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Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint

Written by Paul J. Vanderwood

Review by Dennis Moore

Paul J. Vanderwood, Professor Emeritus of Mexican History at San Diego State University, preceded his groundbreaking book on the allure of gambling and prostitution, "Satan's Playground," with this book similarly set in Tijuana, "Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint."

Being Professor Emeritus of Mexican History at San Diego State University, Vanderwood weaves other stories and Mexican folklore into this true cannot-put-down read that combines deep research, strong narrative, and remarkable insight about how a spontaneous religious devotion comes into being and consolidates itself. A term such as "Ley Fuga," the detestable "Law of Flight," gets particular significance in the telling of this story.

This city, rich in history and infamy, Tijuana, Mexico, is the perfect setting for Vanderwood's story of a young soldier from deep in the Zapotec region of southern Mexico, Juan Castillo Morales, being accused of the brutal rape and murder of eight-year-old Olga Camacho, and Morales being hastily tried and executed. The murky circumstances of the rape and subsequent brutal execution of Morales, would later elevate him to Saint-like status and reverance, giving him the name of Juan Soldado, or "Juan the Soldier."

The author offers a fascinating look at the events, beliefs, and circumstances that have motivated popular devotion to Juan Soldado, a Mexican folk saint. In his mortal incarnation, Juan Soldado was Juan Castillo Morales, a twenty-four-year-old soldier convicted of and quickly executed for the rape and murder of eight-year-old Olga Camacho in Tijuana in 1938. Immediately after Morales' death, many people began to doubt the evidence of his guilt, despite Morales' confession, and/or at least the justice of his brutal execution. People reported seeing blood seeping from his grave and hearing his soul cry out protesting his innocence. Vanderwood offers plausible explanations for this. Soon the "martyred" Morales was known as Juan Soldado, or John the Soldier. Believing that those who have died unjustly sit closest to God, people began visiting Morales' grave asking for favors. Within months of his death, the young soldier had become a popular saint. Although Juan Soldado was never canonized by the Catholic Church, thousands of people have made pilgrimages to his gravesite.

Vanderwood recalls in "Juan Soldado" the story of El Tiradito, billed by Tucson's Chamber of Commerce as "the only sinner to become a saint." Similar to this book, and as Vanderwood recalls, like all such tales, that of Tiradito is shrouded in murky memory, creative retelling, and reflections of changing times. Being the great storyteller that he is, Vanderwood further states: "In the latter part of the nineteenth century, so the most frequently told story goes, a young ranch hand named Juan Oliveras, cowpoking outside Tucson or in northern Mexico, became infatuated with his stepmother, his father's wife, and she with him. A sexual liaison developed, and one day the father caught them making love. As the youngster sought to escape the entanglement, his father cleaved him with an ax and had the corpse tossed away to rot."

As with Juan Castillo Morales (Juan Soldado), Mexican and Mexican-American Catholics thought the burial of Tiradito unholy, despite their alleged sins. Tiradito's remains lay in unblessed earth, and therefore his soul would suffer in Purgatory forever and be denied its final glory. Vanderwood states in his book that pious neighbors placed candles on the grave (which tradition locates in the historic quarter of Tucson) and commended the soul of the slain sinner to God. Devotion soon brought personal requests and miraculous rewards. A shrine now exists, "Dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground." This is so eerily similar to the death and burial of Juan Soldado, despite the heinous crime that was committed, and his alleged confession to it. More to the point, Vanderwood states in "Juan Soldado:" "The manner of death and place of burial carry profound religious meaning for any number of believers for whom more secular notions of justice and fairness are also inextricably intertwined." Perhaps, it is just a matter of a clash of cultures, Mexican vs. American.

The author would point out a series of yet-to-be-solved kidnappings and murders of both children and adults in and around San Diego, California, just fifteen miles north across the international boundary. One was the Muir case, that of forty-eight-year-old Ruth Muir being raped and beaten to death in 1936, and her corpse being dumped in a glade in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla. The Muir case would develop a Tijuana angle, in that a popular crooner of cowboy songs on a Tijuana radio station was booked for robbery and possible kidnapping involving three young women two years earlier, and was questioned in connection with the rape-murders of Ruth Muir and a Celta Cota. This only added to the histeria surrounding the initial disappearance of the young Olga Camacho. It was also around the time of the sensationalized "Lindbergh" case. It would seem only natural that the Camacho family and their neighborhood might think the worst, and possibly over-react, as Vanderwood further points out in this riveting account of how events unfurled.

Vanderwood further points out and characterizes Tijuana in the aftermath of the rape and brutal murder of young Olga Camacho: "Tijuana had swirled in rumors, suppositions, spontaneous outbursts of anger, and a general commotion since the initial disappearance of Olga Camacho and through the ensuing search for the child. But the town had never been a calm, well-run community of inhabitants living a simple life. Just the opposite: at least since the 1920s and the advent of Prohibition across the border, it had courted the reputation of a wide open, rip-roaring tourist mecca where anything went and the good times rolled." This was also pointed out in Vanderwood's subsequent book, "Satan's Playground."

Vanderwood's "Juan Soldado" is the first book to situate the story of Juan Castillo Morales within a broader exploration of how and why popular canonizations such as his take root and flourish. In addition to conducting extensive archival research, the author interviewed central actors in the events of 1938, including Olga Camacho's mother, citizens who rioted to demand Morales' release to a lynch mob, those who witnessed his execution, and some of the earliest believers in his miraculous powers. Vanderwood also spoke with many present-day visitors to the shrine at Morales' grave. He describes them, their petitions - for favors such as health, a good marriage, or safe passage into the United States - and how they reconcile their belief in the folk saint with their Catholicism.

In "Juan Soldado," a gripping true-crime mystery opens up into a much larger and more elusive mystery of faith and belief, a fascinating book, that I highly recommend.

Dennis Moore is a board member of the San Diego WriteWay webzine, and a freelance contributor to the San Diego Union-Tribune Newspaper. He has written for LifeAfter50 Magazine in Pasadena, California, and the Baja Times Newspaper in Rosarito Beach, Mexico.