At first thought, Tijuana has little to do with the Olmecs, who lived in the rich
lowlands of Mexico’s Gulf Coast and created a great civilization that was at
its height between 800 and 500 BC.
exotic Tijuana—city of passion and mystery. My first investigative
trip to Mexico’s fourth-largest city was in the fall of 2003, when
I attended Day of the Dead festivities there and went undercover in
the persona of a terminally ill cancer patient to test a fortuneteller
and to search for the bogus
curative, Laetrile (Nickell 2004). I returned in mid-May 2009 as a side
jaunt to an extensive California trip (in which I lectured, received
an award [see Hammer 2009], and went on an expedition into Bigfoot Country).
This time in Tijuana, accompanied as before by Vaughn Rees, I looked
into the magic of Náhuatl dances, an Olmec mystery, and the case of
a dubious folk saint.
Náhuatl Dance Magic
Mesoamerica, the indigenistas used music and dance in religious
ceremonies. Apparently the first expressly religious practices came
from the Olmecs of the Gulf Coast, who flourished from about 1200 to
400 bc only to subsequently disappear. Olmec means “rubber people” in the
ancient language known as Náhuatl (Jones and Molyneaux 2004, 91–92,
was the language of the later Aztecs and Toltecs, and it was spread
by them throughout ancient Mesoamerica. It belongs to the same family
of languages as Shoshonean, which is well represented among Native
Americans of the United States. Significantly,
tie supports the old tradition that the Aztecs came from the north and
were late arrivals in the Valley of Mexico. Like all American Indians,
the Aztecs were descended from peoples who probably crossed from Siberia
to Alaska by traversing the Bering Strait. A number of relatively pure-blooded
Aztecs still live in central Mexico. They are short, with round heads,
dark skin, and straight black hair. Typical of American Indians, they
do not differ much from the Indians of Arizona and New Mexico. (Collier’s Encyclopedia 1993, s.v. “Aztecs”)
such “Aztecs”—or at least the linguistically definable Native
Americans who continue to speak Náhuatl and who are known as the Nahua—represent
between 800,000 and 1.5 million inhabitants of central and western Mexico
(“Náhuatl” 2009; Jones and Molyneaux 2004, 131). It was such a
family that Vaughn Rees and I happily encountered
at the plaza on Avenida
Avenue”) in Tijuana. There, in native dress, they pranced and whirled
in elaborate folk dances, ceremonial expressions of their cultural mythology
(see figures 1 and 2).
Náhuatl dances were originally created to please the gods. The dances
can be seen as meditation, even prayer, in motion. The movements (expressing
specific meanings) include serpent-like actions (to denote fertility),
zig-zag steps (water), steps (fire), squatting to the ground (the
earth and crops), and twirling in the air (the soul). “The individual
dancers also work together to become one entity and reach the goal
of complete attentiveness. The dancers unite to create a corporal expression
to worship and communicate with their gods as they are expressed in
nature” (Danza 2009).
today the Náhuatl religion is increasingly influenced by Catholicism
(“Náhuatl” 2009), some dedicated dancers attempt to keep alive
a tradition with which we can connect at the human level. I feel privileged
to have been able to step back, as it were, into an earlier, more magical
time, and even wonder again, with the poet Yeats: When the two become
one, “how can we know the dancer from the dance?”
thought, Tijuana has little to do with the Olmecs, who lived in the
rich lowlands of Mexico’s Gulf Coast and created a great civilization
that was at its height between 800 and 500 bc.
Several farming villages grew into something more, notes Kenneth L.
Feder (1996, 410), archaeologist and CSI fellow:
ceremonial centers where a unique constellation of art motifs and architectural
patterns are seen. The motifs and patterns, called Olmec, include several
common artistic and architectural elements: depictions of a half-human,
half-jaguar god, the use of jade, iron ore mirrors, large earthen platforms,
earthen pyramids, and huge basalt boulders carved into the likeness
of human heads….
was one such giant head—one of at least seventeen known—that I recognized
immediately on a Tijuana sidewalk (see figure 3). Some archaeologists
have suggested that the disembodied, helmeted heads represented players
of a sacred Olmec ball game (involving a heavy ball of indigenous rubber).
Supposedly, these players lost, and as a consequence were decapitated
(The World’s 1978, 264–265; “Olmec” 2009).
that notion seems fanciful, even trivial, in light of the huge amount
of effort necessary to transport and carve the colossal basalt blocks.
The prevailing view is that the heads represent Olmec chiefs (Feder
1996, 410). Indeed, a bronze plaque on the Tijuana monument refers to
the colossal Olmec head as El
Rey (“The King”).
astronaut” theorists like Erich von Däniken have exaggerated the
difficulty of moving and shaping the stones. In his one-time international
of the Gods? and other
books, von Däniken suggests that space aliens visited Earth in the
remote past, mated with humans to produce Homo
sapiens, and helped
create many of antiquity’s greatest works, such as the pyramids of
Egypt and the stone statues on Easter Island. In his writings von Däniken
again and again misrepresents evidence to fit his “theory” (Nickell
writes of the Olmecs that “their beautifully helmeted giant skulls”
(sic) can be “admired only on the
sites where they were found, for they will never be on show in a museum”
(von Däniken 1971, 93). Why? “No bridge in the country could stand
their weight,” he asserts. “We can move smaller ‘monoliths’
weighing up to fifty tons with our modern lifting appliances and loaders,
but when it comes to hundred-tonners like these our technology breaks
fact, von Däniken has doubled or quadrupled the actual weight of
the heads. Sources place the largest ones in the twenty-five- to fifty-five-ton
range (“Olmec” 2009). The boulders of basalt (a dark volcanic rock)
used for the heads came from the Tuxtlas Mountains, some forty to sixty
miles from the Olmec centers (Whitaker 1951, 51). States Feder (1996,
410), “The movement of this stone over such a great distance is another
indicator of the ability of the Olmec chiefs to mobilize and manage
the labor of a great mass of people.” The Olmecs may have dragged
the boulders and floated them on large balsa rafts along coastal waters
(“Olmec” 2009). They were later carved using “stone implements
with much skill” (Whitaker 1951, 51).
only are some of the giant heads found in museums, but one was transported
thousands of miles for a special exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum
of Art (Whitaker 1951, 51). In Tijuana, the great Olmec head provides
further silent testimony against the falsehoods of the glib Erich von
Däniken and his ilk.
certain deceased persons are officially recognized as saints, who are
held to be in the glory of God in heaven and whose holiness is attested
through miracles (Schreck 1984, 153–156). Among the rank-and-file
faithful, however, there are also a number of popular, unofficial saints—like
Argentina’s controversial “Evita” (Eva Peron, wife of dictator
Juan Peron), who is reviled by anti-Peronists but sought for canonization
by others crediting her with the requisite miracles (Nickell 2006, 20).
such folk saint in northwestern Mexico, as well as now the southwestern
United States, is known as Juan
Soldado (“Soldier John”), the name given by his devotees to Juan Castillo Morales, from
southern Mexico. In 1938 at the age of twenty-four, he was in Tijuana,
serving as a private in the Mexican army (see figure 4).
on February 13, an eight-year-old Tijuana girl, Olga Camacho, was sent
by her mother to the corner grocery for meat. When she failed to return,
an all-night search for her was conducted by citizens and authorities.
It culminated at noon with the discovery of the child’s raped and
nearly decapitated body in an abandoned building not far from the police
station. The neighbor who found her had been convinced Olga would be
found safe, but that woman subsequently claimed she was directed to
the site by “a vision” of the Virgin Mary (Vanderwood 2004,
smoldered with anger, a lynch mob was formed, and finally tensions exploded.
The police station and municipal hall were torched, and fire trucks
answering calls had their hoses slashed with machetes. Eventually soldiers
fired on the crowd, killing one and wounding several. Newspapers dubbed
that day, February 15, “Bloody Tuesday.”
by February 17, just over three days after the discovery of little Olga’s
body, Juan Castillo Morales had been accused of the crime, taken into
custody, turned over to the army, sentenced to death following a twelve-hour
court martial, and transported to the municipal cemetery where he was
executed. He was dispatched by a method known as Ley
Fuga (“flight law”) in which he was ordered to flee for his life, then cut down by a firing
squad. He was badly wounded, and an officer finally administered the
coup de grace (Maher 1997; “Juan” 2009; Vanderwood 2004, 49–50).
was Juan Castillo Morales transformed from child-rapist and murderer
into “Juan Soldado” the popular saint? A rumor circulated that the
little girl was actually killed by an army officer who framed Juan for
the atrocity. Still later, more conspiracy theories were advanced (Maher
1997; “Juan” 2009). Meanwhile, there were unverified reports of
“ghostly voices” near Juan’s burial site. As well, some spoke
of “blood seeping from his grave” (“Juan” 2009) or, alternately,
claimed “that a rock by the spot where he fell kept spouting blood,
calling attention to his innocence” (Maher 1997) or that blood oozed
“through the rocks laid [ritualistically] at the grave site” (Vanderwood
2004, 64). Such variants (as folklorists call differing
versions), together with the common folk motifs (or story elements),1 are indicative
of the folkloric process at work in the evolving Juan Soldado legend.
(If real blood was actually “seeping up through the loosely packed
soil” of Morales’s shallow grave—his coffin was reportedly “just
a foot or so below the surface”—it was attributable to decomposition
gases forcing blood and tissue upward [Vanderwood 2004, 64, 190]. More
simply, after a rain, a rock containing red ocher—red iron oxide—could
have given the appearance of blood.)
time, little shrines were built at the supposed execution and burial
sites, as well as elsewhere in the area (see figure 4). Votive candles,
cards, and other religious items devoted to Juan Soldado are now sold
throughout the borderlands. Many people appeal to his spirit
before attempting to enter the United States illegally: “Juan Soldado, ayúdame a
John, help me across”). Others pray to him for help with health problems,
criminal troubles, and family matters (“Juan” 2009). Many attest
to “miracles” he produced on their behalf. Although June 24, Mexico’s El Día de San Juan (“The day of Saint John”),
actually celebrates John the Baptist whose feast day it is, cultists
have appropriated it for their San Juan, Juan Soldado, and the cemetery
is filled with believers and mariachis (Maher 1997).
Catholic Church, on the other hand, understandably denies the sanctity
of Juan Soldado. Before Olga’s body was discovered, Juan Castillo
Morales was seen loitering in the area. He was known to police as one
who reportedly made sexual overtures to girls. His common-law wife came
forward to say he had returned home very late, disheveled, and spattered
with blood, whereupon he broke down and confessed to the crime. Newspaper
reporters invited to interview him found him unrepentant, even nonchalant.
A Los Angeles paper headlined its report, “Smiling Mexican Private
tells Examiner, ‘Yes I did it’” (Vanderwood
the evidence is correct and Juan indeed represents depravity rather
than sanctity, how ironic is his transformation to solider-saint and
even more so his purported ability to work “miracles” seemingly
as real as those of any officially sanctioned saint.
to Vaughn Rees, without whose tireless assistance this article would
not have been possible, I wish to thank CFI librarian Lisa Nolan and
Director of CFI Libraries Timothy Binga for their considerable help
with research, and the entire staff of the Skeptical
Inquirer for their continuing
See, for example, Thompson (1955, 403–458), including motifs “The
unquiet grave” (E410), “Revenant as blood” (E4184.108.40.206),
“Ineradicable bloodstain after bloody tragedy” (E4220.127.116.11.1),
and so on.
Step by step. 2009. Available online at http://danzaazteca.wordpress.com/2009/05/29/
why-did-aztecs-dance/; accessed August 19, 2009.
L. 1996. The
Past in Perspective: An Introduction to Human Prehistory. Mountain View, California: Mayfield
Owen. 2009. Third annual IIG awards: Mythbusters and Nickell honored, Ben Stein
Inquirer 33(5) (September/
M., and Brian L. Molyneaux. 2004. Mythology
of the American Nations.
London: Hermes House.
2009. Wikipedia. Available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Soldado;
accessed May 25, 2009.
1997. After they shot Juan. San
Diego Reader, December
4. (Refurbished January 30, 2008. Available online at http://www.sandiego
reader.com/news/2008/jan/30/after-they-shot-juan/; accessed May 25,
religion. 2009. Available online at http://
www.bookrags.com/research/nahuatl-religion-eorl-09; accessed August
Joe. 2004. Mythical Mexico. Skeptical
Inquirer 28(4) (July/August):
2006. Argentina mysteries. Skeptical
Inquirer 30(2) (March/April):
Hugo G., and John M. Roberts. 1993. Bloodsucking
Witchcraft: An Epistemological Study of Anthropomorphic Supernaturalism
in Rural Tlaxcala. Tucson:
U of Arizona Press.
Olmec. 2009. Wikipedia.
Available online at http://
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec; accessed August 18, 2009.
Barry, and Edgar Castle, eds. 1972. Some
Trust in Chariots. Toronto:
Stith. 1955. Motif-Index
of Folk Literature,
rev. ed., vol. 2 of 6 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Paul. 2004. Juan
Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint.
Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Erich. 1971. Chariots
of the Gods? London:
Gordon. 1951. The spaceman in the tree. In Thiering and Castle 1972,
World’s Last Mysteries.
1978. Pleasantville, N.Y.: The Reader’s Digest Association.