Flower to my nose, I inhale deeply and get in line to enter San Hipólito for Mass. The hard petals smell of cheap, musky perfume.
My friend Memo (Guillermo López Báez), who works with street kids in Mexico City at an organization called
Barranqueños arte desde abajo, explains: “They change their names. They pick their names based on who they respect at any given moment. There is this one kid we have been working with, Cuauhtémoc, and he recently became Jesús.”
Memo shows me a video he has been working on about street kids. He worked with the kids on art projects, and in the video, the kids set up their drawings and paintings near the metro and attempt to interact with a society that almost completely ignores them on a daily basis. Most people walk right past the kids. However, a few stop, and the street kids begin to talk about their work. They just want to be acknowledged, to have their humanity recognized as a shared condition. As I watch the video, at moments, Memo sighs, pauses and says, “
ya murió.” In the time since he filmed the video, two of the kids in it have died. A street kid and worshipper of San Judas sports a devil tattoo on his right arm. April 28, 2013: Orange and blue T-shirts depicting San Judas with a halo of golden sparkles and blue gems, with a velvet-trimmed robe; spray-painted hats featuring your name for an extra few pesos; tangles of bracelets and necklaces and rosaries covered in the face of our saint; candles promising luck, health and wealth; folded paper umbrellas made of gold, red and blue tuna fish can labels. And for only five pesos every month, the same old man will paint your face with one of five variations of San Judas, as well as a host of butterflies and Angry Birds.
Standing alongside the rows of San Judas statues are life-size cutouts of women in thongs used to advertise nudie magazines; their buff asses shine under the sun and almost match the brilliance of San Judas’s metallic robes.
Elaborately-carved fairies in sparkly purple bikinis, Chihuahua statues, a lone Jesus Christ and the Virgin of Guadalupe. A San Judas made of dollar bills.
Over the months, I acquire it all: T-shirts, rosaries, stickers, face paint, statues. And they give things to me too, because random acts of giving are a part of the worship of San Judas. By the hundreds, people hand out flowers, rosaries, crosses, small cards with images of San Judas, suckers and candies. I walk around like a beauty queen, decked out in sparkling shirts, arms full of red carnations, neck adorned by a river of rosaries.
Sometimes young pilgrims arrive in pairs to worship San Judas.
“The San Judas of the street grants immoral blessings,” I tell myself.
My friend Héctor and I talk about San Judas over coffee. We speak of religious universes with their own codes, ones that exist outside of the morality of the church, ones in which violating the law is a form of life. We discuss the narcos and the street kids. And then we start talking about victims, and Héctor tells me a story about being kidnapped.
While holding Héctor hostage, the kidnapper spent hours telling him all the ways that Hector’s wealth and status in society had victimized the kidnapper. Héctor realized that even though from the point of view of the judicial system the kidnapper was the perpetrator of a crime and he, Héctor, was the victim, if you entered into the psychology of the relationship, the perpetrator saw himself as a victim of society—a society that judged his life as cheap and expendable and did not offer him options for education or meaningful employment.
Glittery San Judas iconography are painted on the bodies of women and children in Mexico City. October 28, 2013: Thousands of pilgrims arrive from all over Mexico on the saint’s feast day, and Mass at the temple is offered every hour. The priest speaks for about ten minutes, and when he talks about San Judas, all the believers raise their statues into the air. When it is over, the priest throws holy water at us, flinging his arms hard and fast to try to cover the devoted in as much water as possible. Some parents take their children to the priest, and he pours holy water over their heads, making them cry.
Who do I find at San Judas? People looking for jobs, love and community; people denied access to education, work and health care; people ignored by everyone but the Saint of Lost Causes.
Every 28th when I return, I look for him, the
ex-chinero, the reader of Dante. I try to ask about him, but realize that I don’t know what to ask.
“Where did the vendor with the eleven stars tattooed on his ribs go?”
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Juan San Juan Rebollar is a Mexican photographer whose work has been exhibited in Denmark, Spain, Solveina, the United States, and Cuba, among other countries.