Ken Leighton 9 a.m., March 24
Return to Innocence - Juan Soldado's Haunted Grave in Tijuana
Just a stone’s throw from the border, Puerta Blanca cemetery is Tijuana’s oldest graveyard and home to the crypt of the unofficial resident saint of miracles, protection, fortune, and health - Juan Castillo Morales, better known as Juan Soldado (Juan the Soldier).
In 1938, Juan was accused of raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl and was executed by a firing squad, who gave him the customary la ley fuga running start before gunning him down.
The small chapel that stands where Juan is said to have fallen is now a point of pilgrimage for believers who maintain that he was framed by a general known for his lechery and lascivious taste in girls.
Yesterday, I saw two women walking on their knees from the cemetery entrance to the memorial chapel, a modest blue shack spackled with notes of thankfulness for miracles fulfilled.
According to tradition, the women, one appearing in her fifties and the other in her teens, would be returning stones that they took from the graveyard when they entreated Juan for his help in anything from health to conception to money to safe passage across the border.
Those who neglect to return their stones, tour guide Martha told a group of maybe 30, are paid a late night visit by Juan, who will arrive on offenders' doorsteps, extend his hand, and demand what is his.
Near the back of the cemetery, beneath a towering willow tree at the steps of Juan’s mausoleum, Martha told the story of how she came to believe in the soldier’s innocence and divine powers.
Years ago, broke and down on her luck, Martha visited Juan’s memorial temple and had an unexpected rendezvous with the saint soldier himself.
“How many of you believe in ghosts?” Martha asked the group, her eyes obscured by dark sunglasses beneath long, raven black hair.
“How about encounters?”
Juan, Martha said, had whispered into her ear that desperate day in the chapel, assuring her of his innocence and ensuring her a change in fortune.
The next day, Martha said, she found several thousand dollars in a restaurant bathroom and returned to thank Juan for his blessings.
“Then he whispered right here, in the same ear,” Martha said, gesturing to one shoulder, “and he said, ‘Don’t you see now that I am innocent?’”
Her words were harrowing and sharp and sent a ghastly electricity over my skin.
As unbelievable as it may be, Martha’s story is but one among many heralding Juan’s powers, as evinced by notes scrawled everywhere on the walls of Juan’s final resting place.
The crypt-keeper's storage shed.
Down the street, we visited the grave site of eight-year-old Olga Camacho Martínez, who, Martha says, was once the neighbor of Martha’s mother.
This man had been situated with fresh flowers, an open beer, a cup of coffee, oranges, and a plate holding half a sandwich and some macaroni salad.
The Turista Libre bus transported us to a market place while guide Derrik Chinn, a four-year gringo resident of Tijuana, passed out orange jello shots in tribute to the traditional orange marigolds associated with Dia de Los Muertos.
We wandered the market for maybe thirty minutes among pronounced odors of pungent cheese, raw meat, and dried botanica herbs.
“Narco-saint” Burt Reynolds, er, Jesús Malverde, is a popular figure among drug traffickers.
Andrea, DJ Claire, Jenny, and Andrew, playing tourist.
After a quick stop at a craft beer bar, we headed to El Taller, a former silk screen printing warehouse gone upscale restaurant, whose corrugated tin siding and hardwood motif lent a sophisticated but easy-going California gold rush meets pomo industrial art space ambiance.
My table shared a hot beet salad with goat cheese, bacon wrapped shrimp with potatoes (why have I never heard or even thought of this?), and a mole pizza with steak and arugula.
DJ Claire and Derrik eat pizza and smile.
I have no idea why I didn’t take more photos, but you can check out Turista Libre’s photos from the same tour last year for some quality food porn and photos of Panteon Del Taurino (The Bullfighting Cemetery), a hole-in-the-wall dive bar where we stopped for 32 ounce caguamas of Tecate before heading home.