Folklorist James S. “Big Jim” Griffith’s latest book, “Saints, Statues, and Stories: A Folklorist Looks at the Religious Art of Sonora,” tells stories that illustrate the way Catholics in Sonora look upon their religious art.
Griffith says the people of Sonora use sacred art as a means of communication between heaven and earth.
The book is the results of Griffith’s travels in Sonora, Mexico, since the 1960s, but the research has really been concentrated in the last 15 years, as Griffith and his research associate, Francisco Javier Manzo Taylor, more familiarly known as Paco Manzo, traveled around Sonora collecting stories. Griffith says many others provided invaluable help and traveling companionship as well. These include his wife, Loma, and daughter, Kelly. All are acknowledged in his book.
Griffith and Manzo would arrive in a Sonoran village and go to the church where they could talk to the “church ladies” who know everything. Griffith said people were always willing to share the local stories with them.
After the church, they would drive around the town, sample local foods and talk to the people they came across while exploring.
Many of the local stories told of miracles by the patron saints of the church, and therefore included stories about the town. Griffith says that as people told these stories, they weren’t framed as legends. People didn’t say: “there is a legend that…” but instead they were framed as history: “this is what happened.” The stories are the truths and foundations of these towns.
While many stories were told directly, many others came from a series of writings by cronistas people who have been paid a small stipend by the state to gather the local stories and publish them.
Armed with this research, Griffith has assembled a book that illustrates the lives of Sonorans, past and present. Their history and religious beliefs are woven together in the stories they tell to visitors who only had to ask.
An excerpt from “Saints, Statues, and Stories: A Folklorist Looks at the Religious Art of Sonora,” by James S. Griffith:
At some time around 1850, a mixed group of Seri, Papago, and Yaqui Indians was attacking the village of San Antonio de Oquitoa in Sonora’s Altar Valley, about fifty miles south of the present-day international border. The Mexican villagers were defending the strongest building in town: the old mission church, a long, narrow adobe building standing on a hill above the rest of the village, which is in the floodplain of the Río Altar. Now, however, things were looking desperate. The enemy kept attacking, and the defenders were almost out of ammunition. The next onslaught might be successful. Yet, the attackers were suddenly in full flight for no visible reason. The villagers were saved and doubtless sent up prayers of thanksgiving for that fact. But the question remained: Why this sudden retreat almost on the brink of victory?
The answer appeared long afterward, when villagers were able to question a man who had been one of the attackers. They had fled, he told them, when they saw the relief column approaching. What relief column? As far as anyone knew, no aid had ever arrived at Oquitoa at the time of the battle. The relief column, he replied, led by the bald-headed officer wearing a blue cloak. Then the villagers understood: they had been rescued by their patron saint, San Antonio, tonsured and clad in Franciscan blue. Or, as one Sonoran standing in the church a few years ago put it to a group of American tourists with a backward jerk of his head, “It was that guy, over the altar.” And there in a niche was the eighteenth-century statue of Saint Anthony, just as he had stood for more than two hundred years.
The statue is about one foot tall and depicts the standing saint, tonsured and holding the baby Jesus.
This legend of a saint saving his or her village from outside attackers has at least ten parallels in Sonora’s former mission communities. While the details vary from site to site, the general narrative remains the same: when a group of hostile nonbelievers attacks the village, the patron saint of the church (and therefore of the village) foils them, usually through some sort of an illusion.
Themes like this are common ones throughout Sonora. What a folklorist sees in these narrative themes, which form the core of the book, are patterns of communally held beliefs and values.