Super Subcultures

The Saint of Lost Causes

One emotional year outside an historic Mexico City church, where an unorthodox apostle offers salvation to addicts, prostitutes, beggars and thieves.

The Saint of Lost Causes

What am I told? That they are thieves, drug addicts, prostitutes, street kids, the unemployed; moneros, reggaetoneros, malandros and ex-cons. What do I find as I go to worship San Judas Tadeo, the Saint of Lost Causes, on the 28th of each month over the next year?

Grown men carry statues in bags strapped to their chests.
Grown men carry statues in bags strapped to their chests.

The first time I worship San Judas, I go with Mexican photographer Juan San Juan.

We flow out of the Metro Hidalgo station in Mexico City toward the Temple of San Hipólito, a church of ruinous glory that over the years has sunk into the swampy ground, leaving the whole building slightly tilted. The young men cradle statues of San Judas in their arms. Worshipers tuck the smaller statues into bags covered with the image of San Judas or carry them around like dolls. Grown men carry statues in backpacks strapped to their chests.

I had first met San Judas in a taxi when I moved to Mexico City in November of 2011. The driver had a plastic replica of the green-and-white-robed saint hanging from his rearview mirror. The robe was covered in sparkles, which didn’t strike me as very saintly. I took to it immediately.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“He is the Saint of Lost Causes.”

A young man holding a statue of San Judas.
A young man holding a statue of San Judas.

The next time we met, it was in the flesh. The saint was tattooed on the arm of a young street kid in La Merced, Mexico City’s oldest neighborhood. As I walked the streets of La Merced, I began to notice San Judas tattoos peeking out of shirtsleeves and stretching gloriously across the bare chests of young men, a halo of yellow and orange flames floating above the saint’s head. And then one day on the metro, a blind woman left a laminated card on my lap. I turned it over and saw the face of San Judas, and I took it as a sign. I had to go to San Hipólito to find out what it meant to worship the Saint of Lost Causes.

Jaunary 28, 2012: A young woman with slicked-back hair has a black-and-white photo of a man taped to her statue of San Judas.

“Is he dead?” I ask.

“No, he is in prison.”

She prays to San Judas that her husband will be released. An illicit prayer. For what saint is going to help someone get out of prison?

San Judas both is and is not Saint Jude. In terms of history, San Judas is Saint Jude, a follower of Jesus Christ who later died a martyr, beaten and beheaded with an axe. But in Mexico City, where so many lives balance on the precarious edge of existence, where the justice system is essentially dysfunctional, San Judas has become something else. He can dress in turquoise, wear bejeweled flames and answer prayers to get loved ones out of prison. He doesn’t judge what it takes to survive, to get along, to love, to fight or to forget the pain.

February 28, 2012: At the farthest end of the market, on the street, a young man with a rudimentary devil tattoo stands before an army of statues. He has a shiny, wild look in his eyes. As I move closer, I tell him of my love of tattoos, of the stories behind them. There is a pause, and then his eyes soften.

“This is a devil.”

"Don't let anyone tell you that you can find a job after prison."
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can find a job after prison.”

He got it when he was young, when he was living on the streets. Then he lifts up his shirt.

Estrellas,” he says. Stars.

There are eleven stars, one for each year he spent in prison in the Reclusorio Norte in Mexico City. Capacity 4,506; population currently 12,256 and rising. Forty men in a thirteen-by-thirteen-foot cell sleeping one tucked into the other. On sunny days, they wash laundry by hand in the concrete yard. That was where he learned to read, the first time he went to school.

“But don’t let anyone tell you that you can find a job after prison,” he says. “You can’t. I can’t be a taxi driver. I can’t work in a store. I can’t get a job in a restaurant. Nobody will ever give me a job.”

“I am a chinero,” he says. I don’t know what that means. He shows me what a chinero does. He puts his arm around my neck, and explains how he would put people in a chokehold, and then, once they fainted, steal their cameras and purses. He loves reading, loves Dante, says that he too has known the nine circles of hell.

March 28, 2012: A guy in a worn red cap draws San Judas with a pencil onto a white T-shirt. He asks where I am from and then says:

“I spent eleven years in the United States. I was forced to return to Mexico City last November. The sad thing is, I know the U.S. better than I know my own country.”

He picks up a can of blue spray paint and begins to trace San Judas’s hair in blue.

San Judas worshippers are usually young muscled men with a hardened look in their eyes.
San Judas worshippers are usually young muscled men with a hardened look in their eyes.

Later, as I walk around the temple, I see the name “Oscar” tattooed on a man’s thick neck in curling, delicate letters. A zigzag like a lightning bolt is shaved into his hair. Another guy wears a glossy black hat, giant diamond earrings in the shape of San Judas and a T-shirt featuring San Judas with glittery golden flames over his head. The worshipers are predominantly these young men—muscled, hardened looks in their eyes, dressed in a sort of grit and glitter combination uniquely their own.

The San Judas scene has spawned face-painters and tattoo artists on the grounds.
The San Judas scene has spawned face-painters and tattoo artists on the grounds.

I wander around, buy an ice-cold lime nieve and get my face painted with San Judas by the same old man in a sombrero and a soccer jersey who paints faces every month. I stop in front of vendors selling neon flowers made of recycled plastic. Their petals are tie-dyed; they bloom on wooden stems coming from six-foot tubes. I pick two, and the seller uses a dropper of perfume to add fragrance to the center of each one.

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.

September 28, 2012: Lean, muscular young men are getting tattoos of San Judas and the Virgin of Guadalupe in the market in front of the church. The street tattoo stand is always there, and I stand and watch, wondering what stories they are trying to tell. They are perhaps fifteen or sixteen and dressed in spray-painted San Judas shirts and hats decorated with bejeweled skulls. Often they live on the street.

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.
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.
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.
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?”

*   *   *

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.