been associated with the illegal drug trade. However, many poor people in Mexico have been venerating him for a very long time and consider him to be in the same league with St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases. His name is Jesús Malverde. He is sometimes called the Generous One” and some people call him the “Angel of the Poor”. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize Malverde as a saint but that might be okay with him and with people who venerate him because it fits his “outsider” image. There is a certain beauty to it also because it was the people who decided he was a saint, not the Church, and he represents the belief, the power, and the will of the people. That is quite at odds with the ultra conservative atmosphere of the Catholic Church today but in the end, the people will have their way. They eventually always do. All year long they come to visit his shrine in Culiacan, the capital city of the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa, to ask for favors.

Who was Jesús Malverde? Well, nobody really knows for sure. In some versions of his story, he is a construction worker, in other versions, a railway worker. Since there is no physical record, his story is more legend than actual fact. There is a consensus of believers that he was born around 1870 and that he died on May 3rd, 1909. How he died is another uncertainty. Some say that he was hung and some say that he was shot but everyone seems to agree that he was executed by the government for banditry. His legend is similar to that of Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor. The version of the story that I like the best goes like this:

"The rural police shot him in the leg but somehow he escaped. It wasn’t long before the wound started to fester and he began dying of gangrene. He told a friend before he died that his friend should turn in his body and claim the reward. His friend brought him in dead and got the reward. Then the police hung Malverde from a mesquite tree as a warning to the people.”

One of the things needed for sainthood is some miracles. In Malverde’s case there doesn’t seem to be a problem with that. They supposedly began happening shortly after his death and continue to this day. Malverde's shrine is near a railroad track in Culiacán, Mexico. It attracts thousands of pilgrims each year. The shrine features a large mural of Malverde beside the Virgin Mary and Jesús Christ. Statues of Malverde are spread throughout, along with letters, mementos and candles left behind by the many visitors who come to ask for his help and his intercession.

Now, here is a conundrum. If nobody knows much detail about the life of Jesús Malverde and if there is no concrete physical proof that he even actually existed, then how do people know what he looks like? Well, everyone just “knows” that he must look like a traditional Mexican hero. There are three heroes of Mexican stage and screen who emerged in the 1940’s, and 50’s. They are Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, and Javier Solis. The first two, Pedro Infante, and Jorge Negrete, were contemporaries and good friends and appeared together in several movies. Javier Solis came along a bit later. Pedro Infante was born in the year 1917 in Sinaloa, the same state where Jesús Malverde was born. He represented a fun-loving and partying cowboy and a hero of the working class. It was his character that won the love and admiration of the public. He died in a tragic plane crash in 1957 at the age of 40. His longtime friend, Jorge Negrete was born in the state of Guanajuato in the year 1911. He was handsome and had a well trained fascinating voice and he is still a top idol in Mexico, Spain, and Latin America more than 50 years after his death. He died in 1953 at the age of 42 after a nasty bout with hepatitis. Javier Solis was born in Mexico City in 1931. Along with Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, he was considered by the public to be an idol of Mexican music and cinema. He died a bit younger than the other two in 1966 from complications of a gall bladder operation. He was only 34 when he died. Note that all three of these men died in the same age range as Malverde would have been when he died. The Mexican people are very fond of this trio and call them “Los Tres Gallos Mexicanos”…”The Three Mexican Roosters”. If you look at their photos below, you will see that all three have a strong resemblance and if you compare them with the picture of Jesús Malverde you will see that Malverde is a composite of all three. There you have it folks. That is how saints are made in Mexico…from legends.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.