I first learned of Juan Soldado a decade ago, I reacted like most
everyone else: ‘‘How is this possible?’’ How could it be that a
confessed rapist-murderer who had been publicly executed for
that horrible crime in 1938 had come to be venerated as a miracle-
working saint at his grave site in Tijuana, Mexico, just across the border
from my home in San Diego, California? It took many visits to the shrine
which now covers Juan’s grave, numerous conversations with those who
believe in him (and some with those who do not), deep readings in
religious and other literature, archival digging, interviews with priests,
scholars, curanderos, and skeptics, and considerable personal pondering
before I began to discern the contours of popular religiosity that I believe
led to the devotion. This was not precisely a journey of self-discovery; I
have always admired people of faith, perhaps in part because my own is
less absolute. But my research did deepen my appreciation for the myriad
creative ways in which humans seek to overcome obstacles in their lives
and reach an accord with the Divine. Faith has the power to provide a
person’s passport to liberation.
juan lived as Juan Castillo Morales. Beyond that, facts about his life
are hard to establish. He was apparently born and raised in the pueblo of
Ixtáltepec (then a town of twelve thousand people) deep in the Zápotec
region of southern Mexico, although there is no record of his birth or
baptism in the admittedly spotty parish records. Most families in Ixtál-
tepec farmed life-sustaining corn and beans, but capricious rains and
fierce dry winds created a harsh life for them. They had rich traditions
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