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The Holy Ghost of the Cristeros

25 February 2012

In the Catholic Church calendar, today is the feast of Santo Toribio Romo Gonzalés, a Catholic priest born in Santa Ana, Jalisco, who died (or multiple gunshot wounds) in Tequila (the town that is) on 25 February 1928, and canonized in May 2000.

Born in 1900, Toribio Romo Gonzalés entered the seminary at the age of 12 and was ordained in 1922.  His education and ministry spanned a critical time in the history of Church-State relations in Mexico, and — in Romo’s native Jalisco — a particularly violent one.

I tell the story of the political, theological and ideological struggles of Romo’s time in my Gorostieta and the Cristiada: Mexico’s Catholic Insurgency 1926-1929.  As a short introduction to the tragic, and perhaps unnecessary violence that erupted throughout Mexico in the late 1920s, especially in Jalisco, I couldn’t begin to focus on individual victims like Romo.

The struggles between the State and the Roman Catholic Church long pre-dated the 1917 Constitution, which sought to limit the role of the Church in secular affairs.  The philosophical and economic issues were bitterly contested, but when these arguments turned to violence (which they did on a massive scale between 1926 and 1929), the victims were not often the elites, but ordinary men and women like Toribio Romo.  A country priest, and brother of a priest, he was forced to go into hiding after the initial successes of the Cristero rebels were pushed back by Agrianista militia forces — mostly landless farm workers who were promised their own lands in return for fighting the Catholic led (or misled) insurgents.  Priests, seen as the ones fomenting the insurgency, were the obvious target of the state forces and the militias.  Cornered in a Tequila factory by the Agrarianistas, Toribio’s brother managed to hide, while he was shot at least twice, and died in the arms of his sister.

For the Church, the young rural priest’s death was a martyrdom, and if the Church considers his life and death to have been one of “heroic virtue” so be it.  But how he came to be the patron saint of emigration to the United States (especially of the undocumented variety) is a mystery.  Although the Cristiada did set off a wave of emigration from the Bajío and beyond to the United States, Toribio Romo never visited the country, and doesn’t seem to have ever left the State of Jalisco in his life.  Perhaps, his unusually good looks — besides being well-featured, he was a blue eyed trigueña [with a natural light-tan skin and blonde-haired], which is not all that rare in Jalisco, but is in Mexico as a whole — and tragic death combine to make him the perfect folk hero.  As one cynical foreign writer once said, “Latin Americas prefer their heroes to be young, good-looking and dead.”

Since the 1970s at least, stories have circulated of the young, blonde, handsome stranger with the Jalisco accent who stops to assist migrants, carrying them in an old pickup truck around border patrol stations, and the inexplicable failure of border patrol communications devices when he appears.  The young stranger asks migrants to look him up in Santa Ana, or ask for Toribio Romowhen they are back in that part of the country… and, of course, what they find is his tomb and portrait.

Seeing the guy has been dead for the last 85 years, never spent any time in the United States when he was alive, and — as far as anyone can tell — never learned to drive (let alone owned a truck), it’s a pretty neat trick.  Or a miracle?

Left, in life (ca. 1924). Right... as a spiritual champion (note the gas can). Erin Currier (

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Romo permalink
    28 February 2012 6:11 pm

    Saint Toribio has a last name of “ROMO” not “Roma”

    • 29 February 2012 1:14 am

      That’s embarrassing! I spend hours tracking down the correct spellings for obscure names when I’m editing someone else’s work, and then screw up a common name like this… I’m not even gonna try explaining how I got it consistently wrong.


  1. Rebranding saints « The Mex Files

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