Not until May 21, 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized Father Toribio Romo and twenty-four other Mexican martyrs who were killed during the Cristero War, did David Romo learn that he was related to a saint, a certified one. Santo Toribio Romo is said to come to the aid of immigrants in the American desert, and about 300,000 people a year pay homage to him in the village of Santa Ana de Guadalupe. Ironically, like many Catholic priests of that time, he opposed emigration to the United States. David Romo set out to learn more about his father’s second cousin—a cleric who refused to stop ministering and was consequently shot to death in 1928. Were Toribio’s posthumous miracles real? Here’s the story behind the story.
Do you remember your first reaction to the news that one of your relatives had been canonized?
I think I just laughed. The whole thing seemed a bit surreal at the time.
What does it feel like to be related to a certified saint? Do you feel as if you have some expectations to meet?
No, I don’t feel anyone expects me to be more saintly because I’m related to a saint. The truth is that for a long time I didn’t feel anything about Santo Toribio. Most of my life I’ve been more curious about my mother’s side of the family and their histories on the El Paso-Juárez border during the Mexican Revolution. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to look into my father’s side of the family and became genuinely curious about tío Toribio. His apparitions in the desert and the miracles are fascinating, whether you believe in them or not. They offer insights, a window into the phenomenon of immigration, that you don’t get by reading newspaper articles or even a sociological study on Mexican emigration.
But I’ve always had mixed feelings about writing about family histories. I’ve wanted to avoid being the guy at the party who bores everyone to death by pulling out snapshots of grandpa and the kids. Who cares if your great grandfather fought with Pancho Villa or your father’s second cousin was a saint? Plus sometimes you end up finding out stuff about your past you would have rather not.
But to my huge surprise I’ve found that people are often genuinely interested in these kind of stories, especially if you can connect them to broader themes in which personal histories are inextricably connected to collective histories. And that’s probably where I do feel a certain amount of responsibility. I need to learn these stories and pass them down to my kids, and whoever else is interested, if for no other reason than they offer a different angle on things, a perspective that’s usually not told.
What do you mean by “finding out stuff about your past you would have rather not”?
When I was a kid I really wanted to be the descendant of Aztec warriors. I must have been about eleven or twelve when I asked my maternal grandfather about my indigenous ancestors and he told me we came from a tribe in Zacatecas, Mexico, called Huicholes. So I looked them up in an old library book that said the Huicholes were mostly a cowardly tribe of peacemongers—as the author put it—who spent much of their time eating peyote and creating psychadelic yarn paintings. They sounded like a bunch of hippies under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs! That really soured me on genealogy for a long time.
What made you decide to visit the birthplace of Toribio and your father? Was tiny Santa Ana de Guadalupe what you were expecting?
About five years ago I persuaded my father to take me and my kids to the village where he was born. I wanted them to learn about their roots. He did so reluctantly. We only stayed at Santa Ana for about an hour. He hadn’t returned to his village for more than five decades, but that’s all he could bear. His memories of Santa Ana were too painful for him. That’s where his father was shot when he was two years old. Five other men were killed that day. There’s a cross inscribed with my grandfather Agapito’s name on the stone wall of the parish church. It marks the spot where he died. It’s on the same church where Santo Toribio’s remains are today.
My father tried to visit the spot where his father was killed. We were walking up a hill, about a hundred yards away, when he suddenly broke down crying. I had never seen him cry like that before. And that’s where I realized that I didn’t really understand anything about his past and the village of his birth.
I still think I’ve only been able to scratch the surface with my piece about Santa Ana and my tío Toribio. There’s so much more to this community of four hundred souls where almost everywhere I turn I find a distant relative. I feel like what I’ve written is just an introduction; certainly not the last chapter.
How would you describe Juan Romo’s perception of you? Did people in Santa Ana see you as an outsider, someone from the north?
No, I didn’t feel like an outsider at all. Quite the opposite, I felt like I was in some kind of family reunion. My cousins Alfredo and Martha Romo, who I hadn’t seen since my college days in California, introduced me to people in Santa Ana. Juan Romo remembered my father as a teenager. Juan himself had been a teenager during the shootout in which my grandfather was killed. He related the events to me as if it were just yesterday that they happened. It took place in 1941, but people still talk about it with emotion. That’s the thing about living in a small village. History matters.
The attitude toward those who went to el norte have changed quite a bit in Santa Ana and the neighboring town of Jalostotilán, where my father went to school as a boy. I remember visiting Jalos when I was twelve and people made fun of me because I was a pocho, a kind of cultural half-breed who used fronterizo words like soda instead of refresco, carro instead of coche, or parquear instead of estacionar. But now, even 82-year-old Juan uses the word parquear. In Jalos, you hear Spanglish everywhere now. During a fireworks display in front of the church during the town’s religious festivities I heard two guys wearing campesino hats loudly debating in two languages whether it was better to work at Burger King or McDonald’s.
In the story, you said you half-jokingly referred to yourself as a “devout musician” when people asked you about your religious beliefs. Are you religious now? Has Toribio had any influence on your beliefs?
I studied Greek and Hebrew in college so that I could read the Bible in its original languages, so I can’t say I’m completely non-religious. But my spiritual search has taken other paths. Music is one of those paths. For me it’s a form of prayer. When someone asked John Coltrane toward the end of his life what his aspirations were, what he was working on musically, he answered that he was working on becoming a saint. I think I understand what he meant. I’ve never visited the Church of St. John Coltrane in San Francisco, but I would like to.
I’m not sure if the hagiographical accounts of Toribio’s miracles have influenced me. I’m more intrigued by the tidbits about his every-day life. When I was in Guadalajara this summer I hit the jackpot as a researcher. I managed to convince the Devil’s Advocate—the guy who was in charge of digging up dirt on Santo Toribio during the canonization process—to let me scan more than five hundred pages of Toribio’s writings. I’m not sure if I would have been allowed to copy them had I not been related to Toribio. It seems my tío opened doors for me.
Toribio’s journals reveal the inner life of a very sensitive young priest, a rural intellectual his fellow seminarians called “El Churlo”—The Hick—who quoted Latin and French neo-scholastic theologians. He was constantly wrestling with what he saw as his own cowardice in the face of persecution. He knew sooner or later that soldiers would kill him, but he truly didn’t want to die. His famous last words when the troops broke into his room and shot him were “Please don’t kill me.” I mean that’s not exactly what you would expect from a certified martyr. Yet, despite his great, fear he continued defying the authorities and never stopped practicing his profession.
What did you learn from your trip to Santa Ana?
I learned, as I said before, that I haven’t even scratched the surface. Santa Ana de Guadalupe only has one paved street, but the cult of Santo Toribio has brought people from all over. In a sense, to fully understand this very limited slice of geography you have to understand the history of the world. I’d say it’s the perfect village to carry out more extensive research, a microhistory of emigration so to speak.
Do you think immigrants really see Toribio?
I think most of them have encountered a person whom they genuinely believe is the saint. I’ve heard countless stories of people in distress who encountered the kindness of a total stranger in times of greatest need. In these days, when such acts of kindness seem so rare, perhaps that in itself is a sort of miracle.
What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story?
I usually like to spend months (sometimes years) researching a story in order to fully grasp its historical context. Obviously there’s a deep, deep history behind the story of Santo Toribio that goes beyond his personal biography, particularly the events surrounding the Cristero War and the larger issue of Mexican emigration to the United States. I’ve managed to uncover a huge stash of primary documents that I have not yet fully mined. There’s so much more to the story of Toribio himself I still haven’t touched on. I guess what I’m saying is that I feel I need to write a book about this, not just an article.
How has Toribio impacted your life?
He’s opened a new window for me.
What do you want people to take away from your story?
I’ve tried to write a piece focusing on the “other side” of the story of immigration—from the perspective of the people who have returned to Santa Ana de Guadalupe after having emigrated to the United States. I try to show, rather than tell, the complexity of the issue. I depict a land full of contradictions.
Take the miracle wall with the photographs of Mexican immigrants in U.S. military uniform who leave behind prayers in perfect Spanish asking for Toribio’s protection. There’s a lot of irony in this detail that I don’t make explicit in the essay. I don’t talk about the DREAM Act that Republicans recently shot down that could have provided a route for such immigrants to regularize their status in the United States. I don’t point out how incongruous it is for Mexican men and women who’ve joined the U.S. military to ask a saint, himself martyred by soldiers, for his protection. I don’t want to hit the reader over the head with my schematic interpretations. Instead, my piece is an attempt to offer a counternarrative to the soundbites and the dehumanizing oversimplifications we hear every day from the mouths of politicians trying to get cheap votes through the politics of fear.
The truth is I don’t have a simple answer for the social dissolution Toribio warned about for those who left their homes in Mexico. At first glance, Santo Toribio’s advice to the two young emigrants at the end of my essay to go back to their home seems to wrap everything up nicely. If they follow Santo Toribio’s advice, emigrants won’t have to risk dying in a foreign desert; they won’t have to sell their labor cheap to a country that casts them off when they’re no longer needed.
It’s the right ending; almost literary. But that’s not what I necessarily want the readers to take from my essay. Would it be nice if everyone would go back to where they came from? Maybe, maybe not. And would it be wonderful if saints could perform economic miracles throughout the land just as Toribio did in Santa Ana de Guadalupe? Sure. But I know that’s not going to happen. There is no simple solution. That, in a sense, is my ultimate message. So in this respect, maybe I don’t believe in saints. And my search to understand this relative of mine so many call santo, is still not finished.