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In Peru, the Saint Who Isn't Inspires a Cult

Religion: Roman Catholicism and vibrant pop culture converge to turn a humble Andean migrant into an idol for the nation's poor and outcast.

June 23, 2002|CRAIG MAURO | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

CALLAO, Peru — Hundreds jam the sweltering courtyard outside Sarita Colonia's graveyard shrine to thank her for the miracles she has granted them.

Cliques of drag queens strut through the crowd, clutching rose bouquets. Elderly women serve bean stew to anyone who is hungry. Fidgeting children wait in line with their parents to be rubbed with sacred flower petals.

It is a typical party for Sarita Colonia, a humble Andean migrant whose brief life has inspired the faith--and fantasies--of a curious flock of Peruvians, from prisoners and prostitutes to ordinary grandparents and schoolchildren.

Ofelia Fuentes can barely contain her glee as she bobs among the crowd at Colonia's tomb.

"Look at all these people," says the 59-year-old fish vendor. "There isn't one person Sarita hasn't done a miracle for. Isn't that right?" she shouts to a half dozen listeners. All nod eagerly.

Fuentes' eyes grow wide as she tells how her grandson, Roy, was stillborn 14 years ago but miraculously came back to life after she rushed to pray at Colonia's shrine.

A faded reproduction of the only existing photograph of Colonia--a 1928 family snapshot--peers from Fuentes' T-shirt.

Twelve years after that photo was taken, Colonia died of malaria at age 26 and was buried anonymously in a mass grave in this port city next to Lima.

Since then, Peru's fervent Roman Catholicism and its vibrant pop culture have converged to turn the young woman who had dreamed of becoming a nun into a saint-like figure for Peru's poor and outcast.

Today, Sarita Colonia is everywhere.

Her likeness dangles from the mirrors of Lima's buses and taxis. Rock singers and pop crooners proclaim her beneficence. Novels and oil paintings, T-shirts and Web sites, even tattoos and a recent television miniseries have all exalted Colonia.

It's a devotion pursued without the blessings of the Callao archbishop.

Colonia has not been canonized, a process that can take centuries. In the meantime, the church urges her followers not to "worship Sarita until it is permitted, and much less carry out acts that have the appearance of witchcraft."

That warning came in a 1980 communique signed by then-Archbishop Ricardo Durand. The current archbishop's office refused an interview about Colonia, instead handing out a copy of Durand's letter.

Something like witchcraft hangs in the air at the mecca of Colonia's following: a cramped, concrete-block shrine run by her siblings in a Callao cemetery.

There, Sarita devotees leave a few cents to rub themselves with murky water from flower vases on a black slab altar. Others take away the water in plastic bottles to keep as a sacred ointment for cuts and bruises.

Several thousand plastic plaques blanket the walls of the muggy shrine thanking Sarita for miracles. Some devotees tuck photos or letters into nooks or hang plastic rosaries on a ceramic bust of Colonia. Others crouch in the corner to light candles--depending on the color, they are believed to bring good health, luck, work or even revenge.

Perched on a stool selling candles and other Sarita kitsch, Ester Colonia, 85, recounts the story of her sister--"a very sweet, very human girl."

In the 1920s, the family moved from the Andean Mountains to Callao in search of a better life. As it has been for many of the millions of poor rural migrants since then, the search was filled with frustration.

At 15, Sarita had to abandon her dreams of becoming a nun when her mother died. The eldest child, she toiled at odd jobs such as cleaning houses or selling fish to support the family.

Through the hardship, her siblings say, Sarita maintained a devout piety, giving her last pennies and clothes off her back to street beggars. She also became known for praying to God on behalf of anyone who asked.

"After she died, all those people came to her tomb and began praying to her. From there, it became a chain reaction," Ester said.

According to popular folklore, for years after her death Colonia's devotees came mostly from Callao's port-city underworld--sailors, dockworkers, thieves and prostitutes.

The cult persevered in relative obscurity until the 1970s, says Alejandro Ortiz, an anthropologist at Lima's Catholic University.

That was when Peruvians from impoverished rural areas began flocking to Lima in search of work. Most found themselves in tough times, jobless, desperate and packed into shantytowns that sprang up around the capital.

During those years, Ortiz says, soccer stars and other celebrities began openly discussing their devotion to Colonia--a woman who decades before had suffered the same fate as the disenfranchised migrants.

A pop hero was born.

Today, Peruvians of all ages and backgrounds revere Colonia.

But her following is still popularly associated with the marginalized and outcast, people like Gabriela Ventura, a 30-year-old drag queen.

Ventura--out of drag--has come to the shrine to leave Colonia flowers. He credits her with saving his life when an anti-gay gang chased and shot at him, their bullets "miraculously" whizzing by his side.

"I believe in God, a very great God," Ventura says. "But I also believe in my Sarita."

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