Juan Soldado

4 06 2008

 A Story of Violence, Haunting, and Hope on the Borderlands 

My dad and I stumbled onto the scene several summers ago, when I was hiding out in Tijuana from reality and my crazy ex-vieja, who got so cranked on crystal meth one night, she called me the Antichrist. My father, a staunch Irish-Catholic, was startled by the festive atmosphere in the graveyard. People were having a good time as they partied with the dead; children were everywhere, playing tag around the tombstones as their musical laughter rang through the graveyard. A man placed a recent picture of his son, dark and surly in a Raiders jacket, on a small table inside the shrine. In a scribbled note accompanying the photo, the father pleaded with Juan Soldado to save his son from prison: You know he is innocent, he implored; you have to free him before something terrible happens inside that jail.

The image stayed with me, and a few weeks later I noticed a new picture, with father and son posing in front of a church, pinned to the wall above the old note. His son had been freed, and the father had come to the altar on his knees to give thanks to the soldier-saint.

-taken from Patrick Maher’s article in the San Diego Reader

Lately I have been reflecting more and more on the metaphor of haunting as it applies to our modern lives. Haunting in our day and age is something that amuses us on the Sci-Fi channel, in the movie theatres, or in ghost stories by the campfire. We consider the idea of New Orleans being the “most haunted city in America” just another ploy to get tourists to visit, and the paranormal and supernatural never really make a dent in the postmodern rationalist cosmology that we have erected around ourselves. The result is that we have a universe that interferes very little in our personal opinions or decisions. This is a world that gives us the most liberty (read: license) to be the individuals we want to be. It also, I would contend, leaves us with a sense of profound hollowness.

One of the figures who haunts my own life is that of Juan Castillo Morales, the now infamous Juan Soldado, who was executed in Tijuana in 1938 for the brutal rape and murder of eight year old Olga Camacho. Between the finding of little Olga’s body and his execution in a cemetery of the supposed killer by the Flight Law (la ley de la fuga), only sixty hours had passed, which included a secret nocturnal military tribunal in the house of one of the army captains. After the rage, violence and riots in the aftermath of Olga’s death and Juan’s execution, many began to feel remorse for the blood lust that had led to the hasty death of a man who received no fair trial. When various supernatural occurences began to surrond his grave, many interpreted it as Juan’s anima protesting his innocence. To this day, people still go there for favors, as shown above, in spite of the official Church’s frowning upon his cult.

Putting together the various shards of the mosaic of childhood memories, I have found bits and pieces of this mysterious figure in my own life. As I have written in an earlier piece on this subject, my grandmother had his picture in a shrine to the right of her bed. Until I found the Vanerderwood book on Juan Soldado only about a year ago now, I had no idea who this person was and why he was there. It was clear that my grandmother prayed to him and felt she owed him something very important. Only when I pressed my mother did I find out that my grandmother had prayed to him to save my father’s life when he was fighting in Vietnam. That was six years before I was born. Since I have found that out, my own sense of debt to him has grown little by little.

Spanish Catholicism has always had a sense of the violent, the unsettling, and the strange. One only needs to look at pictures of the penitentes at Holy Week, the Most Powerful Hand, or the bizarre images of the Trinity as three Christs to find that out. One of the primordial archetypes of Spanish religious consciousness is the victim of the violent and unjust death. Throughout Latin America, shrines have emerged of people who have been brutally killed for a perceived wrong doing. Many, if not most, were not very saintly people in their earthly lives, but the images of the Spanish crucifix, the Lord scourged at the pillar, and the Mater Dolorosa deeply affect how people see these extraordinary people and events. Violent death at the hands of an unjust authority is an “icon” of Christ’s own unjust treatment at the hands of the Sanhedrin. It doesn’t really matter who suffered it or for what reason.

The violent, the bizarre, and the abnormal are not merely perceived as evil and absurd in the Spanish religious consciouness, but rather as the sine qua non of divine communication with mortals. In appeasing the animas of these fallen people, the simple worshipper is trying to right a wrong in a cosmos tormented by asymmertical violence aimed at those least able to protect themselves. It is perhaps not a profound theological insight as conceived by the academic. It could rather be perceived as a survival tactic in a world that seems to be out to get you. There is no theology behind haunting, as there is no aesthetic behind pornography. It is the way of life in this fallen world, a necessary awareness that the ways of the universe do not abide by human rules of rationality and propriety.

 So just as an anti-clerical Latin American atheist still fears the hand of God even if he thinks that Catholicism is a bunch of hooey, so do I respect the power of Juan Soldado as an intercessor and suffering soul before the Lord.  I carry around his image not so much because I pray to him often or will even pray to him at all, but as a reminder of the world that I have come from and of the loved ones I have left behind there (my dear abuelita). In the end, it is this sanitary world of rationalist hubris that is an illusion and it will fade away quickly when we least expect it. When it comes down to it, we will all need as many heavenly intercessors we can get when we find ourselves in that bind, no matter how strange or unsavory their lives may have been in this vale of tears.



7 responses

11 08 2010

picture six

17 11 2009
Slouching towards the “American Jesus” – part I « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] worship, my immediate first reaction is to hand him a Green Scapular and possibly an extra Juan Soldado holy card (if I have one on me), and exhort him to commend himself to the unfailing prayers of the […]

17 11 2008
Regnum Mortis « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] an exclusive cult at all; if anything, she was just a minor hanger-on beside her picture of Juan Soldado, whose picture I carry around in my wallet. Chances are, she never did any of the weird things seen […]

30 06 2008
A Debate About Syncretism « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] of the laity is often about what we can get away with. ( I am thinking here specifically of some of the quirks of my grandmother, que Dios la tenga en Su gloria). I am beginning to think that the shepherding of […]

6 06 2008

This post reminds me of how Martin Luther King haunts the lives of black people, particularly in the city of Atlanta (my hometown). I’ve noticed quite a few posts and comments in Catholic blogs that seem to suggest utter bewilderment as to why blacks fixate so much on him. When I first read this, I was shocked since I figured everyone, barring neo-Nazis and the like, admired Martin Luther King, Jr. Plus, being from Atlanta, King’s home town, I was used to people In my It’s not uncommon to find black homes in which a picture of Jesus and a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. are side by side on the wall. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are black Catholics who pray for his intercession. When Coretta Scott King died, I know at least one predominantly black Catholic parish had masses said for the repose of her soul for a week (I’ve never determined if that was against the rubrics or not). I consider the old Ebeneezer Baptist Church, which is now a museum, to be haunted in the sense that you’re using the term. Even as a Catholic, I feel overwhelmed by the melancholy and spirit that dwells in that building.

5 06 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I think the main difference is that Juan Castillo Morales is an acutal person with a soul, and Spanish folk Catholicism has always had a devotion to the Anima Sola. You can pray for the intercession of the dead provided that you know that a person is not in Hell, which is usually not possible to know this side of death.

“La Santa Muerte”, however, is just death, without any clear link to a Christian or any other cosmology. Is it the angel of death? Is it death as a pre-Columbian goddess? No one knows. That is why it’s unacceptable. And by this I also answer Josh S.’ objection.

5 06 2008
The Shepherd

The question is where’s the line between a Juan Soldado and a Santa Muerte?

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