“Tell her that her grandmother, on her mother’s side, was a powerful witch,” said Amy Venezia, pointing toward Erika the veteran bartender at Nelson. “Let her know that she wasn’t a bad witch, she was more of a healer type.”
“¡Es cierto! ¿Cómo sabe?” (She’s sure? How does she know?) Erika was spooked.
“Tell her she is always watching over her. She is here with her now.” I translated Amy’s words and explained to Erika that Amy is a psychic medium from Oregon. When she brought Amy and I drinks, Erika told us she had chills from Amy’s words.
On December 22nd, 2016, Amy hired me for the day to take her around Tijuana. She travels the world visiting and studying “haunted” places. Amy’s main objective in Tijuana was to visit the tomb of folk-saint Juan Soldado.
“Oh yeah, I used to play hide ’n’ seek as a kid all the time in there,” said Erika about Panteon Municipal #1, where Juan Soldado is buried. Erika grew up in Colonia Castillo, where the graveyard is located. “I don’t believe in ghosts or anything of that sort,” said Erika after I told her we had just visited the cemetery.
Juan Castillo Morales, better known as Juan Soldado (Juan the Soldier), was convicted of raping and murdering Olga Camacho Martínez, an eight-year old from Tijuana. He was executed by firing squad on February 17, 1938, in the graveyard where he is buried. His story is one of the most popular urban myths in the city. An extensive article was published by the Reader in 1997 and books have written about Juan Soldado.
His tomb is still visited, as many people believe he was falsely accused of the crime and that now his spirit grants miracles.
I picked up Amy early in the morning at a coffee shop in Playas de Tijuana. It was raining heavily that morning at the cemetery, empty except for the keeper who told us where Juan’s shrine is located and sold us a candle for a dollar.
The small burial ground has tombs touching each other with narrow pathways in between. The left side of the graveyard has many small tombs with angel sculptures on top. Infants from the early and mid 20th Century are buried there.
Following the main path of cobblestone, we found Juan’s shrine located near the entrance in a small gated red-and-white mausoleum of concrete and brick with two faded-green soldier sculptures on top and a poorly written prayer on a large plaque dated November 20th, 1974. More soldier sculptures are found inside on pedestals and altars. Fresh flowers, candles, drawings, notes, plaques of thanks for miracles in poorly written Spanish, and even a picture of a Chargers fan.
Amy asked for private time in the shrine to light her candle and talk to Juan’s spirit. I walked around the cemetery and took pictures.
Many tombs are well kept and seem to have constant visitors. Others are in shambles. I found a tomb engraved with Chinese characters with the dates 1872-1956 on the bottom. I then slipped in the mud next to a broken concrete tomb with shattered glass and a broken cross.
Amy came out of the mausoleum with a sly smile. Rain was still coming down. To avoid a discussion about the supernatural (which I’m very skeptical of), I did not ask Amy anything about her time talking to Juan’s spirit. Instead, we continued on what my Tijuana tours are usually about: tacos, food, beer, and drinks.
“Matt walked away and I instantly felt the spirit of Juan Soldado,” Amy wrote on her blog about the experience. “He [the spirit of Juan] expressed to me that this was not the place to get into his story… and I agreed. Matt and I continued our day, he didn’t ask any questions about what I had done in there or what I thought.”
I took Amy to the old Teléfonica Gastro Park for brunch. She asked for a margarita and I took her to Nelson Bar, where she said she felt a dark energy and somehow knew about Erika’s witch grandmother. Amy did not mention anything about spirits, souls, or anything related to the supernatural until that moment: she told me she felt the power of Erika’s link to her dead grandmother.
We then went to Caesar’s Restaurant for a salad. Before parting ways, I wanted to take Amy to El Tinieblo Bar where they prepare a great hipster margarita made with mezcal. Amy said she also felt a dark energy in that bar and later wrote in her blog:
“I told Matt I was done drinking for the day, so I ordered the light drink to end on. Matt ordered a strong one, where they smoked wood and trapped the smoke in the glass before pouring the mezcal. At that moment, an epiphany, an answer came, in a way that was undeniable. A very stark, shocking, black and white, final answer to what I lit a candle for and petitioned Juan Soldado. Matt could feel it too and knew something had just changed on a dime. We switched drinks and now I had the strong mezcal in my hand, as I heard Matt’s dry wit come out as he said, 'fucking Juan Soldado.'”
Amy never told me what happened, but I knew her answer didn’t come from the spirit world. She had just checked her phone and seemingly received bad news when I noticed that she almost broke down crying. I hugged her and that’s when I jokingly cursed Juan Soldado. I called an Uber for Amy to take her back to her Airbnb.
I saw Erika a few nights after the encounter. She couldn’t shake Amy’s words from her head. She had asked her mom about her grandmother and confirmed that she used to be a witch doctor. Erika’s grandmother quit being a witch when she got married to her grandfather but was known in the city as a healer. Now, every time I see Erika behind the bar, she asks me the same two questions: “How did Amy know?” And “Caguama o especial?”