Sarita Colonia

18 08 2008

On the Birth of a Folk Saint

Not much information exists in English on the Peruvian cult to Sarita Colonia. Outside of Frank Graziano’s book, Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America, information about her in anything other than Spanish is scarce. In the world of folk saints, however, she is one of the heavy hitters, like Jesus Malverde and Gaucho Gil. The main difference between this Peruvian woman and other folk saints is that we know exactly who she is and the circumstances of her life and death. When her cult was far more popular than it is now, her many siblings were still in middle age and some have benefited from the people’s devotion to her. This has not stopped people from making up stories about her to make her appear larger than life. From a poor immigrant girl from the highlands of Peru to the patroness of the lumpen proletariat of Lima, she is a prime example of how people can take a simple story and create an elaborate mythology around it.

First, of course, come the facts. Sarita Colonia was born in highland city of Huaraz on March 1st, 1914. Her siblings say that she was a very pious girl who collected the images of saints instead of dolls, though little else is known about her life before the age of 10. When her mother fell ill, the family immigrated to Lima to seek medical attention. For a brief time, Sarita and her sisters were enrolled in convent schools, which was a glimmer of hope for her impoverished life, and this experience is said to have instilled in her the idea of becoming a nun. Her family, however, had to move back to Huaraz when her mother’s condition worsened. She died within a few months of the return, leaving Sarita and her siblings orphaned.

From then on, Sarita had to begin a struggle to support the family to which she had become the “little mother”. First, she took a job as a nanny where she suffered abuse from her patron family. When her father’s new wife died, leaving four more orphans, she helped to bring the family to Lima, and from there she began to work in the markets of Lima to support herself and her orphaned family. Here is probably where she got her reputation as being a benevolent and caring patron for all who would come to her. She lived for her family first and never had time for men and dancing. What little she had, she shared with others. This endeared her more and more with the inhabitants of the slums of Lima. Her life came to an abrupt end, probably from malaria, on December 1st, 1940. She was 26 years old. Her father, a carpenter, constructed a cross over the mass grave in which his daughter was buried. That is where the facts of the life of Sarita Colonia end.

As in all stories of folk saints, how she went from this to the patroness of taxi cab drivers, prostitutes, transvestites, homosexuals, prisoners, and anyone else who is in desperate need of help is far from clear. The most popular urban legend on how she died, one known by most Peruvians, is that she threw herself into the ocean when two men tried to rape her. This of course did not really happen, and is probably the result of a fusion of Sarita’s story with that of another figure from recent Peruvian history who died such a death. She has also become the patroness of immigrants, she who had already lived the story that they would now have to live. Many Peruvians ask for her intercession  and aide to enter the United States illegally without papers. And as is the case of many folk saints, people go to her for help in far from Christian endeavors: robberies, extra-marital affairs, and the like. Prisoners have even christened entire wings of prisons with her name.

Although her cult is now waning, partially from the bad press of Sarita Colonia being the patron saint of thugs, it had once gotten to the point of inspiring popular songs and even a television mini-series on her life. Here is a music video of one such song with scenes from that program:

What people have gotten from the almost mythical figure of Sarita Colonia is precisely what they have put in; she becomes many things to as many people who come to her. In general, she is the icon of mass urbanization, of people having to flee their rural ancestral homelands to find work in the large metropolitan centers of Latin America. Though Catholic cultures of devotion (to use Graziano’s term) always deal with eternal archetypes (the feminine, the miraculous, suffering and redemption), they still need to find contemporary avatars of these archetypes, using both the language of the traditions that came before and at the same time transforming them. The physical image of Sarita Colonia is based on the only photo that exists of her when she was still a child. It is impersonal but warm, a typical portrait of Latin womanhood. Also incorporated in it is the image of roses: a not so minor knod to the patroness of Lima herself, Santa Rosa. Her cult employs the same imagery of Spanish Catholicism: the ex-votos, the candles, the use of other saints at her shrine, but it has never been approved by the official Church. At best, a priest shows up every year at her graveyard shrine to uncomfortably try to co-opt the cult on her major feasts, only to be ignored by most of her devotees. They are there to talk to the “saint” who they feel listens to them when they feel that other official channels (and saints) have been closed off. It all remains very personal, very low-key, and very private.

While I will never be able to endorse a young criminal praying to Sarita Colonia for success in his robbery, or a prostitute praying to Sarita so that she doesn’t get raped and killed in the practice of her profession, I am unable to outright condemn her cult as a pernicious superstition. Here we can apply the old cliche of “What would Jesus do?”, and the answer wouldn’t be at all clear. Was not Our Lord Himself seen as the patron of the same people that Sarita Colonia has custody over now? Didn’t He hang out with the prostitutes, thieves, and other undesirables of His own society? Was He not also from the boondocks, mocked for not being from the capital, and did He not have to struggle with discrimination because of this? Although in the end one must trust the judgment of the Church when it comes to public veneration of the dead, these considerations are almost enough to compel one to gently knod in approval to the idea of some poor immigrant girl being venerated as a “santo venacular”, a folk saint. This is the story of a girl who finally made it, maybe not in this life, but in the many mansions of the Father’s House.


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9 10 2008
Sarita Colonia - THE REMIX!!!!! « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] As a way of introduction to the post below, a song to Peruvian folk saint re-worked by the rock group, Los Mojarras. (A version of the original song was posted in this post.) […]

8 09 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Thank you, Peruvian. I think of all people in the Gospels, a prostitute is not such a bad thing to be. God I think has a soft spot for them.

8 09 2008
Peruvian

Hello there. I am (an atheist) from Peru who remembers the song above and story of Sarita Colonia from my days living in a northern Peruvian coast city, where migrants from the Andes either settled or stopped temporarily while on their way to Lima. My own parents were such migrants. Though not a believer in either saints or gods, I have held an interest in the stories behind certain Catholic saints from a sociological perspective for a while now.

I wanted to comment on a one piece of your article: “While I will never be able to endorse…a prostitute praying to Sarita so that she doesn’t get raped and killed in the practice of her profession.” I hope you (and those who would agree with you) change your mind about this. Prostitutes are just about as deserving of safety in the conduction of their “professional lives” as any other human being trying to eek out a living in a land in which poverty and unemployment is often the rule rather than the exception. Having witnessed the worst of the 1980s economic conditions in Peru, I am cannot help but think that many prostitutes had little to no option on how to make a living. Though too young to be able to tell who was and who was not a prostitute in my hometown in Peru, I do remember witnessing poverty around me, and that has left me with a strong sense of the need to understand the lumpenproletarian in terms that neither the church nor Marx would be willing to do–as much as I appreciate marx, his judgment of the lumpenproletariat is a bit moralistic. For this reason, I can empathize with the plight of the lumpenproletariat, and understand (though not condone) the comfort that religious icons such as Sarita Colonia, or devotion to any religion, offer to those whose lives seem to be bleak otherwise.

Anyway, just a friendly comment which I hope you will publish.

29 08 2008
Alice C. Linsley

You are providing an intellectual service and a fine job you’re doing of it too! Keep up the good work.

18 08 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Justine,

Thank you for the encouragement. However, my posts on folk saints play more the role of anthropological and philosophical reflections rather than exhortations toward piety and virtue. I post them because I find them interesting and I think there is a lot to learn from them. Sarita Colonia is actually probably one of the more edifying ones, many are far from edifying. Information on them is scarce, especially in English, so I feel I am providing some sort of intellectual service in informing the English-speaking public of their existence. Information on Santa Rosa de Lima is abundant and can be found in many places. For information on the cults to “unofficial saints” such as Sarita Colonia, you really have to dig for it.

18 08 2008
Justine

Bravo! Very interesting story, thanks for sharing. It is for articles like this that I am drawn back to your blog.

I just finished a book on St. Rose of Lima, whose feast day is fast approaching. Perhaps you will spotlight her next. 😉

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