Oct/Nov 2009 Travel

Saints Preserve Us

by William Reese Hamilton

Photo by William Reese Hamilton

I meet a saint in our cemetery.

The graveyard in Choroní is a pretty basic affair. No great marble monuments. No lush celestial plantings. Just dirt, with a sprinkling of wood and concrete crosses, a couple of cement angels, simple notations of names and dates.

My favorite grave is covered with a black and white checkerboard of tile. At its head is a white niche with a primitive plaster bust of Jose Gregorio Hernandez, wearing his black fedora, black coat and tie. He looks out at me in wide-eyed surprise. It takes me a while to figure it out, but this is not his grave, he's just keeping watch over the deceased like any good saint.

Jose Gregorio was a founding member of Venezuela's National Academy of Medicine, a famous doctor-of-the-poor who died celibate. He was, of course, very pure of heart and mind, always taking care of his patients with great devotion, never asking a fee from those who could not pay. He was knocked down and killed by a car as he stepped into a Caracas intersection in 1919. Cynics will tell you it was the only car in Caracas at the time. But many view this accident as a pivotal historic moment in their religious lives. Something like the crucifixion. There are at least two views for everything. We know one woman who proudly claims to be a direct descendant of the Hernandez family; but another tells us with a little smile that she is the granddaughter of the woman who was driving the car.

At least his tale makes a pretty good ghost story, filled with those little miracles one needs for beatification. Followers who pray to Jose Gregorio for intercession will tell you that even after his death he continues to treat the ill, appearing at their doors, holding their fevered hands, comforting them with prayer, always offering up the right remedies, then disappearing mysteriously into the night.

Jenny, who lives in the mountain village of Uraca, has no doubts about the good doctor.

"When I was nine, I had this heart operation," she tells me, pointing to the vertical scar on her chest. "Everyone thought I was going to die. I could see my parents were really scared. In the hospital, I prayed to Jose Gregorio. I prayed so hard and he came to my bed, just like you see him in the pictures, with his black suit and hat. He took my hand and helped me out of bed. He led me from the left side around the foot of my bed to the right side, then helped me into bed again. After that I got better."

But in the horse race for Venezuelan sainthood, Jose Gregorio is losing out to Madre Maria de San Jose. She has the more acceptable resume for the Roman Catholic Church, since she led a holy order of nuns serving the poor of Aragua. And, besides, she has the more conventional saintly look, clothed in her classic white wimple and black habit.

Jose Gregorio's main problem is that he has been taken up by the santeros. Candles are lit to him by the same unwelcome worshippers who build shrines in the forests to María Lionza, the wild nature goddess who appears voluptuously astride a tapir, bare-breasted, her long hair flowing. The church doesn't care for this kind of competition. So Jose Gregorio is now a tainted near-saint floating in a kind of ecumenical limbo.

We have a little mass-produced plaster statue of him, dressed all in black in the Italian style of his village. A kind, open face with black eyebrows and a trim black mustache. This image, stamped out over and over to be set in countless households and on little altars around the country, came from a single photograph snapped when señor Hernandez was passing through New York City on his way to Rome. The statue has his hands clasped behind his back as if he were about to set off on a meditative stroll. When the light is right, he looks a lot like Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps that is his appeal. Our copy is flawed, leaning slightly to one side, so I put him against the windowsill where he stands like a little drunk holding up the wall.

Saint or no saint, Jose Gregorio has more images hanging around Venezuela than anyone except perhaps Simón Bolivar. His cult following has even spilled over the border into Ecuador, Colombia and beyond. He's a great favorite with folk artists, pictured in his classic black suit, and more recently, a spiffy white medical outfit, a stethoscope around his neck. His huge statue—at least twenty feet high—towers over a park in Guacara. And on our mountain road to Maracay there are three different Jose Gregorio monuments. Two are roadside remembrances for relatives lost in car crashes, with Hernandez statuettes placed in them to provide special mediation with the heavenly powers. But one is a full-fledged Jose Gregorio shrine.

We come upon it as we round a curve on the steep climb toward the crest, just on the right, set in a sheer rock cliff beside a small waterfall. A large plaster Jose Gregorio looks out through the bars of a simple blue metal cage as if from a little jail cell. Around him stand smaller versions of the same statue. It looks like a happy family, all locked up together—Big Daddy Hernandez and all the little Hernandezes, wearing the same black suit and fedora, hands clasped gently behind their backs. It's dusk on the mountain, and a couple of candles give the scene a hallowed glow. But as innocent as it appears, this little scene is no idle amusement. Some true believer has put in the same kind of time and devotion churches spend on nativity scenes at Christmas.

Saints, like the gods of ancient civilizations, give us some interesting inklings into the mindset of the population. But it's often hard to tell whether a worshipper is a true believer or just a loyal fan—like say, a follower of the New York Yankees or the Manchester United. Did the citizens of ancient Ephesus hail their patron goddess Diana out of true devotion or some kind of civic pride? Each time I pass this shrine, I automatically check it out to see what might have been added—maybe another little Hernandez in a white doctor's jacket. I wonder who's working this scene and what he hopes to get out of it.

But what I find on my next trip is total devastation, like a city sacked and burned to the ground. Big Daddy Hernandez has been smashed to bits and all the little Hernandezes have been very cleanly and purposely decapitated. Wow! I didn't know the good doctor could inspire such hatred.

A truck driver has stopped nearby and is studying the wreckage. He shakes his head in disbelief. I ask if he knows who built the shrine.

"Sí, el es mi amigo. He doesn't have much money, but he worships Jose Gregorio. And he cares so much about this place."

"Who would destroy it?" I ask. "Why?"

"We don't know. Nadie sabe."

Over the next weeks I watch as slowly, piece by piece, the broken statuettes are replaced with new ones. For a long time, the broken face of Big Daddy lies on the bottom of the cage, but eventually a costly new Big Daddy takes its place. And at dusk, the candles again add their hallowed glow. Such devotion, such faith, to build on those recently shattered ruins, knowing the same danger still lurks on the mountain.

But there is another powerful faith here, and its devotion is spray-painted proudly in big black letters on the yellow concrete retaining walls all along the road.



I know the authors of this graffiti. I see them marching in that same late evening light toward their simple cement-block church in La Esmeralda—seemingly innocent country people gathering in celebration of their new firm belief in everlasting life, whole families dressed in white to acclaim their quest for purity, carrying candles and singing hymns to bathe their procession in a convincing holy light.

Yes, and in that moment I also know the destroyer and I am convinced I know why. For these are our mountain Evangelists, and for them those harmless little plaster saints are false idols cluttering the universe of their savior, Jesus Cristo. There can be no room for any faith outside their own faith. The eradication of those statues is for them a cleansing.

So I wait for it to happen again—for that dark night when one of them will surely pass along this mountain road and lay waste to the little shrine of Jose Gregorio Hernandez.


We meet another saint in the state of Yaracuy, on the outskirts of Sabana de Parra, in a little roadside shack exhibiting folk art.

The building is filled with brightly painted angels, saints and Virgins, all hand-carved in local woods, but one piece stands out above all the rest—San Nicolas de Bari, a wonderful bearded black face shining over bright yellow robes. In his right hand he holds the bishop's staff, in his left a bible and three gold balls.

San Nicolas was Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor around the Fourth Century, but his relics were stolen in the Middle Ages and taken to Bari, Italy. Of his many good works, the most famous was saving three daughters of a very poor man from a life of prostitution by secretly planting three sacks of gold in their home to pay their dowries. Those sacks became three gold balls, the ancient symbol for pawnshops.

I now recall, in my radio days, a much younger Bob Hope telling off-color jokes on his Sunday show to improve his ratings. There was no time delay in those days, so Bob could always manage to get off a quick zinger before the censors cut the feed and his show went to dead space. Naturally everyone had to listen in the following week just to hear what he was going to come up with next. San Nicolas reminds me of a Hope one-liner to Jane Russell: "Meet me at the pawnshop and kiss me under the balls." So I call my San Nicolas, "el hombre con tres bolas."

He's the patron saint of sailors and children. The Dutch, like most of Europe, celebrate his holiday on December 6th with gifts for the kids. When the British took over New Amsterdam, they misheard the Dutch praising Sint Nikolass—or more likely the variation, Sinterklass—renamed him Santa Claus and changed his day to Christmas Eve. So a dark saint from Asia Minor became a fat little white guy from the North Pole.

But what is particularly special about our San Nicolas is that he introduces us to the folk artist who carved him, Maria Yolanda Medina. Each time we travel past Sabana de Parra, we take a side trip, driving down through the dusty town and along a back-country road to her modest home and studio. When we pull into the yard, a crowd of kids swarms out doors and off porches. When we ask for her, they run to the house, shouting, "Abuelita!" And when she appears, they circle and trail after her.

She may be the ideal matriarch. Not only is she a well-known folk artist herself, she has created a whole extended family of folk artists. Her children, nephews, nieces and grandchildren not only love and respect her, they all work together creating a broad range of figures, so her home is a busy factory of carvers and painters.

And each time we visit, we choose another figure and another myth. La Virgin de la Dolorosa, complete with three little daggers stabbing her big red heart. The archangel San Rafael in a little box with doors, holding his symbolic fish. And my latest birthday gift from Marisol—Santiago, mounted on his white charger, swinging his sword in bloody battle, trampling terrified Moors in the dust. What a saint! Imagine, a disciple of Christ, a cousin no less, morphing into the savior of conquistadors, his name cried out as they charged into battle. "Santiago! Santiago!" Not one, but two towns in Mexico are named for Santiago at his politically incorrect best—Matamoros, Moor Slayer.

In Manila, there is a Fort Santiago, built by the Spaniards at the eastern wall of Intramuros. When we were imprisoned by the Japanese in Santo Tomás Internment Camp, that fort held a mythic fascination, because everyone knew if you entered through the gates under the great emblem of Santiago, you would be tortured or executed or both. A particular cell there fired our young imaginations. It was built low into the wall by the Pasig River, and when the tide of Manila Bay rose, the cell filled with water and drowned the prisoner inside. "Imagine trying to keep your head above water," we told each other. "Yeah, and at the end there's no place left to breathe."

"Santiago! Santiago!"


It's true that I'm somewhat obsessive when it comes to folk art. It might have started in the Orient—Chinese craftsmen, perhaps, or the beautiful chess set my father carved from wooden spools of thread and worn-out wooden sandals during our three years in Santo Tomás. Growing up, I always loved my mother's Lao Tai-Tai, the ivory statue of an old lady from the late Taoist pantheon.

This quirky passion is one of the things Marisol and I share. Wherever we travel, we make a point of seeking out stone masons, jewelers, painters, weavers, whittlers and their workshops. A man who carves wooden apples on a back road in Maine. A sculptor who dreams an inspired Virgin de Guadalupe in New Mexico. Creators of exotic tigers, turkeys and snakes outside Oaxaca. Potters in Cuzco. A walking stick of the rice god Balul from northern Luzon. A crèche from Germany. Tiles from Spain. You know the disease.

So I'm quite naturally drawn to an article in Estampas, the Sunday supplement of the newspaper Universal, titled Jugetes de Ayer, Toys of Yesterday. It features a group of young Venezuelan woodcarvers inventing new ways to use an old craft, among them a real talent, Mario Calderón. In the photo, he sits among his colorful pieces—dark and handsome, with a black mustache and white, collarless shirt. I jot down his name as a reminder to check out his work next time we go to the city of Mérida. But I make a strange mistake. I write Rafael Calderón, combining his name with that of the photographer's under his picture.

We always look forward to a trip to Mérida in the Andes, where we stay at a coffee plantation in Macunután, high above the city. But inevitably, whichever car we're driving, we run into mechanical problems just before Apartaderos. Engine overheats, brakes fail, gasoline pump stalls, something. Luckily there's a fire station in that village with a very friendly group of bomberos. Once after dark, they drove us more than half-an-hour up the road and delivered us to our rooms in an ambulance.

As soon as we've dropped our car off for repairs, we climb the long hill from Plaza Bolivar to Juguetes del Pilar at Calle 13, between Avenidas 3 y 4, to see the work of the toymaker Calderón. Just as we get to the gallery, a short, trim man who looks very much like our artist walks out the door.

"Permiso," I say. "Excuse me, Rafael Calderón?"

"No," he says. "Who did you want?"

"You're not Rafael Calderón?"

"I am Mario."

"Well, you must be his brother, because you look just like him."

Such is the bumbling idiocy of this gringo. Of course, it turns out that this is certainly Mario, the very Calderón I am looking for, who never was and never wished to be Rafael. Fortunately, like most folk artists, he is kind and patient and welcomes us warmly into his gallery, workshop and home.

Lining the shelves of the gallery are the more expected toys—a merry-go-round spinning like a top on its suspension of bright ribbons, a racehorse pull-toy with a jockey bouncing up and down in the saddle, a duck who raises her wing to drop an egg which opens up to reveal a bright yellow duckling. In a back room, a couple of young men are working on a Peter Max-inspired toy of the Yellow Submarine and nearby stands a huge replica of the album cover from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. John, Paul, George and Ringo merrily play their tubas, fifes and drums when you crank the handle. Leftovers of Mario's first fantasies from the Sixties. But, as terrific as they are, they're not what we've come for.

"Dónde estan sus tradiciones?" we ask. For his truly original wooden toys are replicas of the most colorful of Venezuelan religious traditions—Giros de San Benito, Vasallos de la Candelaria, San Juan Bautista, Cruz de Mayo, Diablos de Yare. We want to see every one of them. He shows us photographs of the tradiciones, each using mechanics of toys from the past. But, unfortunately, most of them are sold out, stores having taken them all for Christmas. Only a couple remain in his studio.

La Parranda de San Pedro is a beauty, from a festival celebrated on the 29th of June. According to tradition, the slave Maria Ignacia danced and sang all night to thank San Pedro for saving her child from a mortal illness. And this incident, real or imagined, has become a great excuse for an annual celebration. For parranda means party-time. A man dresses up in the costume of Maria Ignacia— big straw hat, scarf and brightly colored dress. He carries a doll in his arms, representing the miraculously saved child. The Sanpedreños dress in top hats, tails and baggy pants, with yellow scarves around their necks. Young boys dress in red and yellow harlequin clothes and carry pennants. And they paint the town red. The San Pedro societies prepare for this with great care. And it is a special honor to be a part of the parranda in the same way it is to be a member of Knights of Columbus or a Hopi kiva society.

They're all here in Mario's juguete—Maria Ignacia, the little saltimbanque with his flag, the men dressed in black—beautifully carved and painted. One Sanpedreño carries the image of the saint, another plays a guitar. And if you know the song, you can sing along to imaginary tambores while you make the figures dance.

I quietly call Mario's daughter aside and ask her to put this toy away so I can buy it later. Mario invites us to coffee and as we sit in his living room, chatting, I point out a poster on the wall to Marisol.

"That painting by Angel Hurtado is the same one we have in Choroní."

"You know Angel?" Mario asks.

"For years," Mari says. "And his wife Teresa Calderón has been a friend since we were young."

"She is my sister," he tells us.

"No," cries Mari. "I can't believe it." Calderón is not, after all, so uncommon a name.

They immediately start laughing and hugging over this happy coincidence. Mario picks up his cellular and calls Teresa long-distance on the Island of Margarita, so that she and Marisol can have a chat. Teresa is herself a talented jeweler and in her youth was a rare beauty every photographer wanted as a model.

"Mira, I have to go out for a while," Mario tells us. "I have an appointment at two. But can you come back around five-thirty?"

"Great," we say. "We'll bring some wine and cheese." For Mérida is famous for its cheeses.

That evening, we all sit around the big table in his dining room. Mario breaks out a bottle of Aniversario, the finest rum in Venezuela, one of the best in the world. The photographer, Rafael Lacau, whose name I've confused with Mario's, shares Cerveza Polar with the guys from the back room. We pour wine for ourselves and Mario's girlfriend Belkys, who is an anthropologist with wonderful stories about the traditions of the Andes. She tells us of small, remote towns we should visit, about San Benito, the black saint of the Andeans who suddenly appeared in battle to help them defend their cooperative farmlands.

More friends drop by with bread, hams and sausages. After a half-bottle of rum, Mario waxes nostalgic. He brings out the guitar and sings lovely ballads in a sweet, untrained tenor. Tomorrow night he will be playing tambores, would we like to come?

"You must come," he says.

He tells us how close his sister Teresa has always been to him, how after his mother died she took care of him through his childhood. Then suddenly, he places the toy we wish to buy on the table before us.

"This is a gift." But I sense his generosity has at least something to do with the rum and the moment. The toy is priced at one hundred dollars.

"Why don't we talk about it tomorrow," I say.

"Do you think I'm doing this because I'm drunk?"

"No, no, but I wished to buy it."

"It is a gift."

"Only if you agree to come to Choroní and stay with us. And let us buy your San Juan Bautista—the one with the banana trees and the men playing the tambores. That's the big festival of our village, you know."

"Yes, then we will go to Choroní."

And soon we will come back to Mérida, Marisol and I, to witness one of their many festivals in this land of saints, ascend the longest teleférico in the world up to Pico Espejo, hitch a ride on a mule for six hours through mountain passes and spend the night in the old Indian village of Los Nevados, where the streets are steep and stony, the walls are white and the people farm garlic and green onions on the mountainsides.


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