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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 July, 2003, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
Saintly spell over Mexico

By Nick Miles
BBC Central America correspondent

Pilgrims gather to celebrate the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint
Mexicans are both religious and deeply superstitious
On the last day of July, Mexicans will mark the first St Juan Diego day - the humble shepherd, canonised last year, who saw a vision of the Virgin Mary four centuries ago.

If you want to gauge the place saints have in Mexican society you need look no further than the Sonora market in the heart of the capital.

Walk through the narrow passageways between the stalls and you are surrounded by statues of dozens of different saints.

Maria Gomez is doing a brisk business. She has been selling religious artefacts here for 20 years.

She has a plastic statue of St Francis of Assisi, adorned with flashing lights. In the centre of her display is the Virgin of Guadalupe, one of dozens of Mexican representations of the Virgin Mary.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is undoubtedly Mexico's patron saint.

If you get into any of the thousands of Volkswagen Beetle taxis you are certain to see an image of the Virgin on the dashboard - just as well if you are spending all day every day driving around the perilous streets of the capital.

The Catholic Church realised that to convert the Aztec tribes it would have to mix its icons with ancient beliefs
People are not ashamed of using the image in blatantly opportunistic ways.

One acquaintance, tired of people leaving rubbish in front of his house, recently set up a shrine to the Virgin on the pavement. It miraculously stopped rubbish being dumped. Respect for the saints runs deep here.

Conversely, walk into the grimiest of car mechanics' workshops and there she is alongside the other less saintly images - scantily-clad female pin-ups.

Interestingly, many people who put up the two very different images of femininity do not see it as being disrespectful to the Virgin.

Religion and superstition

Mexico's relationship with its saints appears all the more contradictory when you wander further in Sonora market.

It is not uncommon for someone to buy a statue of a saint and then wander next door to a black magic stall and acquire a potion to ward off evil spirits. Christian and pagan live quite happily side-by-side.

For working class Mexicans, the saints provide hope and solace in an often unforgiving society
Mexico is a social anthropologist's dream.

Some say the apparent contradictions have roots in the Spanish Conquest - when the Catholic Church realised that to convert the Aztec tribes it would have to mix the icons of the Catholic Church with ancient beliefs.

And so it has remained. A profoundly Catholic and a deeply superstitious society with the saints acting as a bridge between the two.

Then there are the numerous saints that are not actually recognised by the Church.

St Malverde was an outlaw in northern Mexico and is now worshipped particularly by the country's illegal drug barons.

There is Juan Soldado, whose shrines can often be found near the border with the United States. Illegal migrants will stop and cross themselves before making the trip north.

The boy Fidecio - a transvestite saint - dressed up to look like the Virgin Mary.

Finally, there is perhaps the most bizarre saint of all, St Death. Its face is just a skull. In rough neighbourhoods, both criminal gangs and the police trying to catch them will pray at St Death's shrines. In a dangerous world it is comforting to look your own mortality in the face.

Personal miracle

Whichever saint it is, they are all revered. Each area, and sometimes each village, will have its own saint.

Walk into a church in the heart of the Mexican countryside and more than likely you will see someone praying in front of the local saint.

Carrying a statue of the Virgin of Guadeloupe
Statues of saints are an every day sight in Mexico
An old woman whose feet are crippled with arthritis will look for a cure by touching the saint's image and then rubbing her claw-like toes.

A young man will look up transfixed, maybe asking for the saint to save his failing business.

Particularly for working-class Mexicans, the saints provide hope and solace in an often unforgiving society.

They are not necessarily asking for the world - just a small sign that they are not alone. And they are thankful for it.

At the back of many churches, you will find rooms full of "ex votos", flat metal plates tacked to the walls painted with a depiction of the miracle that happened after they prayed to a certain saint.

"Thank you San Francisco for saving my son after he fell from some scaffolding at work," said one.

Others say passing a driving test was a miracle sent from God.

I have to confess that, even as an unbeliever, I have a certain personal interest in miracles.

As my long suffering girlfriend will confirm, having a partner constantly travelling around Latin America for the BBC has meant our paths have rarely crossed in recent months.

Given that, perhaps it is no small miracle that we are expecting our first child in August. The only issue now is that with so many saints, choosing a name is going to be a hard task - Francisco, Antonio, Pedro or Juan Diego perhaps?

Mexicans euphoric at new saint
31 Jul 02  |  Americas
Mexico's controversial new saint
31 Jul 02  |  Americas

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