People say he’s their guardian, their lawyer, their smuggler. On a recent afternoon, they lined up at his feet with their requests:
Please, my mother needs a visa.
Please, my niece was caught by agents.
Please, I can’t go on being illegal.
As a border crisis involving the influx of tens of thousands of children from Central America unfolds, the faithful of Southern California are flocking to Santo Toribio Romo Gonzalez.
The Catholic saint, who they believe watches over immigrants, flew in for his first visit to Los Angeles. He came from a tiny town in the Mexican state of Jalisco in the form of a fragile wooden statue that toured churches across three counties.
“It cost the price of two first-class tickets to get him here, but we did it,” said Rosa Gonzalez of Chatsworth, who handled the saint’s transportation. “Now here he is, bringing blessings to everyone.”
Romo Gonzalez was a simple priest, killed during a religious uprising in 1928. He was canonized just 14 years ago. But Latinos, particularly Mexicans, have made him legendary.
They say the saint, often wearing a cowboy hat and boots, miraculously appears to border crossers when they are most desperate: in the desert, along roadsides and in migrant shelters.
Santo Toribio gives them food, money and water. And like a coyote, or smuggler, he helps them cross into the United States. Sometimes, when the path is too perilous, he tells them to turn around and return home.
“I owe him everything,” said Jose Ochoa, who showed up to welcome the saint to his church, Santiago de Compostela in Lake Forest. “I couldn’t imagine dying without coming to see him to say thank you.”
The 32-year-old cook crossed the border illegally in 2005. He came with his son, then 4, to reunite with his wife and family. Before leaving Jalisco, Ochoa said, his grandfather gave him a small, laminated photo of Santo Toribio.
Ochoa had never heard of the saint, but his grandfather told him: “Have faith in him. He will take care of you.”
Last week, the father of three lit a candle before the 4-foot-tall statue and bowed his head in gratitude.
Many immigrants who come to the United States illegally carry a photo of the saint safely tucked in their wallets. Before they leave Mexico, those who can stop in Santa Ana de Guadalupe, Santo Toribio’s hometown.
There, farm workers have seen their dusty pueblo transformed into a religious mecca.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims arrive in air-conditioned buses each week to pay tribute to Santo Toribio’s bones, which are kept in a small casket. Some travel back from Texas, California or Chicago to give thanks for favors fulfilled. Others enter the church on their knees to pray for the safe return of a loved one they haven’t heard from for a while.
All around Santa Ana de Guadalupe, businesses bear the saint’s name: Santo Toribio Ice Cream, Santo Toribio Pharmacy, Santo Toribio Gift Shop. There’s a replica of his modest home, complete with furniture and housewares. In the street, locals pitch their saint-themed wares to tourists: key chains, figurines, T-shirts and pirated CDs.
“He’s given many families in town a way to make a living and not have to go north,” said Martin Rizo Soto, a priest who has traveled to California to safeguard the statue wherever it goes.
The number of visitors became so overwhelming that a few years ago the town raised enough money to build a church with seating for 1,000 people.
In the United States, Santo Toribio has come to represent solidarity to immigrants facing difficult times.
In 2008, when one of the nation’s toughest anti-immigration laws was passed in Oklahoma, a Tulsa church responded by building a shrine to Santo Toribio – the only one outside Jalisco.
Since then, other churches have asked for his sacred bone relics, as well as visits from the saint. To meet the demand, Santa Ana de Guadalupe a year ago created a travel-friendly statue of Santo Toribio that rests inside a big steel trunk on wheels.
“Now he’s able to come to see all the faithful who can’t travel back to Jalisco to see him,” Rizo Soto said.
Despite the saint’s fame, the Catholic church has yet to recognize him as a patron to immigrants. His popularity tends to leave some Catholics scratching their heads, said Ed Benioff, the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s director of the Office of New Evangelization.
Unlike St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Romo Gonzalez, who died a martyr at age 28, never paid particular attention to immigrants.
In fact, in 1920 he wrote a play titled “Let’s go north!” that warned migrants against traveling to the States. He worried that they would lose their values, Rizo Soto said.
But decades after Romo Gonzalez was shot to death by Mexican soldiers, the tales of his intervention on behalf of immigrants have spread across Jalisco and beyond.
“He’s the people’s saint,” Benioff said. “His legend has grown from the start in the most grass-roots way.”