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Even into the 21st Century, Mexico is overwhelmingly religious and for the most part, intensely Catholic. Many stories – usually with a lesson attached – involve earthbound mortals interacting with saints and angels and even apparitions of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Some stories are regional, and some are found throughout the country. Here are three saintly folktales from Mexico.
- A Female Prisoner Meets the Baby Jesus
A woman who lived in a small town in Michoacán became jealous of another woman in her neighborhood because she was flirting with her boyfriend. This woman, in a fit of jealousy, stabbed her rival in the heart. She had no regrets for what she did and was eventually sentenced to life at a prison in the town of Quiroga. At the Quiroga prison she was assigned to a small cell, a permanent solitary confinement. This woman nearly went crazy in her solitude and tried to pass her time by making up stories in her head, imagining happy scenes of life outside the prison walls. Whatever she dreamed up, however, was always ruined by memories of the insane screams of her victim whom she killed in a fit of passion. Whenever that happened, she surrendered herself to the Santo Niño de Atocha, the Baby Jesus dressed as a traveler who is so familiar to many Mexicans.
After three years in prison the woman’s health started to fade. She was not only tormented by the memories of the horrible act she committed, but she was also suffering from the poor quality of food that they dished up in that dank prison. One day, when she was feeling particularly low, she sat in the corner of her cell and stared blankly at the bars that stood between her and a cloudless sky. Suddenly, she noticed a smiling little boy in the opposite corner of her cell. The woman thought she was hallucinating and imagining the whole scene.
“How did you get into my cell?” she asked the little boy.
“I slipped in when the guards opened the door,” he replied. “I’m so small they didn’t even see me.”
The little boy then opened a basket he was carrying and offered the woman food. Even though the food was the freshest she had seen in years she was more interested in the company and wanted to talk more with the ruddy-cheeked boy. He insisted she eat first, and she did. When she was finished with her meal she looked up and the little boy was gone. The woman was drowsy from the food and went to sleep. When she woke up, it was morning and the little boy was standing over her. He took some food from his basket and gave it to the woman. After the woman finished eating the little boy told her that he would return once more and then he vanished. The woman had more questions for him, but he disappeared in the middle of one of her sentences. She continued to question her own sanity because she didn’t believe that any of this was real.
Later that night, tired, the woman curled up on the floor and was about to fall asleep. In the corner of the cell the little boy appeared again in a glowing orb of light. The boy told the woman to follow him and he began to burn a hole in the wall as he walked closer to it. As he kept walking, the hole turned into a tunnel. She followed him until she was outside, on the other side of the walls of the prison, in complete freedom. The little boy told her to look up in the sky and follow a bright star. She walked all night and did not realize that she had been traveling hundreds of miles following that star. When the sun came up, she found herself in the town of Plateros in the state of Zacatecas. When the church bells rang, she walked over to the beautiful sanctuary dedicated to the Santo Niño and fell to her knees when she saw the little boy that had appeared to her in her cell now in the form of a venerated statue.
- Saint Anthony and the Handicapped Boy
In a small town in central Mexico there lived a teenage boy who was born without the ability to walk. His family could not afford a wheelchair, so he got around the best he could by using crutches. He dreamed of dancing with the pretty girls in town and riding fast horses. He had faith that one day San Antonio – Saint Anthony – would heal him and prayed daily for the saint’s intercession. As time went by, the boy began to have doubts and then those doubts grew into a deep depression. That depression soon turned into a special anger directed toward the saint. “How long do I have to wait to be healed?” The young man repeated to himself. “You owe me and if I ever meet you, you will pay dearly.” His rage continued to swell inside him.
The boy had a cousin who was very religious and one day offered to take him to the shrine of Saint Anthony in Puebla in his carriage. The young man agreed to go, although he was still very angry with the saint whom he thought had done nothing for him. Maybe his disappointment and rage would finally end if he confronted the saint in person and took out his frustrations directly on the statue. He concealed his anger and his ill intent by engaging in trite conversation with his cousin during the journey. Along the pilgrimage route they encountered many people. One of them was a priest walking alone. The teenager’s cousin offered the priest a ride and he accepted. The padre began talking about how he found out that before he was born his own father had sold his soul to the devil. As a young man the priest befriended a bandit who was friends with the devil who promised to get the contract that the priest’s father had signed. This story of redemption and hope made the disabled young man think twice about his own situation. He thought that maybe he should give Saint Anthony another chance. After a few more days on the road, the young man’s anger swelled up inside him again, however. By the time they arrived at the santuario, the boy was angrier than ever. After his cousin helped him to the altar, the teenager started screaming at the statue of Saint Anthony to the shock of everyone there. “I’m tired of not being able to walk,” the boy exclaimed. “I’ve prayed and prayed to you for many years, and you’ve done nothing for me! I hate you!” At that point, the boy pulled out a sizable rock from his pocket and threw it at the saint. To the boy’s surprise, when he looked up, San Antonio had caught the rock and was about to throw it back at the angry and frightened boy. The boy was so scared that he got up and ran out of the church faster than a jackrabbit. When he was outside, the boy realized that he had used his own legs to run away from the rock-throwing saint. He turned around, walked back into he shrine and asked San Antonio to forgive him for his lack of faith.
- A Jesus Statue Teaches a Ranchero a Lesson
In a small town in the state of Jalisco an old woman sat at her spinning wheel turning wool into thread, wiling away her time. She enjoyed her golden years and was very happy, but her room was lacking something special: a statue of Jesus. The old woman couldn’t venture very far away from her home, so she prayed that one day a traveling salesman would come to her remote area and sell her the perfect Jesus statue. One day, this very thing happened. Her grandchildren alerted her of a traveling salesman in town and told him to visit the old woman’s house. He arrived and she was delighted to see him. From his sack he pulled out a beautiful statue of Jesus, with long curly hair flowing well past his shoulders. She examined the statue and said she would buy it and asked the peddler if he could wait outside while she fetched her money. He told her she could take the statue inside with her and she did. When the old woman went back outside to pay the traveling vendor, he was gone.
Months passed and she forgot about the salesman, but since the day of the sale she had built an altar in the corner of her room with the spinning wheel and had clothed her precious statue in a fluffy blouse. One day, the old woman fell asleep at the wheel and while she dozed a candle on her altar caught the blouse of her precious Jesus on fire. She awoke in time to put out the fire, but the statue was damaged. She took it down to the stream to clean it, but the damage was so great that she had to send it off to Guadalajara for repairs. When the woman received the statue back, the paint and plaster from the repairs fell off. She sent the Señor away two more times, but whenever she got the statue back the paint and plaster would fall away, revealing the horrible burn marks. It didn’t matter because not only did the woman have faith in her statue, but people living around her did, too, and sometimes she would receive visitors who would pray and make offerings at her little altar in the spinning wheel room.
When the old woman died, she left money for a small chapel to house her precious statue. The shrine soon attracted people from hundreds of miles away. Thousands of people had faith in this image of Jesus, now called El Señor de la Santa Escuelita. During a drought which lasted months, the statue was paraded throughout the countryside to help make it rain. After two more processions there was still no rain. One of the wealthiest men in the community – a rich ranchero who owned thousands of acres of land – doubted the powers of the Señor and made a proclamation that if a gussied-up wood carving can make it rain, he would drink every last drop of water. As soon as he said this, the sky grew dark, and it started raining. The rain came hard, and it rained day and night, coming down buckets. After the third day of rain, the ranchero’s property resembled a swamp. As the rain continued for weeks, everything the man owned was slowly being washed away. At the end of the second month of non-stop precipitation the wealthy man went to the shrine of El Señor de la Santa Escuelita and knelt before the statue he once ridiculed. There were many people there and he led the group in prayer. Within a few hours the skies calmed down and the following morning the sun shone through the clouds. The people in the area were now tasked with a hefty cleanup. The ranchero returned to his flooded home and vowed never again to doubt the power of El Señor.
Campos, Anthony John. Mexican Folk Tales. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1977. We are Amazon affiliates. Buy the book on Amazon here: https://amzn.to/3sRpiVZ