In one cathedral, faithful pray to the Captured Infant for the safe release of kidnap victims By IOAN GRILLO
MEXICO CITY – Yolanda Contreras lay a bouquet of white roses at the base of the 3-foot-high statue known as the Holy Captured Infant and then fell to her knees and prayed that her nephew would be freed from his kidnappers.
Contreras, 49, said her sister’s son had been nabbed by thugs on his way home from a private high school at the beginning of December.
The family could not afford to pay the $30,000 ransom that the kidnappers were demanding, and the police had found no leads on the abduction, Contreras said.
Now the family was praying for divine intervention.
“God and the Captured Infant will bring him home safely,” Contreras said, holding back tears.
With private security firms estimating there are as many as 2,000 kidnappings a year in Mexico, hundreds of distressed families have prayed for the freedom of their loved ones.
Many go to the Captured Infant, or Santo Nino Cautivo, a statue of the infant Jesus in Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, which has become the unofficial patron of kidnap victims.
The Captured Infant is one of several saints and religious symbols that Mexicans have adopted in recent decades for help with the kinds of tribulations they face in the 21st century. They include Juan the Soldier of Tijuana, whose spirit is believed to protect migrants who cross illegally into the United States, and Jesus Malverde of Sinaloa, who some say is the saint of drug traffickers.
“People want saints and symbols that reflect their environment. And kidnappings and drug traffickers are part of the modern Mexico,” said Carlos Garma, an anthropologist at Mexico’s Autonomous University. “But the principle is the same as the old saints. People go to them for help.”
The Captured Infant is believed to be of special help to kidnap victims because it was once kidnapped itself.
Statue’s folkloric origin
According to a plaque in the Metropolitan Cathedral, Spanish sculptor Juan Martinez carved the statue at the dawn of the 17th century and gave it to a doctor named Francisco Sandoval to bring to Mexico. But on his journey, Sandoval was captured by pirates and held prisoner for years along with the Infant.
Finally in 1622, the statue and the dead body of Sandoval arrived at the cathedral, it says on the plaque, although it does not say who delivered them.
“Francisco Sandoval fulfilled his promise to take the statue to Mexico but only after his death,” it says.
10-15 visitors a week
Though the Captured Infant has been in the cathedral for nearly four centuries, it has become a patron for kidnap victims only in the last few years, said the Rev. Ruben Avila, the rector of the cathedral.
“The growing insecurity in the city has made people come to the Infant for aid,” Avila said.
The rise in kidnappings in Mexico is part of a violent crime wave that has engulfed the nation since a 1994 recession threw millions of people out of work. Last June, a quarter of a million people marched through Mexico City demanding police clamp down on violent crimes such as kidnappings.
Nowadays, 10 to 15 people come to the Infant every week to pray for help for abducted family members, Avila said. Others also come to ask the patron for help to free themselves or a family member from drug addiction and alcoholism.
Salvador Benitez, a 47-year old carpenter, visits the Infant regularly to ask for the strength to stay away from liquor.
“Sometimes we are captives in our own minds, prisoners of our own addictions,” Benitez said.
Expression of faith
Theologian Mathias Nebel of the Ibero-American University said the tradition of people adopting unofficial patron saints and symbols to help them against specific problems goes back to the Catholicism practiced in Mediterranean Europe before the conquest of America.
In medieval Spain, Portugal and Italy, many people prayed to special saints to save them from the latest plagues or to help them find husbands, he said.
“Most of the time, the church tolerates popular saints and symbols,” Nebel said. “Sometimes they will even be made official.”
However, if people choose to worship a symbol or saint like a God, they are no longer behaving in accordance with Catholic teachings, Nebel said.
“There are cases of people making local saints into deities,” Nebel said. “This is clearly paganism.”
Avila said that officials of the archdiocese of Mexico City are sympathetic to families of kidnap victims going to the Holy Captured Infant for help.
“People need the faith to cope with these tragedies,” Avila said. “We are living in difficult times.”
Jan. 15, 2005
Ion Grillo, Chronicle Foreign Service