Border Religion and the Narco-Saints

Over the course of multiple parts, our latest series looks at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with our Mexican neighbors, writer Melissa Guerra takes us on a narrative journey of her homeland, sticking strictly to description and narrative and veering away from politics in a powerful collection of personal stories. Click here to catch up on all the stories in this series, Stories from a Texas Border Ranch.

We were watching an episode of Border Wars on the National Geographic channel. Most of the show’s Texas filming is in our home turf of South Texas, so we recognize the roads, the shopping centers, the neighborhoods and, occasionally, the officers that are featured. It’s like watching a home video. On this particular episode, the agents and television crew were raiding a stash house where it was suspected that migrants were being warehoused by their coyotes, or human smuggling guides, before their journey north.

The stash house was a typical brick home – no distinguishable characteristics outside, and inside there were no beds or furniture, no television, no towels, soap or ways to wash. There was trash, some empty cans of beans and corn, gallons of water, and in a conspicuous corner at the entrance was an elaborate altar. Synthetic jewel-toned ruby and amber votive candles flickered, cheap silk flowers were awkwardly sprouting from clear soda bottles and some familiar plaster figures dangled rosaries and amulets from their bony outstretched hands. The agents rushed past the display in focused pursuit of the smugglers, but I had my husband rewind the recorded show so I could get a better look at the altar.

The combination of culture, religion and smuggling are pillars in our regional sense of place, an uncommon trinity that is quietly understood between locals, but startling and mystifying to outsiders.

Altars play an interesting role in our local culture. I live in the Rio Grande Valley, which is comprised of the four southernmost counties in the state of Texas. The average demographic across our four counties 90% Hispanic, and 60% Roman Catholic. Each county includes shoreline along the Rio Grande, which serves as the international border between the USA and Mexico. Having shoreline along the Rio Grande means that each county is subject to the influx of undocumented migrants that attempt to enter the U.S. without detection. By the end of 2017, over 300,000 undocumented migrants will have been apprehended during their attempt to cross into the U.S. through the Southwest border region. The sum of these elements equals a distinctive local culture with strong religious convictions, and lots of human and drug smuggling activity.

The combination of culture, religion and smuggling are pillars in our regional sense of place, an uncommon trinity that is quietly understood between locals, but startling and mystifying to outsiders. Our faith is deep, with every local neighbor sharing similar core beliefs. What varies between neighbors is whether your faith is based in church doctrine, or the less understood practice of faith healing.

Faith healing is an unmistakable component of our border culture. In a modern, urban world, it is taken for granted that all information and education is delivered by books, newspapers, television and the internet. But in the past, country folks never referred to books, and there is no hard-bound textbook followed by faith healers; beliefs were taught by oral tradition, which is still the case. Birds, animals, weather or the actions of others may deliver messages of impending problems. In response, home ingredients, prayers to specific saints, candles or thoughtful placement of religious items can assist or counteract the information you receive. An uncooked hen’s egg rolled over your body can extract a fever, or using water to adhere a red thread to a baby’s forehead can stop hiccups.

The cures can be administered by your family members, or you can consult the curanderos (healers), hueseros (bone healers), or hierberos (herbal healers) who sometimes set up botanicas (faith healing shops.) around town, where they sell their wares and wait on clients. Since there is no school or manual of learning for faith healing, it’s simply about believing, as the name suggests.

Faith healing can address the needs of your soul or body, but those who believe and practice faith healing are not theologists, nor are they licensed medical doctors. They may choose to follow church doctrine, or they may ignore the church altogether. They break religious rules and medical best practices, twist them with individual interpretations, and then reassemble the broken rules to suit the situation. One of my mother in law’s favorite stories of faith healing in action was of her youngest son, who was remarkably bald as an infant. It was bath time, and she walked in to find the sitter had covered the baby’s head in potato peels, to encourage hair growth. The baby was grinning and splashing in the tub, his little scalp plastered with curls of brown potato skins. Ironically, he grew up to become the hairiest in the family.

Not every person of faith believes in faith healing. But few doubt the power that faith healing saints have over the smuggling community. More often, the faith healing saints that are important to smugglers are referred to as narco-saints. The two most prominent narco-saints are Jesus Malverde and La Santisima Muerte.

It is not understood if Jesus Malverde actually existed, but according to the Robin Hood style legend, he is the patron saint of narco-traffickers. He is always dressed in early 20th century ranch style clothing from Sinaloa, with a western-style yoked jacket, occasionally embellished with marijuana leaf epaulets. His face is that of a Northern Mexico Everyman, with a robust black mustache, a full head of slick black hair, and a determined gaze. He protects drug and human smugglers on their journeys, and is sometimes depicted holding a big bag of money. With the prayer intercession of Jesus Malverde, your human or drug inventory is delivered without incident, and you are paid well.

La Santisima Muerte is a fantastic depiction of a female Grim Reaper who also provides protection, but additionally offers the ability for smugglers to avoid detection, and defy death.  Outsiders might associate her catrina-like appearance to the colorful Day of the Dead culture in Mexico, but based on my experience, the intentions of Day of the Dead and the Santisima Muerte are quite unrelated. Day of the Dead is a celebration of the gift of eternal life as a reward for a good earthly life. La Santisima Muerte grants you control over your life, your death and your destiny, essentially enabling you to become your own deity.

More often, the faith healing saints that are important to smugglers are referred to as narco-saints. The two most prominent narco-saints are Jesus Malverde and La Santisima Muerte.

The affection for faith healing saints has a long tradition along the border. Growing up, I knew of the powerful intercession of Don Pedrito Jaramillo and El Niño Fidencio, faith healers that lived and practiced in South Texas and Northern Mexico in the beginning of the 20th century. An estimated 150,000 fidencistas make the annual pilgrimage of Fidencismo (the devotion to El Niño Fidencio) to the patron saint’s home village of Epinazo, Nuevo Leon, to pray for world peace, seek forgiveness, and to submerge themselves in a healing mud-filled pond. And here in the U.S., the walls of the Don Pedrito Jaramillo Shrine in Falfurrias, Texas (a major filming location for Border Wars, coincidently) are covered with locks of hair, photos of hospitalized children, and lined with abandoned crutches, as testaments to Don Pedrito’s answers to the prayers of the faithful. Both of these faith healers still have strong followings.

Unlike Jesus Malverde and La Santisima Muerte, both Don Pedrito and El Niño actually existed – I have seen photographic portraits of both. But the bigger difference between the new narco-saints and the historical ranch country faith healers is the way they answer your prayers – Don Pedrito and El Niño can offer healing for you and your family. Jesus Malverde and La Santisima Muerte guarantee you wealth, power and immortality. I never hear anyone giving testimony to the effectiveness of prayers offered to Jesus Malverde or La Santisima Muerte, but their silent but swift rise in popularity tells me that their legion of followers is growing.

As the culture of smuggling became more deeply rooted along the border, dedication to intercessors that promise wealth and concealment are surpassing the popularity of intercessors that promised good health. As more altars are being dedicated to narco-saints, more candles (and now, aerosol sprays) are being purchased to bolster intentions to get rich by any means possible. At my local grocery store, the shelves that stock the candles to La Santisima Muerte are reliably depleted.

I’ve talked to Border Patrol agents and officers in the Sherriff’s department, and all agree that narco-saint altars go hand in hand with smuggler dens. However, there is debate regarding the purpose of the altars. Some believe that the altars are testaments to faith in narco-saints, while others believe that altars are meant to intimidate the humans they are smuggling.  Central American migrants do not share the same belief practices as their Northern Mexican smugglers. The sight of an altar to La Santisima Muerte must be paralyzing to disoriented migrants lodged in a stash house.

It may seem curious to non-locals that smugglers are religious. Frankly, I find it curious as well. I wonder often about the divergence of church based prayer, and faith healing prayer. Perhaps I don’t share the same intentions or beliefs as those who construct narco-saint altars in stash houses, but I fully admit that one’s faith has the ability to transform any intention or desire into a reality.