Shrine to Elvis, by theogeo, from Flickr (used under Creative Commons license)
It’s not quite officially summer yet, technically speaking, but the days are longer and the air is warmer, so I thought this would be a good time to revisit a subject which I explored last summer and add a new chapter to the book of New World Witchery. Today I’ll be looking again at Saints, but veering away from the orthodox and the official and into the realm of popular or “folk” saints.
The process of canonization frequently involves a great deal of waiting and confirming and bureaucracy on the part of the Catholic church, and sometimes folk saints are simply people who are on the way to becoming official saints but who still lack whatever final paperwork might be required to get their membership card into the elect order. In other cases, folk saints have little or nothing to do with the Catholic Church, and instead are simply incredibly popular figures who’ve developed devotional cults which make sacred pilgrimages or maintain shrines to a particular figure. Some of this was discussed on the Podcast Special on Magical Saints a while back, where I highlighted both official and unofficial saints, so some of the information below may be a bit repetitive, but it can’t hurt to have a little more information.
So what sets a folk saint apart from a revered ancestor, then? How is that “sainthood” bestowed, if not through the channels of a legitimizing body like the church? In general, the holiness of the saint empowers him or her—the saint is either directly in communion with the divine or is a transformed divinity him- or herself. Take for example, Teresa Urrea, whom we examine below in a bit more detail. She underwent a number of ecstatic ‘fits,’ during which she attended the court of God:
A mythology quickly grew up around each of the folk saints, attracting ever more adherents. The content of this cycle of stories is remarkably similar, although the parallels here are closer between Teresa and [folk saint Nino] Fidencio, than between these two and [San] Damian [of Sonora]. Teresa was thought to be in continual contact with supernatural beings during her ecstatic attacks. When these occurred, an immense multitude of people approached her, kneeling, praying, and weeping. When she returned to herself, she announced that she had been with God and his angels who gave her advice on morality (Macklin 94).
The divine actions of these saints frequently came at great personal expense. Some gave away worldly possessions, and others sacrificed their health and well-being for the aid of those who came to them:
These folk healers worked hard, sometimes seeing hundreds of people per day, and sometimes getting little sleep for long periods of time. Both El Nino and Teresita are conjectured to have died young partly as a result of exhaustion from years of labor. They also worked for little or no compensation. These old-time curanderos were regarded as folk saints while they were still alive—that is, they were recognized by la gente (the people) as holy beings, even while they were not officially canonized as such by the church (Torres 6).
Still, there are cases where a saint does not act particularly saintly and yet develops a strong following. Maximon, the Guatemalan folk saint who likely derives from a native deity very loosely wrapped in a Catholic guise—his name derives from the name San Simon, or St. Simon, but clearly even that name doesn’t stick—can be fickle and demanding, and generally provides assistance to people through wealth rather than health. Jesus Malverde works on behalf of the narcotraficantes and other outlaws. While Elvis certainly accomplished a lot in his lifetime, no one is making the case for his sainthood based on his receiving angelic lessons on morality during ecstatic trances.
The cult of folk saints is widely practiced and very popular among Hispanic populations, although it is not exclusively limited to them by any means. In some cases, the folk saint in question is a cultural hero of some kind (see Pancho Villa below), and the combination of exalted personality and the practice of Catholic ceremony merge to form the folk saint reverence tradition. In other situations, displaced native spirits have been overlaid with legitimate or semi-legitimate identities (see Maximon and La Guadalupe). However, any iconic figure can inspire intense devotion, and that devotion can eventually translate into folk sainthood.
The methods for revering folk saints can include anything from simply maintaining an image of that person to praying to them for intercession and making votive offerings to elaborate undertakings like pilgrimages. Most saints have likes and dislikes, preferences for particular appeasements, etc. Some are quite specific (Expedite requires a slice of Sara Lee pound cake for the performance of his brand of intercession, for example). Others seem happy with any heartfelt act of devotion.
The remainder of this article will be devoted to looking—very briefly—at half a dozen or so common folk saints based out of North America. This is hardly a complete list, nor are the entries here going into nearly enough detail on any of the saints mentioned, but hopefully it will provide a reasonable jumping-off point for learning more.
Teresita – “Teresita Urrea the curandera, who passed through New Mexico around the turn of last century and who left behind her the rumor of her great legend” (Torres 91). Apprenticed to a curandera named Huila, the woman born Teresa Urrea who became affectionately known as Teresita came from an aristocratic father and peasant mother. In addition to healing, she could heal and hypnotize. Photos of her performing healings can be found in the book Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing, by Eliseo ‘Cheo’Torres, and you can see one at this link as well. At a young age, she suffered a coma and near death after an attempted rape. Upon her recovery, she took up curanderismo and became famous for her tireless healings of the poor and marginalized communities in the Mexican-American borderlands. She was described as “[w]orking herself toward an early grave from the beginning” (Torres 97). Teresita befriended the Yaqui Indians, and was revered by many as a living saint within her lifetime. Known as the Saint of Cabora, she sought to heal anyone and right political wrongs done the native and mestizo peoples she worked with. She died in 1906 after working to the point of exhaustion. Cheo Torres acknowledges that “at least a couple of different versions of the story have circulated over the years” (Torres 101).
El Nino Fidencio – A deeply religious young man from Espinazo, Mexico, who performed a number of faith healings and miracles during his lifetime, Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino showed promise in his calling from a very early age (which is why he was given the epithet “el nino,” or “the child”). His abilities were so great he was reputed to be able to perform miracles from miles away. He managed to do not just distance healing, but amputations and surgeries to remove illness. He had a variety of other unorthodox and alternative healing methods as well. He is said to have kept a garden with two hundred herbs which he processed into cures, and he frequently “prescribed herbal baths, nutritional therapy, and laughter. He rolled people in dirt. He sat the mentally ill on children’s swings and incorporated singing and dance into his cures” (Illes 285). The church where he is buried has “mementoes included such items as desiccated body parts in glass jars that El Nino had removed through amputation or excision, and the broken bottles that he had sometimes used to perform the surgeries” (Torres 21). El Nino Fidencio is sought in hopeless cases and has a highly active cult following. He died young, only about 40 years old. While he’s not officially recognized as a saint, his propensity for performing miraculous healings and his religious faith (he was a devout Catholic) make him resemble other canonized saints fairly closely. Some of his devotees keep “little boxes” through which his healing power is supposed to be channeled (“Nino Fidencio” Wikipedia).
Pancho Villa taking Zacatecas, by Angel Boliver (via Wikimedia Commons)
Pancho Villa – This historical figure was seen as a military hero by some and a scandalous villain by others. He was a general who led the division del norte during the Mexican Revolution, and he had a very Robin Hood-esque reputation. While his guerilla tactics included train robbery and land confiscation, he frequently distributed his takings among his soldiers and the local poor, which made him—unsurprisingly—tremendously popular. He was born Jose Doroteo Villa (he and I share a birthday, which makes me like him even more), and he demonstrated a strong combination of political and military savvy very quickly in his career. In the United States, we know him best for his attacks in the Texas/New Mexico region, but his activity in Mexico was much wider, including governorship of the state of Chihuaha and serving a primary pro-democracy leader during the period of Mexican civil war. He was assassinated in his car in 1923, and was reportedly “found in the driver seat of the car, with one hand reaching for his gun” (“Pancho Villa” Wikipedia). “Give Pancho Villa cheap cigars, cigarettes, and tequila. The general despised the pretentious, overpriced, or refined. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t have good taste. If you can offer him something cheap and good, all the better!” (Illes 553-4). It is said that he likes to grope or pinch women who attract his attention.
Maximon –This Guatemalan folk saint bears a striking resemblance to the “Man in Black” found in other traditions like African Amercican hoodoo. He is seen as a saint syncretized to St. Simon Peter, but any adoption into the Catholic assembly of saints is superficial and tenuous. He likely derives from “a pre-Columbian Mayan god of the underworld formerly known as Maam (‘grandfather’)” (Lucky Mojo 1). He is offered rum and cigarettes (statues of the saint frequently smoke the cigarettes as part of the offering ritual) and is thought to provide aid to his votaries in matters of love, health, and money, but also in exacting vengeance on enemies. His cult is particularly strong in the town of Santiago Atitlan, where his attendants remain constantly with his effigy. Judika Illes recommends washing the clothing from the Maximon “doll” with citronella and lemongrass oil, then keeping the rinse water to use in magical work (Illes 506).
St. Expedite Shrine on Reunion Island, by David Monniaux (via Wikimedia Commons)
St. Expedite – This saint inhabits a tenuous space in the heavenly assembly—no one is quite sure if he existed, or if he might just be the result of a shipping mistake in which another saint’s statue was labeled for fast delivery—in a box labeled ‘EXPEDITE’, or sometimes the Italian ‘SPEDITO’—and the name stuck to the figure (or in some versions, the body of an unknown saint) and became a holy helper in its own right. The official Catholic story of Expeditus (as he is sometimes known) places him in the fourth century CE, a late Roman imperial soldier whose iconography shows him stepping on a crow which calls out ‘cras!,’ a sound similar to a caw but which also means “tomorrow” in Latin, hence his reputation for getting things done today (Catholic Online 1). “Saint Expedite is controversial. He has a reputation for unscrupulousness. He is rumored to assist sorcerors with curses and revenge spells; although some devotees vociferously deny that this is true, insisting that he will only fulfill benign petitions” (Illes 281). Offerings for Expedite include a slice of Sara Lee pound cake or red carnations. He’s become incredibly popular in folk Catholicism and some branches of hoodoo, and his devotional images and candles are usually readily available.
Elvis – Being a southerner, I can’t help but mention Elvis. The King of Rock and Roll serves as a sort of patron saint to his fans, who embody their fantaticism with all the hallmarks of religious devotion, including pilgrimages to his home at Graceland in Memphis and by setting up altars with his image on them. He also has a folk mythology surrounding him, including appearances from beyond the grave, miraculous healings, and even the persistent myth that he is still alive. His cult is part kitsch and part true devotion, and it’s very distinct. Some dress like Elvis as a way to honor him or perpetuate his memory, and some leave out offerings of peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches (a favorite food of the King, though he appreciated just about any rich southern dish). He can be petitioned for any number of needs, including healing, musical and artistic inspiration, wisdom and guidance, and overcoming addictions. I think of Elvis as a very special sort of folk saint—one in living memory for many of his devotees and deeply flawed in his personal life, but one who provided joy for millions of people both during and after his time as a mortal. I was an enormous Elvis fan for much of my childhood, despite not having been born at the time of his death. The King has found an especial home in the Latin American community, where he is frequently depicted in skeletal form in Day of the Dead (dia de muertos) celebrations and decorations (Illes 267). Another recommended offering for him? Teddy bears.
Jesus Malverde – In the realm of controversial and unofficial saints, Jesus Malverde is right at the top, alongside a similar roguish hero, Pancho Villa. Known as a “narco-Saint,” this figure guards and protects those involved in illegal activities, particularly those working in the drug trafficking trade. His depictions make him look less like a Catholic Christ figure and far more like a landowning Hispanic gentleman from the nineteenth or early twentieth century. This is fitting, as one legend describes him as “a Robin Hood figure of the early 1900’s that was hanged by the governor. He himself did not traffic drugs, but after his death his reputation for working miracles drew faith strongest among Sinaloa’s poor and highland residents, the classes from which narco-traffickers emerged. Malverde has become the patron saint for many drug smugglers, though the local diocese says the Malverde chapel is an embarrassment. The priests lament the glorification of a man who robbed and killed, though citizens of Sinaloa have found it harder to have faith in a political system that enforces a drug war responsible for the many deaths of their own people. Historians cannot seem to find documentation of his existence, but even still miracles such as the healing of the blind and crippled, the returning of lost cattle, and the saving of a drowning man have been attributed to him” (U. Texas Library 1). In some ways he resembles the folk outlaw figure Zorro, but with less of a penchant for clean living. Malverde’s shrine is used by those who deal with the drug trade, not only those who transport the drugs but families who pray for his protection over loved ones facing criminal charges.
As you can probably guess, the practice of folk-saint veneration is strongest in communities with a heavy Catholic background, and all of the saints above either come from Hispanic backgrounds or have been added into Hispanic folk practices (as in the case of Elvis). There are many folk saints who do not have the strong Hispanic connections mentioned here, of course, and hopefully one day I’ll get around to some of them as well. For now, I hope this has at least whetted your appetite to know more about the intriguing and enchanting pantheon of folk saints in the Americas.
Thanks for reading!
- Illes, Judika. The Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, & Sages (HarperOne, 2011).
- “Jesus Malverde: El Narco-Santon,” U. Texas Library – Narcocorridos site.
- Knab, Timothy J. A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of Contemporary Aztecs (Harper San Francisco, 1997).
- Macklin, Barbara J. and N. Ross Crumrine. “Three North Mexican Folk Saint Movements,” Comparative Studies in Society & History (Cambridge UP, Jan. 1973).
- Mestizo & Indigineous Culture Pinterest board: Teresa Urrea (photo credit).
- “Nino Fidencio,” from Wikipedia.
- “Pancho Villa,” from Wikipedia.
- “St. Expeditus,” Catholic Online.
- Torres, Eliseo ‘Cheo.’ Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2005).
- Yronwode, Catherine. “Maximon,” from the Lucky Mojo webpage.