Saint or Criminal Spirit? Mexican Figure Stirs Controversy in NJ Store

A Malverde figurine (Photo via Reporte Hispano)

The store, located in Passaic, is huge. They sell saint figurines and there is an altar to Santa Muerte – Holy Death – in the back, but what grabs our attention is the Saint Malverde figure at the window, sitting on a throne of sorts and two rocks by its side.

“People leave the stones when they ask Malverde to grant them a wish,” says Sandra, a young woman who cleans the candles sold at the shop who sounds like she knows what she is talking about.

Apparently, the story – to which everyone seems to add their own theory – begins with Jesús Malverde, the “Mexican Robin Hood,” being hung in the state of Sinaloa back in early 1900 by a governor who forbade anyone from touching his dead body. As the corpse decomposed, a peasant who had lost track of his cow threw a rock at his remains and, lo and behold, the cow turned up.

The controversy starts with the character’s designation. According to tradition, Malverde has not been canonized as a saint by the Catholic church, so he would technically be what is known as a “spirit.”

A Mexican man who chose to remain anonymous, walks by the figure and says: “That is the saint of the narcos. I would never worship him,” and enters the shop to receive a smoke bath for good luck and to keep bad vibes away.

He also says that the folk saint was from the state of Michoacán, which is inaccurate. Malverde was from Sinaloa, where he used to steal from rich overlords to give to the poor until he was caught and executed, according to sources such as [literary magazine] Letras Libres and Wikipedia.

We find hundreds of Malverde figurines at the store, big and small. We grab one that fits in the palm of the hand. It is labeled “made in China.”

Out in the street, it’s complicated. Some are in favor of the saint and others, against.

“The truth is,” says Puebla native Juan Castro, “I only believe in Our Lord and in the Virgin of Guadalupe. If anyone believes in him, that is their problem. All I am saying is that I don’t like his link with narcos and thieves. He gives off a bad vibe; it’s like those corrido songs about narcos. That is not what we Mexicans are about.”

Still, Malverde devotees are out there.

Julia Elizondo, from Guatemala, became a follower during the time she was crossing Mexico to get to the U.S. border eight years ago. She prays to Malverde every day.

“If I have my saint, I offer him stones every time I ask for a favor and leave them there so he will grant it to me. I pray to him a lot. He helped me during my crossing. I’m telling you, I’ve had him with me ever since. He helps me out,” says Elizondo, adding: “The whole ‘saint of the narcos’ thing is, well, like Coca-Cola: Just because El Chapo drank it doesn’t mean that the rest of us who drink it are Chapos.”

Jimena wipes a small image of Malverde in which he is shown standing, hands on his belt – which has an oval buckle – not sitting as usual. The picture’s rather long title reads: “The True Prayer of the Malverde Spirit.” It starts as follows:

“…Today I kneel in front of your cross, oh, Malverde. Lord, I ask you for mercy and to ease my pain. You, who pray in heaven and are close to God, listen to the suffering of this humble sinner. Oh, miraculous Malverde! Oh, Malverde of my Lord, grant me this favor and fill my soul with joy! Lord, give me health, give me comfort, give me wellness. I will be blissful.”

As we read this, the owner of the store – displeased with our intrusion – invites us to leave the premises.

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