Tijuana: Valentine’s Day, 1938.
In the most notorious crime in the young city’s history, an all-night search by relatives, friends, and authorities ends at dawn with the discovery of eight-year-old Olga Comacho’s butchered body, half buried in the muddy floor of an abandoned building near the police station. The meat that Olga had been sent to get from the butcher the night before was scattered around her body, a hand print visible in a slab of steak.
By midmorning, the story is common knowledge throughout town, and enraged citizens form a lynch mob, screaming for the killer’s blood. For three days, Tijuana is ripped by riots so violent and anarchic that President Roosevelt is kept abreast of the situation and San Diego’s civic pillars call for intervention to defuse the situation. All day Tuesday the tension builds and explodes that night, as shops are looted and burned. In an eerie parallel to Kristallnacht in Germany later the same year, Jewish-owned businesses are targets of the mob’s rage. Both city hall and the police station are torched; fire trucks roll in to quench the flames only to find their hoses cut. The fire crews watch in frustration as buildings are swallowed by the conflagration.
Police fire into the crowd, killing several people even as authorities deny civilian casualties. For 72 hours the tiny border town of 20,000 verges on chaos before a presidential decree from Lázaro Cárdenas metes punishment to the army private who confessed to the crime. The three San Diego newspapers compete all week to offer the most sensational account of events in Tijuana, knocking Hitler from the headlines as the drama plays out 20 miles to the south. Even the Los Angeles Times runs a cover story about “Bloody Tuesday,” February 15, 1938, when the violence peaked.
Fifty-nine years later, the fallout from those events has borne strange fruit: the man executed for the murder is now the folk saint of Tijuana, revered by thousands from the deserts of Sonora to the urban sprawl of Orange County. This is the story of Juan Castillo Morales, 24, from the southern state of Oaxaca, and his transformation into Juan Soldado, boy-saint of the border.
The Catholic Church denies his sanctity even as thousands of his followers flock to his shrine in Tijuana’s oldest public cemetery, Panteón Número Uno, a football field from the border fence and shouting distance from the Imperial Beach swap meet. June 24 is Juan Soldado’s special day — the feast day of St. John the Baptist on the Catholic calendar, known as El Día de San Juan in Mexico. On that day the cemetery is jammed with believers. Three mariachis, hired for this occasion, belt out a lyrical tune about life’s meaninglessness.
My dad and I stumbled onto the scene several summers ago, when I was hiding out in Tijuana from reality and my crazy ex-vieja, who got so cranked on crystal meth one night, she called me the Antichrist. My father, a staunch Irish-Catholic, was startled by the festive atmosphere in the graveyard. People were having a good time as they partied with the dead; children were everywhere, playing tag around the tombstones as their musical laughter rang through the graveyard. A man placed a recent picture of his son, dark and surly in a Raiders jacket, on a small table inside the shrine. In a scribbled note accompanying the photo, the father pleaded with Juan Soldado to save his son from prison: You know he is innocent, he implored; you have to free him before something terrible happens inside that jail.
The image stayed with me, and a few weeks later I noticed a new picture, with father and son posing in front of a church, pinned to the wall above the old note. His son had been freed, and the father had come to the altar on his knees to give thanks to the soldier-saint. Javier is a burly, balding, 40ish man gulping swigs of tequila from the bottle. Between drinks he recounts how Juan Soldado saved him from immigration officers years ago in Santa Ana. Javier was working in an El Torito restaurant when INS staged a raid; the workers scattered and agents were in pursuit when Javier prayed directly to Juan to save him. Javier was making good money, enough to send back to his family in Jalisco; he couldn’t afford to get caught right now.
He escaped La Migra: he was hidden long enough to get away. That was 14 years ago, and Javier has returned to the shrine every June 24 since to give thanks to his savior. Now a legal, permanent resident and owner of his own business, Javier is convinced that a miracle secured him a decent life in the U.S.
How Juan Soldado became a popular saint is a matter of dispute. Some say that a rock by the spot where he fell kept spouting blood, calling attention to his innocence. Others contend that an officer killed the little girl and pinned the crime on Juan, handing him her dismembered body. After the execution, legend goes, several other child murders were committed in Tijuana that were covered up by the government. Only when a high-ranking officer was transferred to Chihuahua (or Sonora or Sinaloa, depending on the storyteller) did the killings cease. According to the San Diego Union in 1938, it was Juan’s wife who reported him to the authorities when he came home late, disheveled, and wearing a blood-drenched shirt.
The municipal cemetery boasts two shrines. The first is a humble structure filled with flowers, candles, and photographs that has drawn pilgrims for more than half a century. The second site is a recently dedicated altar where young Juan was said to have fallen after he was given a 100-yard head start — accorded to him by “Ley Fuga,” the fugitive law embedded in the Napoleonic code — and then shot by a squad of soldiers.
Some of the “miracles” may seem small to Americans couched in the culture of luxury, but they represent hope for many impoverished Mexicans. Here the faithful light candles and display personal testimonies of how Juan Soldado has intervened in their lives (many tijuanenses display a purity of faith that would humble “cafeteria” Catholics, who pick and choose what they want from the smorgasbord of theology). The followers of Juan Soldado believe in his divine powers. On a recent visit to the tomb, I observed many displays of devotion. To the right of the altar, a mother and daughter have perched copies of their passports, received after months, perhaps years, of battling government red tape and inaction.