Thomas Evans and Dr. Alonzo Gaskill, Church History and Doctrine
Santo Toribio is a saint who was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, but whose cult (used here in the very general meaning as “following”) includes many beliefs and practices that would categorize him as a “folk saint”, or unofficial saint. He died as a martyr of the Cristero (Soldiers of Christ) Rebellion in 1929, but beginning in the 1980’s stories began circulating concerning his miraculous intervention while helping migrants cross the border from Mexico to the United States. He was then canonized collectively in the year 2000 with a group of 26 other saints for reasons not related to immigration, including martyrdom and a miracle thought to be performed by the group as a whole. The ORCA Grant enabled me to conduct surveys and interviews in Mexico (primarily at the shrine of Santo Toribio in Santa Ana de Guadalupe, Jalisco) and conduct an analysis of religious wares on both sides of the border. Through this study, a pattern of Santo Toribio’s cult disbursement was established and some reported myths concerning his devotion were debunked.
The fact that Santo Toribio is part of the canonized Cristero martyrs is useful because it allows for a direct comparison between his cult with others that are very similar. His fame has, in most locations, surpassed that of San Cristobal Magallanes and Blessed Miguel Pro, who have historically been the most famous of the Mexican martyr-saints. In official Vatican documents, the canonization is referred to as “San Cristobal Magallanes and companions” because of Magallanes chronological and historical superiority, but at the shrine of Santo Toribio much of the books and pamphlets available for purchase states “Santo Toribio and companions”. The shrine would obviously promote Santo Toribio above his companions, but it is interesting that an official parish church would produce literature that opposes the Vatican in this way. The survey indicated that most people do not know much of the specific history of the Cristero Rebellion, except for, perhaps, those that live in the area directly surrounding the shrine where the fighting was most intense. The widely reported post-mortem appearances of Santo Toribio are, curiously, not an important aspect of worship at the shrine. Many television programs, newspapers, and magazines focus solely on his supernatural ability to help Mexicans cross the border into the United States, but his shrine, on the whole, is like many shrines in Mexico where his help is sought for a variety of circumstances and in many different ways.
The belief that Santo Toribio has become the “Patron Saint of Immigrants” is still present at the shrine, but becomes more important as his cult spreads northward. This distinction is important because it shows that the cult is different as it spreads out geographically. His folk following is allowed to flourish, unlike other unofficial patrons of migration (e.g., Juan Soldado or Jesus Malverde) whose cult growth is suppressed by the Catholic Church. Juan Soldado and Jesus Malverde are purely “folk saints” who are known for helping border crossers, but this project has shown that they have not attained the popularity of Santo Toribio due in large part to the fact that Santo Toribio has more venues of cult disbursement because he is allowed to be part of official worship in the Catholic Church. Many argue that Mexican Catholicism is characterized by folk practices that distract from official doctrine, but Toribio’s fame emanates from an area of Mexico renowned for its strict Catholicism. This dichotomous nature often confuses some believers who then mix the folk belief into his official and historical nature. Many believers in Mexico are not concerned with whether a particular saint has gone through the Catholic canonization process, but some visitors to his shrine (who value his orthodoxy) mistakenly believe that Toribio’s stories of helping border crossers are the basis for his canonization.
Many Roman Catholic officials in Santa Ana de Guadalupe, Tijuana, and Los Angeles, directly and indirectly support the aspects of his cult that would make him a folk saint, which in turn allows the cult to grow stronger. In Tijuana, a chapel dedicated to Santo Toribio is in construction a block away from a shrine to Juan Soldado; a shrine where Santo Toribio merchandise is sold. At Olvera Street in Los Angeles (a popular Mexican tourist destination) Santo Toribio’s image is sold alongside and with Jesus Malverde images, but across the street at the parish church, Toribio images are sold alone. Because he is a martyr and an official saint, he can safely be used in the official Church while still enjoying his “folk” following. Many parish priests have been very vocal about their opposition to the two folk saints (Malverde and Soldado), but welcome a saint like Toribio who is official. However, Toribio is unofficial to the Catholic Church as a protector of immigrants.
Another factor uncovered in this research is essential in understanding Santo Toribio’s rising popularity: his proximity to Guadalajara and San Juan de los Lagos. Guadalajara has long been the souvenir production center of Mexico. Strolling along in some of its markets, one may find souvenirs that have names of cities all over Mexico which were mistakenly left and not shipped to their intended destinations. The established distribution networks enable Santo Toribio’s merchandise to easily make it to Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Los Angeles, El Paso, and many other cities in the U.S. and Mexico. San Juan de los Lagos is the home of a famous statue of the Virgin Mary and has been an important pilgrimage site for decades. Many of those surveyed remarked that they only visited the Santo Toribio shrine because the tour bus to San Juan de los Lagos had stopped there for a few hours.
The parish priest that is in charge of Santo Toribio’s shrine in Santa Ana de Guadalupe, Jalisco asked that I omit survey questions asking about adherent’s political views about Mexican and American politics. I obliged, hoping to create an ongoing relationship with him and the shrine. In the end, however, I learned through comments given during the interview process that politics played little part in their decision to go to the shrine. Most had strong opinions about the immigration policy of the United States, but most go to the shrine because of familial and societal tradition or, as mentioned above, simply because it is a new stop on the way to San Juan de los Lagos.
This research facilitated by the ORCA grant has shown that popular thought concerning the nature of Santo Toribio’s cult is incorrect. If immigration continues at its present rate, the cult of Santo Toribio will continue to grow as migrants go north to the U.S. This increases his popularity in Mexico (through word-of-mouth and cross-border interaction) which is fueled by the approval of the Roman Catholic clergy and by religious merchandise that is effectively and cheaply distributed.