Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Santo dos peregringos

A story on NPR on Monday made me aware of the tour which a relic of Saint Toribio Romo is making through the Southland this month. I hadn't heard of the saint, but the story - one not without its ironies - couldn't be more timely. Toribio Romo Gonzáles (1900-1928) was one of twenty-five saints and martyrs of the Cristero War - mostly priests like Toribio - who were canonized by John Paul II in 2000.

What's timely is that Santo Toribio Romo is regarded by many Mexicans and Mexican Americans as the patron saint of immigrants, especially illegal immigrants. While unofficial this status as a people's saint seems well-known. The cult started with reports of a young man helping undocumented Mexicans on their way through the dangerous desert borderlands of Mexico and Texas. An article from a few years ago (by a distant relation of Romo's!) reports:

One of the first written accounts of Toribio’s miracles was from a 45-year-old undocumented immigrant from Zacatecas named Jesús Buendía Gaytán. In 2002 he told a reporter from the Mexico City magazine Contenido about a strange experience he’d had two decades earlier. In the early eighties, Buendía had hired a smuggler in Mexicali, Contenido reported, “but as soon as they crossed the line a Border Patrol van spotted them and to avoid arrest Jesús escaped into the desert. After walking for several days in desolate trails, more dead than alive from heatstroke and thirst, he saw a truck approach. A young, thin man with light skin and blue eyes who spoke perfect Spanish got off the truck, offered him water and food, and showed him a place where farmworkers were needed.” The Good Samaritan told Buendía to look him up once he had a job and money; he was sent to the church in Santa Ana de Guadalupe. “I almost had a heart attack when I saw the photograph of my friend hanging over the altar,” Buendía recalled. “Since then I pray to him every time I set off for the United States in search of work.”

It's from that article, too, that I learned the word peregringos, a not necessarily complimentary term for those who leave their Mexican home for el Norte. It seems worth mentioning because, during his brief life, Toribio wasn't exactly an advocate of immigration. Indeed, he wrote an anti-immigration play that warned against the moral consequences of immigration to the United States.

In 1920 he wrote a slapstick morality play titled Let’s Go North! The one-act comedy depicts a cultural clash between Don Rogaciano, an Americanized Mexican emigrant who returns to his village with airs of superiority, and Sancho, a sharp-witted campesino who never left. At first Don Rogaciano impresses the locals by flaunting his newly acquired English, proclaiming himself a lover of “progress and civilization” and denouncing the village priests as “money-grubbing retrograde obscurantists.” But by the end of the play Sancho beats the returning emigrant into submission with a cane and forces him to stand before the audience like a mannequin. Don Rogaciano, with his slicked-back hair, sweet-smelling cologne, and high-water pants, is the very embodiment of the corrosive influences that returning emigrants bring back from the other side—arrogance, irresponsibility, the loss of family values, materialism, and sexual ambiguity. If you betray your country and go north, Toribio’s play warned its Mexican audience, you might come back as a “rooster hen that neither crows nor lays eggs.” Or, even worse, a Protestant.

It's a little ironic that Santo Toribio should now be the companion of countless migrants, in amulets and on prayer cards, and venerated and thanked by immigrants and their families in the US, but that's what the history of patron saints is like. My favorite story has long been Saint Florian of Lorch, a statue of whom stood in the garden of a house our family rented in Vienna when I was a child. Florian was a Roman soldier martyred for converting to Christianity - after the obligatory several other tries (scourging, flaying) - by being thrown into a river with a millstone around his neck. Whose patron saint is he? Obvious really, if you consider that representations of saints were distinguished by their implements of death - in Florian's case a millstone and a bucket of water. (The statue at right is in Poland.) He's the patron saint of firefighters - and, I heard, helps millers, too.

This doesn't explain how Toribio came to be the go-to saint for those undertaking a migration he disapproved of in life, but it reminds of the kind of causality at work in things hagiographic. Eventually a similar story of mistaken identity might emerge for Toribio - perhaps the blue eyes mattered? Or maybe it's not a mistake at all - just as historical happenstance might not be the only causality in question. Maybe he'll someday join the pantheon of specifically American Catholic saints. Saint Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes, came from Mexico, too.

In the meantime it won't hurt to ask him to keep an eye on the Central American children at the center of the current immigration hysteria.

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