Tijuana: Valentine’s Day, 1938.
In the most notorious crime in the young city’s history, an all-night search by relatives, friends, and authorities ends at dawn with the discovery of eight-year-old Olga Comacho’s butchered body, half buried in the muddy floor of an abandoned building near the police station. The meat that Olga had been sent to get from the butcher the night before was scattered around her body, a hand print visible in a slab of steak.
By midmorning, the story is common knowledge throughout town, and enraged citizens form a lynch mob, screaming for the killer’s blood. For three days, Tijuana is ripped by riots so violent and anarchic that President Roosevelt is kept abreast of the situation and San Diego’s civic pillars call for intervention to defuse the situation. All day Tuesday the tension builds and explodes that night, as shops are looted and burned. In an eerie parallel to Kristallnacht in Germany later the same year, Jewish-owned businesses are targets of the mob’s rage. Both city hall and the police station are torched; fire trucks roll in to quench the flames only to find their hoses cut. The fire crews watch in frustration as buildings are swallowed by the conflagration.
Police fire into the crowd, killing several people even as authorities deny civilian casualties. For 72 hours the tiny border town of 20,000 verges on chaos before a presidential decree from Lázaro Cárdenas metes punishment to the army private who confessed to the crime. The three San Diego newspapers compete all week to offer the most sensational account of events in Tijuana, knocking Hitler from the headlines as the drama plays out 20 miles to the south. Even the Los Angeles Times runs a cover story about “Bloody Tuesday,” February 15, 1938, when the violence peaked.
Fifty-nine years later, the fallout from those events has borne strange fruit: the man executed for the murder is now the folk saint of Tijuana, revered by thousands from the deserts of Sonora to the urban sprawl of Orange County. This is the story of Juan Castillo Morales, 24, from the southern state of Oaxaca, and his transformation into Juan Soldado, boy-saint of the border.
The Catholic Church denies his sanctity even as thousands of his followers flock to his shrine in Tijuana’s oldest public cemetery, Panteón Número Uno, a football field from the border fence and shouting distance from the Imperial Beach swap meet. June 24 is Juan Soldado’s special day — the feast day of St. John the Baptist on the Catholic calendar, known as El Día de San Juan in Mexico. On that day the cemetery is jammed with believers. Three mariachis, hired for this occasion, belt out a lyrical tune about life’s meaninglessness.
My dad and I stumbled onto the scene several summers ago, when I was hiding out in Tijuana from reality and my crazy ex-vieja, who got so cranked on crystal meth one night, she called me the Antichrist. My father, a staunch Irish-Catholic, was startled by the festive atmosphere in the graveyard. People were having a good time as they partied with the dead; children were everywhere, playing tag around the tombstones as their musical laughter rang through the graveyard. A man placed a recent picture of his son, dark and surly in a Raiders jacket, on a small table inside the shrine. In a scribbled note accompanying the photo, the father pleaded with Juan Soldado to save his son from prison: You know he is innocent, he implored; you have to free him before something terrible happens inside that jail.
The image stayed with me, and a few weeks later I noticed a new picture, with father and son posing in front of a church, pinned to the wall above the old note. His son had been freed, and the father had come to the altar on his knees to give thanks to the soldier-saint. Javier is a burly, balding, 40ish man gulping swigs of tequila from the bottle. Between drinks he recounts how Juan Soldado saved him from immigration officers years ago in Santa Ana. Javier was working in an El Torito restaurant when INS staged a raid; the workers scattered and agents were in pursuit when Javier prayed directly to Juan to save him. Javier was making good money, enough to send back to his family in Jalisco; he couldn’t afford to get caught right now.
He escaped La Migra: he was hidden long enough to get away. That was 14 years ago, and Javier has returned to the shrine every June 24 since to give thanks to his savior. Now a legal, permanent resident and owner of his own business, Javier is convinced that a miracle secured him a decent life in the U.S.
How Juan Soldado became a popular saint is a matter of dispute. Some say that a rock by the spot where he fell kept spouting blood, calling attention to his innocence. Others contend that an officer killed the little girl and pinned the crime on Juan, handing him her dismembered body. After the execution, legend goes, several other child murders were committed in Tijuana that were covered up by the government. Only when a high-ranking officer was transferred to Chihuahua (or Sonora or Sinaloa, depending on the storyteller) did the killings cease. According to the San Diego Union in 1938, it was Juan’s wife who reported him to the authorities when he came home late, disheveled, and wearing a blood-drenched shirt.
The municipal cemetery boasts two shrines. The first is a humble structure filled with flowers, candles, and photographs that has drawn pilgrims for more than half a century. The second site is a recently dedicated altar where young Juan was said to have fallen after he was given a 100-yard head start — accorded to him by “Ley Fuga,” the fugitive law embedded in the Napoleonic code — and then shot by a squad of soldiers.
Some of the “miracles” may seem small to Americans couched in the culture of luxury, but they represent hope for many impoverished Mexicans. Here the faithful light candles and display personal testimonies of how Juan Soldado has intervened in their lives (many tijuanenses display a purity of faith that would humble “cafeteria” Catholics, who pick and choose what they want from the smorgasbord of theology). The followers of Juan Soldado believe in his divine powers. On a recent visit to the tomb, I observed many displays of devotion. To the right of the altar, a mother and daughter have perched copies of their passports, received after months, perhaps years, of battling government red tape and inaction.
In misspelled, heartfelt Spanish, they give thanks to Juan Soldado for interceding with the bureaucracy so they could cross the border legally and earn dollars. They earn more in an hour working as maids in Coronado or La Jolla or National City than they could make in a ten-hour day back home in Guerrero or Jalisco or Chiapas.
Above the glass-encased image of the martyred soldier, I spot an ATM card taped to the wall of the shrine. I touch it, amazed that this gadget we depend on, a mundane part of life, could be considered miraculous. I wonder who left the card and why. And who can say this isn’t a true miracle, this strip of plastic that sucks out cash from machines and hurls a Mexican peasant into Gringolandia?
In the era of Operation Gatekeeper, another cycle of anti-immigrant hysteria, Juan Soldado is the patron saint of the disenfranchised, a folk hero of the undocumented, the spiritual anchor for those who gather on the border each night, gearing up for the dangerous leap north. I meet Memo there, in the shadow of the levee. We wait for darkness to fall. He’s from Oaxaca, far to the south, and came to Tijuana three months ago to live with his sister and her husband. Very dark and intense, with a noble Aztec nose, Memo’s Spanish is lilting and melodic, like a bird, and I ask him if he speaks another tongue. “Sí, mi primer idioma es Zapotec, but here one must speak good Spanish to get ahead.” His ambition impresses me, and I think of a cop’s comment in Joseph Wambaugh’s Lines and Shadows, set along the San Diego-Tijuana border: “It is the bravest, most ambitious Mexicans who wrench themselves from their homeland to come to the US. The timid stay home and tighten their belts when another corruption-fueled crisis falls.” Memo had never heard of Juan Soldado when he first arrived here, but he became a convert. Twice he tried to cross over to San Ysidro, and twice he failed, fell into the talons of the migra, and was dumped back in Tijuana. The first time he paid a smuggler $200 U.S., almost everything he had, to help guide him across to the other side, but the man took his money and failed to show at the prearranged time and place. Three months later, emboldened by shots of tequila and the company of two drinking buddies, Memo tried again and made it over, only to be apprehended on the Chula Vista trolley. Barely surviving as a street vendor, he heard of Juan Soldado from his brother-in-law’s mother, who prayed to the boy-saint when any of her nine children were in Gringolandia. Memo went to the shrine and left flowers and a candle, asking Juan to help him get across and find work once there. A week later, he was in Carlsbad picking strawberries and saving 100 bucks a week to send home to his wife and two little girls. Memo has crossed several times since without problem, and he is convinced that Santo Juanito watches over him when he is along the border or in the fields of North County. For his manda, his spiritual payment for the favor bestowed on him, Memo walked from Tecate to Tijuana. He tells me about the ten-hour hike through heat and dust to give thanks for the chance to pick fruit for $5 an hour.
Alejandro is also a true believer. I meet with him in Casa del Libro, the Spanish-language bookstore at Park and University. Solidly built, with the muscles of a workingman, Alejandro describes his frustration trying to get a green card legally. “I drowned in bureaucracy for years, desperate to get a mica [green card] to work in the U.S. Nothing worked until I went to the shrine of Juan Soldado and asked him to help me. I made a solemn promise that day that if Juan Soldado came through for me, I would clean up my act, stop drinking and chasing women, and take care of my wife and kids.” In just a few weeks after making the pledge, Alejandro got his green card; he swears he hasn’t had a drink since. Gloria, his short, plump, vivacious wife, vouches for her spouse. Now they both visit the tomb of Juan Soldado several times a year, thanking him for bringing peace into their home.
Over the years, the facts of the Castillo Morales/Soldado case have melded with border folklore to produce a tapestry of historical frustration. SDSU retired history professor and border scholar Thurber D. Proffitt III dubbed the story “a mere blip on the historical screen, but a fascinating blip at that.” The cast of characters includes homicide detective Lieutenant Ed Dieckman of the SDPD, who sounds grim and humorless, called in by Tijuana authorities to investigate the crime; General Manuel Contreras, army chief of the northern Baja territory, who looks just as I imagine Cotton Mather would had he presided over the Salem witch trials; and Tijuana police chief Luis Vinal Carsi, who seemed overwhelmed by the circumstances.
As a side note: In those days, San Diego and Tijuana police departments had a joint task force dedicated to solving sex crimes. In all of 1938, there were five such cases reported between both cities. Olga Vicenta Diaz Castro, better known by her pen name of Sor Abeja (“Lady Bee” is the closest translation), was for many years Tijuana’s unofficial poet laureate. Among her many works, she wrote a book on the legends of Tijuana, Leyendas de Tijuana. Included are chapters on the phantom gambler of Agua Caliente, who occasionally appears to high rollers at the track, and the girl who danced with the devil himself. She also writes about Juan Soldado, lamenting the lack of solid historical research into the case. I met her once, some five years back, on a bright Sunday morning in her home high in the hills on the west side of town. Nearly 90 at the time, she’d lost none of her faculties, flashing a savage wit and flirting with great style.
We passed a pleasant day talking of what Tijuana once was and what she had become and why Mexico, in spite of all its problems, was still a good place to raise a family if you could provide for them. She was on the fence about Juan Soldado’s guilt, but on one thing we concurred: Mexican justice made sure that he never had a chance. Sixty hours elapsed from the discovery of Olga’s body and the execution. For several years after our meeting I kept in touch. She died a few years ago. Sor Abeja, te estraña mucho.
Tijuana in the 1930s was a place where Mexico’s past collided with the modern world: decadent Hollywood types who drank, gambled, and whored while they deplored the country’s inclination toward depravity and idolatry. Agua Caliente racetrack boomed and the city began to grow, but disaster was brewing.
Now in his late 70s, Cutberto Aguiar recalls that hundreds of unemployed revolutionaries milled around downtown Tijuana streets, bored and dangerous. Unable to ply their trade for several years, they were ripe for excitement; the furor that arose after the little girl was found dead gave them a chance to display their talents. At the same time, militant labor groups began to demand concessions from business leaders — men of wealth who were determined to protect their privilege. President Cárdenas was initially sympathetic to the labor movement, but as it became radicalized he changed his stance. By the beginning of 1938, the racetrack was shut down in a labor dispute, and no solution was imminent. Señor Aguiar’s piercing black eyes drill into me as he explains that the little soldier-boy who came to be known as Juan Soldado was set up to break the back of the revolutionary Mexican workers’ union. “This little guy was a scapegoat for the government,” he tells me with a sardonic smile. “They used the crime and the riots that followed to end the reign of the workingman in Tijuana.”
Roberto Villalobos (not his real name) has deep roots in Tijuana. His family has been here for more than a century. The family library is rich in historical treasures: his great-grandfather used to hunt grizzly bears on Otay Mesa when it was a trackless wilderness.
Roberto’s grandmother at one time employed Juan Castillo Morales’s wife as a servant in her home, and Villalobos grew up on intimate terms with their story. Years of research have convinced him that Castillo Morales was indeed guilty of the heinous crime for which he was executed.
Why do people believe that he was innocent, and why do they credit him with miracles?, I ask the doctor and history buff. Roberto Villalobos replies that at first, a feeling of collective guilt swamped Tijuana after the execution, causing a reevaluation of what had happened. Second, ignorance and superstition combined to produce a cult, which spread by word of mouth throughout the border region. Newcomers to Tijuana would visit the cemetery and believe the story with no historical understanding of the facts behind the case. For many educated tijuanenses, the cult of Juan Soldado remains an embarrassment, an example of peasant backwardness. Roberto Villalobos finds the subject of historical interest but hardly a mystery. For the surviving members of the Comacho family, the fact that Juan Castillo Morales/Juan Soldado is revered as a popular saint is an outrage; several years ago they demanded that Olga’s body be exhumed and reburied in another cemetery rather than remain in the same graveyard as her murderer.
Manuel Acosta Meza was a hero in a town that needed one. A crusading journalist who worked at the San Diego Tribune in the ’40s and ’50s, Acosta Meza dedicated his life to defending Tijuana’s poor and exploited and exposing government and business corruption at the highest levels. His newspaper, El Imparcial, was continually shut down by authorities who feared and loathed him. Before his assassination in July of 1956, Acosta Meza had established himself as the greatest newspaperman in the history of Tijuana. A bust of Acosta Meza can be seen today on Calle Tercera, west of Revolución, in front of the monument to freedom of speech.
Manuel Acosta Meza was interested in the Juan Soldado case. In the early ’50s, at great personal risk, Acosta Meza reprinted in his paper accounts of the events of 1938 that raised serious questions about government complicity. Was there a connection between his pursuit of the truth and his murder? Eighteen years elapsed between the riots that ended in Juan Castillo Morales’s execution and the death of Acosta Meza. What if Acosta Meza was on the trail of the real killer of the little girl, an officer now nearing retirement and determined to keep his good name? Each day that passes, fewer witnesses are alive and fewer clues remain.
Manuel’s son, Iván Acosta Meza, is a charming man in his mid-40s who carries on his father’s torch. Ivan, a human rights attorney, tried for several years to keep El Imparcial alive. Finally, after repeated closures by the government, and threats against his family, Ivan decided to devote himself to law; he works out of an office west of downtown Tijuana. Gracious and articulate, Ivan described how his father’s archives were destroyed in a suspicious fire in 1969. Among the documents lost in the blaze were numerous articles about Juan Soldado. According to several sources, a movie was made about the events of 1938 but was banned in Mexico. Filming had to be completed in Los Angeles, and the picture was lost. (It is said the film may be hidden in UCLA’s film archives.)
“Tijuana was so small when I first came here [in 1937] that in 15 minutes, I walked through the whole damn town,” says Mario Jiménez, who was 22 when he fled the interior of Mexico and made his way north to the border. After several months living in destitution, he landed a temporary job working with the crew building the highway to Ensenada. When the road was finished, he strolled the Coahuila red-light district with songs for sale, but the steadiest gig he could land was digging graves in the old public cemetery west of downtown, Panteón Número Uno, where he dug graves for children — victims of tuberculosis or measles or scarlet fever. It was not a job in great demand, even in desperate times.
At 82, Mario is a robust, handsome man with a strong handshake. When I arrive at the East San Diego home of his youngest daughter, Margarita, on a hot Saturday afternoon, Mario has been working for several hours putting in a new floor in the back room. The day’s labor done, we settle down with a couple of cold Bohemias to talk about Juan Soldado. His memory crisp, Mario recalls those days in a voice of compassionate wisdom. He remembers the sad days of his childhood, a scruffy little street urchin shining shoes and peddling newspapers and candy on the streets; he remembers learning in fits and starts to play guitar. Mario played for a while in the bar run by Olga Camacho’s father, Aurelio, head of the local bartenders’ union. Mario admits that he and his buddies were not virtuous in those days.
“We were not altar boys,” he tells me with a wicked grin. Their church was the cantina, where they played and drank and wenched away the evenings. Gringos were a source of amusement for Mario and his pals. Gringos went to Tijuana to sleaze it up, but they made it clear their culture was superior to that of Mexico’s. Mario decided long ago that all men were created equal when it came to the pursuit of vice. Mario Jiménez saw the drama unfold almost 60 years ago: the looting and burning and killing branded his mind with such force that for years he dreamed of what he had seen; his sleep became punctuated with images of the violence and terror that ruled the town for three days. Legend has it that a man was shot in the cheek during the street fighting between police and union agitators, and the bullet passed through without harming him. People seemed obsessed with magic and mystery as violence exploded around them.
Mario was there the morning they shot Juan Soldado, February 17, 1938. He was inside the cemetery digging a grave when the army detachment brought Juan inside and prepared to shoot him. Juan was found guilty at a top-secret military tribunal that went on all night in General Contreras’s home, and at dawn he was proclaimed guilty and taken to the graveyard. Many stories are told about what transpired on that day: some say Juan admitted his guilt and begged for mercy; other sources insist he was stoic to the end. Mario heard Juan say he did not kill the little girl; Mario heard Juan say a short prayer before he was made to run.