Paul J. Vanderwood offers a fascinating look at the events, beliefs, and circumstances that have motivated popular devotion to Juan Soldado, a Mexican folk saint. In his mortal incarnation, Juan Soldado was Juan Castillo Morales, a twenty-four-year-old soldier convicted of and quickly executed for the rape and murder of eight-year-old Olga Camacho in Tijuana in 1938. Immediately after Morales’s death, many people began to doubt the evidence of his guilt, or at least the justice of his brutal execution. People reported seeing blood seeping from his grave and hearing his soul cry out protesting his innocence. Soon the “martyred” Morales was known as Juan Soldado, or John the Soldier. Believing that those who have died unjustly sit closest to God, people began visiting Morales’s grave asking for favors. Within months of his death, the young soldier had become a popular saint. He is not recognized by the Catholic Church, yet thousands of people have made pilgrimages to his gravesite. While Juan Soldado is well known in Tijuana, southern California’s Mexican American community, and beyond, this book is the first to situate his story within a broader exploration of how and why popular canonizations such as his take root and flourish.
In addition to conducting extensive archival research, Vanderwood interviewed central actors in the events of 1938, including Olga Camacho’s mother, citizens who rioted to demand Morales’s release to a lynch mob, those who witnessed his execution, and some of the earliest believers in his miraculous powers. Vanderwood also interviewed many present-day visitors to the shrine at Morales’s grave. He describes them, their petitions—for favors such as health, a good marriage, or safe passage into the United States—and how they reconcile their belief in Juan Soldado with their Catholicism. Vanderwood puts the events of 1938 within the context of Depression-era Tijuana and he locates people’s devotion, then and now, within the history of extra-institutional religious activity. In Juan Soldado, a gripping true-crime mystery opens up into a much larger and more elusive mystery of faith and belief.
About the Author
Paul J. Vanderwood (1929-2011) was Professor Emeritus of Mexican History at San Diego State University. He is the author of several books, including The Power of God Against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century; Border Fury: A Picture Postcard Account of the Mexican Revolution and U.S. War Preparedness, 1910–1917; and Disorder and Progress: Bandits, Police, and Mexican Development.
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Juan SoldadoRapist, murderer, martyr, saint
By Paul J. Vanderwood
Duke University Press
Chapter OneNotions of Justice
Dread clutched Feliza Camacho. She had sent Olga, her eight-year-old daughter, to the corner grocery to buy meat for the family's Sunday dinner, and the child had not returned home. Such errands normally took only ten to fifteen minutes, but more than half an hour had passed, and winter's daylight was fast fading. Feliza thought that her next oldest daughter, Lilia, had accompanied her sister to the store, but when she noticed the four-year-old was playing in the living room, she told her to look out the window. Could she see Olga headed up the street? "No, mama." There was no sign of the youngster.
With her third child, an infant daughter, in her arms, Feliza rushed to the La Corona grocery, whose amiable proprietor, Mariano Mendivil, was a neighborhood friend. "Senor, have you seen Olga?" "Why yes, Feliza, she was here just a few minutes ago and bought some meat. She left smiling and happy as ever. I saw her skip over a puddle as she crossed the street, and then I turned to wait on another customer."
Through the store window the mother spotted a young uniformed soldier resting on a wall at the street crossing. Separate military and police headquarters in this small border town of Tijuana stood nearby, and soldiers frequented the vicinity. Feliza approached the soldier: "Did you see alittle girl near here just a few moments ago?" "No, no, senora, I've seen no one. Perhaps she went over that way," and he pointed away from the military compound. Still, no trace of Olga.
What went through the mother's mind? The streets were wet from earlier rain. Perhaps Olga had been hit by a car and taken to the local hospital. But that would have caused a commotion in the neighborhood. Or did she aimlessly wander off to call on a friend, been invited inside a home and was overstaying her visit? Not likely, as she carried meat for dinner. Feliza shielded herself from darker thoughts. Ever since the sensational Lindbergh case six years earlier, parents throughout the United States and beyond feared kidnapping. Reverberations still made front-page news.
Furthermore, within the last few years there had been an alarming series of yet-to-be-solved kidnappings and murders of both children and adults in and around San Diego, California, just fifteen miles north across the international boundary. In February 1931, Virginia Brooks, age ten, had left for Euclid School carrying her lunch, four books, and a bouquet of flowers for her teacher. A month later police discovered her ravished, strangled, and deteriorating body stuffed in a gunny sack on a lonely mesa near the city. On 19 April 1931, the nude body of nineteen-year-old Louise Teuber was found dangling from the limb of a tree at the foot of San Diego's Black Mountain; she had been garroted and then hanged. In 1933 a fiend tortured to death Dalbert Aposhian, seven years old. Officers recovered the boy's mutilated and dismembered body from San Diego Bay. A year later police stumbled upon the raped and otherwise battered body of Celta Cota, age sixteen, a model student at San Diego High School, under tangled bushes in the backyard of her home. In August 1936, an assailant raped and beat to death Ruth Muir, a forty-eight-year-old secretary at the YMCA in Riverside, California, and dumped her corpse in a glade in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla.
The Muir case developed a Tijuana angle in the spring of 1937 with the arrest of Charles Harvey, alias Adam Windbush. San Diego police booked Harvey, a popular twenty-six-year-old crooner of cowboy songs on a Tijuana radio station, for robbery and possible kidnapping involving three young women who had been assaulted two years earlier at a gate to the international exposition then being held at the city's Balboa Park. Police labeled him the "Kiss Thief," who sweet-talked and then kissed his victims before he stole their pocketbooks. If any of the girls had claimed bodily injury, he could have been charged under the new Lindbergh Kidnapping Act, which mandated either death or life imprisonment. Harvey was already under a $10,000 bond pending trial for attempted assault on a housewife in Chula Vista, a major suburb between San Diego and Tijuana. Police had also questioned him in connection with the rape-murders of Ruth Muir and Celta Cota. With these sorts of sordid, spectacular incidents capturing public attention throughout the region, no wonder that Feliza Camacho's thoughts turned ominous. Had Olga suffered a similar fate? Was there a maniac on the loose? The newspapers that would soon cover the Camacho case drew no direct connections between the unsolved murders and Olga's disappearance but noted the similarities.
Feliza contacted her husband, Aurelio, who was at work tending bar in the Foreign Club, one of the town's most famous casinos. Aurelio rushed home, and he and Feliza spent an hour going house to house in their neighborhood, knocking on doors, talking with acquaintances, searching for news of Olga. No one offered a clue. The child had just vanished.
At 7:30 p.m. the distraught parents called local police for help. Tijuana had only a handful of paid policemen, five or six officers whose salaries came from public donations. In these sorts of emergencies, military personnel reinforced them. Word of the missing child spread through the town of hardly ten thousand inhabitants, and while some folks hastened to console the anxious parents in their home, Aurelio's labor union associates joined the authorities and other Camacho family members in the search. Roadblocks sealed off exits from the city, principally north to the border, but also east in the direction of Tecate, and south toward Ensenada. The main hospital and several clinics yielded no evidence about the girl's whereabouts, nor did a search covering several blocks around Olga's home and the grocery store (see map 1)-the last two places she had been seen. Late that evening rain fell, and as night stretched toward dawn, a February chill hovering in the low forties set in. No leads concerning Olga developed. As implications of the disappearance filtered more deeply into the community's consciousness, residents locked windows and doors and checked on their own children more regularly for fear that a sexual predator was at large in the community.
Dawn broke at 6:45 a.m. with a partially overcast sky that Monday, 14 February 1938. Increasing numbers of volunteers arrived, and the search expanded. People poked here, there, and everywhere-in thick bushes, inside buildings, and in automobiles and trucks parked on the streets. Nothing, absolutely nothing. Police and military authorities huddled to devise a strategy. Everything depended upon the discovery of some tidbit, any hint, concerning the disappearance and whereabouts of Olga. About noon their luck changed.
Senora Maria B. de Romero, affectionately known in the neighborhood as "Meimi," lived across Second Street from the Camachos. She had spent much of the previous evening with Feliza and Aurelio, comforting them. She assured them that search parties would find Olga and bring her back home. Shortly before noon on Monday, however, she experienced a powerful vision in which the Virgin Mary Herself appeared to her, revealed the child's face, and told Meimi to look for Olga in a deserted building: "I had a vision," she later said. "It told me that Olga would be found in an abandoned building. She would be found ill-treated." The vision guided Meimi to a vacant, weather-beaten, one-car wooden garage on the backside of a neighbor's property that abutted the military and police compounds and lay within two blocks of the Camacho home. Meimi did not attempt to enter the structure; instead, she gazed with apprehension between two warped boards of the exterior and saw on the wet ground inside, the bloody hand of a child, palm down, stretching from beneath a filthy sheet of cardboard that covered the rest of the body.
"I have found her. I have found her," she wailed as she stumbled toward the Camacho home. Searchers intercepted her. "Over there. In the garage," she said, and then fainted.
Soldiers and police hurried to the scene. (They never explained how they had overlooked the garage in their seventeen-hour search.) They hurled open the garage doors, saw the hand, gently removed the cardboard, and recoiled in horror. There lay Olga, her throat slashed open a full five inches by a piece of glass or a dull hunting knife, so savagely that she was nearly decapitated. A knotted rope encircled what remained of her gashed neck. Her torn, bloody dress had been pulled over her head, her undergarments removed. The child's body was badly scratched, and two deep, ragged gashes on her right arm indicated she had put up a desperate fight before her assailant subdued her. Blood had crusted around a large wound to her head.
Police agent Israel Gonzalez broke up the crowd gathering at the site. And now the authorities began to find clues to the killing. Droplets of blood led from the scene to a nearby stable where the Fourteenth Cavalry Regiment had until recently kept its horses. In one of the stalls, as police moved some hay and manure to one side, they uncovered a sizable blotch of blood. At this point, General Manuel Contreras, chief of military operations in Tijuana, assumed control of the investigation. He possessed a take-charge personality, and a hint of threat edged his voice as he ordered local authorities to stand clear while the army took command.
Informed of the horrific find, Feliza crumpled in hysterical sobs on the floor of her home. Aurelio collapsed onto a chair in anguish. Police carried the girl's disfigured body to the surgical amphitheater of the Military and Civil Hospital, where Dr. Severano Osornio Camarena, the town's coroner, a military doctor educated in France, performed an autopsy. Dr. Osornio announced around 4 P.M. that strangulation and a sharp blow to the head had caused death and that Olga had been raped after being killed. Furthermore, he had found six reddish hairs, a piece of straw, and a few strands of gray cloth clutched in one hand of the child, along with human skin beneath her fingernails. Forensic experts could analyze such evidence.
Meanwhile, police and military personnel cordoned off and combed the presumed murder site for further physical evidence. They discovered a reddish material smeared on a fence abutting the garage. Some thought it blood, but General Contreras ruled it red paint. They found the clear print of a man's boot heel with a diamond-shaped design in its center pressed into the wet ground near the garage. The cardboard which covered the child was too wet and soggy to reveal a fingerprint, but then another break: a small package of meat had been tossed on the roof of a nearby shed used to store hay behind the military headquarters. A well-defined bloody thumb print lay on the discolored white wrapping paper.
As potentially incriminating evidence accumulated, Tijuana's police chief, Luis Vinals Carsi (who was also an army captain), contacted the more technically advanced San Diego Police Department. Cooperation between the two forces had ebbed and flowed over the years (and still does), but on this occasion the San Diegans sent Sgt. Edward A. Dieckman of the homicide squad, along with William Menke and Walter R. Scott of the department's identification bureau, to assist in the investigation. A former schoolteacher now dedicated to upgrading technology and training for the city's police force, Scott had pieced together a rudimentary photographic laboratory in which photos of fingerprints or footprints could be enlarged.
Before the San Diegans arrived early that evening of 14 February, police had interrogated the purportedly last person (besides the killer or killers) to see Olga alive: the owner of La Corona sundry store, Mariano Mendivil, who repeated in more detail the same story he had told the dead girl's mother. The child had bounced into the shop smiling, chatting, and in a good mood. He had sold her a slice of raw meat for a few pesos, and she had left in the direction of her home. He watched her cross the street, no one else seemed to be around, and then he had turned to serve another customer. And yes, the package now in possession of the authorities contained the meat that he had sold to Olga. He said he knew nothing else of the tragedy, and the police seemed to believe him. They probably had also questioned the customer.
About this time, the investigation might have turned to the parents of the victim for details about her life at home and events leading up to her disappearance, but the authorities declined to question them. Perhaps they believed Feliza and Aurelio too distraught to undergo interrogation. Indeed, Feliza was under a doctor's care. At any rate, no officials ever questioned the parents about the ordeal, then or later. Had they done so, they might have learned of the soldier whom Feliza insisted she saw leaning on a wall near La Corona in the early moments of her frantic search for her daughter. She could have described that army man to them.
But the police and military pursued a different tack. By two in the afternoon they had rounded up five young men said to have been at or near the scene where the murder and rape had apparently occurred. Three of the five were civilians who had spent the night shielded against the cold and rain, sleeping in hay in the old horse stalls at the backside of the military post. The cuartel (garrison) itself had been moved the preceding year to heights on the southern edge of town. While General Contreras and his staff still maintained their headquarters in a large rented house adjoining the old site, the distinctive stone building which had been the military post became the comandancia for the Tijuana police. With its turrets and parapets the structure resembled a movie set, like one of those remote desert outposts manned by the French Foreign Legion in Beau Geste. Commonly called "The Fort," it had been erected in 1915 on high ground along the Tijuana River to warn off foreign filibusters who had territorial designs on Baja California. An expanding town center had gradually surrounded The Fort with residences and small stores, but it still stood as a stern symbol of authority, and now became the nerve center for investigation of the murder and rape of Olga Camacho.
Besides the three young men who had sought refuge in the stalls from the night's cold, authorities arrested two soldiers said to have been in or around military headquarters about 6 P.M. or so, the Sunday evening that Olga disappeared. There had been speculation from the beginning that a soldier, or soldiers, might have been involved in the rape and slaying. At this point Baja California's federal police inspector, Jesus Medina Rios, reviewed for eager newspaper reporters those clues that he hoped could lead to a quick solution of the crime: identification of the red hairs or woolen fibers found in Olga's hand; finding and analyzing additional fingerprints on the package of meat the girl had carried; identification of the heel print; a confession by one of the five in custody; or the discovery of blood on the clothes of a suspect.
Interrogators held the suspects incommunicado. Late that afternoon investigators announced that they had found nothing that would definitely link any of the detainees to the crime. Then around 7 P.M., after a final brusque questioning, police exonerated the three civilians as youths only in search of a place to sleep on a cold, wet night. They also absolved one of the soldiers. His mother provided an alibi for him: the boy, off duty that Sunday, had been home with her all afternoon and evening, and they could prove it.
That left only one person detained for further questioning, a twenty-four-year-old private named Juan Castillo Morales, a light-skinned soldado raso (lowest of the low in military ranks) of medium build, with dark, wavy hair and a hint of mustache along his upper lip. He had been born and raised in the small pueblo of Ixtaltepec, far to the south in the Tehuantepec region of the state of Oaxaca, a zone renowned for its Zapotec influence, although Juan's physical features were clearly mestizo. In fact, foreign invasion, colonization, and commerce had since the 1860s brought considerable racial diversity to the area.
Excerpted from Juan Soldado by Paul J. Vanderwood Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsPreface xi
I. The Crime
1. Notions of Justice 3
2. Aftermath 51
3. Tijuana 75
4. Mexico for the Mexicans 104
5. Riding the Roller Coaster 137
6. Witness to Execution 173
7. Criminals and Saints 201
8. Closer to God 249
9. John the Soldier 275