Juan Castillo Morales, (?–1938) known by many as Saint Juan Soldado (Juan the Soldier), was a convicted rapist and murderer who later became a folk saint to many in northwestern Mexico and in the southwestern United States. A private in the Mexican army, Castillo was executed on February 17, 1938 for the rape and murder of Olga Camacho Martínez, an 8-year-old girl from Tijuana, Baja California. His adherents believe that he was falsely accused of the crime and have appealed to his spirit for help in matters of health, criminal problems, family matters, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and other challenges of daily life. Relatively little is known about Castillo, while accounts of his death vary widely. He was a private in the Mexican army from Jalisco. In 1938, while stationed in Tijuana, he was accused of the rape and murder of Olga Camacho Martínez, an eight-year-old girl who disappeared on February 13, 1938, and whose decapitated body was found shortly thereafter. The girl’s father, by some accounts, was involved in a labor dispute arising out of the closing of a local casino by President Lázaro Cárdenas. Castillo was arrested and allegedly confessed. Other accounts claim he maintained his innocence until his death. A crowd, perhaps led by the girl’s parents and others connected with the labor dispute, attempted to seize him while he was in custody, setting fire to the police station and the city hall and preventing firefighters from responding to the fires. Local authorities turned him over to the army, which proceeded to sentence him to death after a summary court martial. Castillo was shot pursuant to the so-called ley fuga, which authorized the killing of prisoners who attempt to flee, but in fact was often used as an excuse for summary executions. He was buried at the site of his death.
Shortly after his execution the story began circulating that he was innocent and had been framed by a superior officer, Jesse Cardoza, who was guilty of the crime. Residents began reporting strange events associated with Juan Soldado’s gravesite shortly after his death, including blood seeping from his grave and ghostly voices. Others began leaving stones at his tomb, attributing miraculous occurrences to them.
In the old Puerta Blanca cemetery there are now small chapels dedicated to Juan Soldado. The first one is the edge of the pantheon where he died. The second chapel is for all to enter and is where it says he is buried; both chapels are regularly visited and prayed at by people who have problems crossing the border into the United States or who are involved in the trafficking of people in the borderland. Devotees have also claimed that he has interceded for them in other areas, such as health and family problems.
Other shrines to Juan Soldado can be found elsewhere throughout the region, while votive candles, ex voto cards and other religious items devoted to him are sold throughout northwestern Mexico and the areas of California and Arizona where immigrants passing through the region have established communities. Similar cults have arisen around the grave sites of other victims of injustice who met a violent death and who are believed to have the power to intercede on behalf of those who pray for them.
Juan Soldado’s cult reflects, in some ways, the unsettled community that Tijuana was and is. The Catholic Church had no well-established local saints in the Tijuana region and was itself compromised in the eyes of many by its association with the powerful interests against whom the Mexican Revolution had been fought. Juan Soldado, a humble, nearly anonymous emigrant from the countryside who was allegedly wrongly accused by the authorities, was a fitting symbol of the upheavals that the people of that era and region confronted.
Juan Soldado is among a group of unofficial saints not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church but worshiped by people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Many of the region’s folk saints were underdogs with checkered pasts who battled the system or were failed by it.
In South Texas, the faithful pray at the shrine of Don Pedrito Jaramillo, a liquor supplier who is said to have healed the poor through herbal medicines and faith healing.
“Conditions have defined the region’s popular saints. They are saints not stemming from mystical holiness but rather from profaneness,” according to Manuel Valenzuela, a
Tijuana sociologist who has written a book about border saints and folklore.
Among them is Jesus Malverde, a Robin Hood-style outlaw from the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa. Hanged in 1909 and believed to be one of Mexico’s first marijuana growers, today he is the unofficial patron saint of drug traffickers.
Juan Soldado, ayúdame a cruzar (“Soldier John, help me across”) – supplication voiced by undocumented migrants at the tomb of Juan Soldado, prior to attempting a border crossing.
- Griffith, James S., Folk Saints of the Borderlands. Tucson, Arizona: Rio Nuevo Publishing 2003 ISBN 1-887896-51-1.
- Vanderwood, Paul J., Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press 2004 ISBN 0-8223-3404-6.