My Tío, the Saint

They say that he appears to migrants stranded in the desert and helps them find their way to jobs in the U.S. The funny thing is, before he was certified by the Vatican as a saint, and adopted by some as “the holy smuggler,” my tío Father Toribio Romo did everything he could to keep his parishioners in Mexico from leaving home.
My Tío, the Saint
Illustration by Jason Holley

Every family has a saint; in mine, he’s certified. In the Eighties, reports began to surface of a young man in a red pickup truck bearing food and water who would arrive to help unauthorized immigrants stranded in the deserts of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. In some reports, the man appeared just in time to rescue people from drowning in the Rio Grande; in others, he made them invisible to the Border Patrol or protected them from rattlesnakes or advised them on where to find work. He wore a cowboy hat and boots, or he was dressed as a priest. When the grateful immigrants asked how they could ever repay him, the man told them not to worry. When you return to Mexico, he said, just go to Santa Ana de Guadalupe, a tiny village in Jalisco, and ask for Toribio Romo. The immigrants who did so were told that they would find Toribio in the local parish church. There at the church, they discovered a sarcophagus with Toribio’s remains, two small bottles with his blood now turned to powder, and the shirt he was wearing when he was assassinated by Mexican federal soldiers, in 1928.

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.”

In Mexico and in many immigrant communities in the United States, Santo Toribio is a superstar among saints. No certified holy man has lent his name and image to as many restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, travel agencies, and employment centers. Toribio even has a brand of designer sneakers called Brinco ($215 in boutique stores). Border Patrol agents frequently arrest undocumented border crossers carrying scapulars and key chains with the image of this ubiquitous blue-eyed miracle worker. The official banner at the 2010 Jalostotitlán Expo features him above a glamour shot of Miss Jalisco and two other beauty queens with the slogan “The Heart of Los Altos de Jalisco, Land of Santo Toribio.”

About 300,000 religious tourists, many of them with license plates from California, Texas, Nevada, and Idaho, visited Santa Ana de Guadalupe this year to seek the saint’s aid before setting off for el norte or to thank him for his protection. The number has dwindled somewhat in the past couple of years, yet these pilgrims continue to leave behind notes, votive offerings, photographs, drawings, and retablo paintings that give testimony of Santo Toribio’s interventions. One testimonio poster shows a photograph of an eighteen-year-old woman with a message from her parents thanking Saint Toribio “for having granted us the miracle of finding the body of our daughter Maribel, who died in the desert of the United States.” Not far from it are several photographs of Mexican immigrants in U.S. military uniform asking Toribio to protect them during their service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The little parish church has become crammed with these offerings. They are posted up along a wall of a church building that also serves as a devotional souvenir store. And at dozens of shops in town, visitors can purchase scapulars, key chains, pens, DVDs, comic books, and T-shirts with the image of Saint Toribio. The faithful can grab a bite to eat at the church-owned restaurant El Peregrino or buy lime popsicles at the Dulcería Santo Toribio across the street from a cantera stone statue of Santo Toribio.

The first time I heard about the saint in our family was when my aunts and uncles from California called my father to share the news of Toribio’s canonization by Pope John Paul II, on May 21, 2000. My father, who doesn’t believe in saints, shrugged it off. An avid Dallas Cowboys fan, he’d rather be related to Tony Romo.

Santo Toribio was never a subject of conversation in our immediate family. He was almost a taboo, a vestige of the past we had collectively left behind. The village of Santa Ana de Guadalupe is infused with my family’s history. In the early 1600’s the first Romos migrated there from Vivar, Spain, a small Castilian village where El Cid—Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar—was born. Four centuries later more than a third of the inhabitants are distant relatives who share my surname. Near Tío Toribio’s statue a woman sells pirated CDs with recordings of “El Corrido de la Tragedia de Santa Ana,” a folk song about a shooting in which my grandfather Agapito was killed when my father was two years old.

It was that tragedy, more than anything else, that drove my father to leave. In 1953, at the age of fourteen, he crossed through the Tijuana border without papers. He later became a U.S. citizen and resident of Texas, and for the most part stayed away from his hometown. For him, the land of Santo Toribio was full of painful memories of the fields where he had worked at the age of nine planting beans and maize from sunup to sundown with two burlap

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