Travel

Partying at the Shrine of Mexican Narco-Saint Jesús Malverde

Every year, devotees of Jesús Malverde gather in Culiacán to parade a bust of the Robin Hood–esque figure through town and honor him with gifts of cigarettes and whiskey.

by Erin Lee Holland
May 18 2015, 4:00am

Every year at midnight the night of May 2, followers of Jesús Malverde begin to arrive at a chapel in the city of Culiacán, Mexico, to celebrate his life and pay him back for the favors they have surely asked of him.

Malverde is a somewhat shadowy figure, but most agree that he was a real person who lived in the northwest state of Sinaloa at the turn of the 20th century. He was a Robin Hood–type figure who robbed from the rich to give to the poor and was eventually captured by the authorities and hanged on May 3, 1909, his body left to rot outside.

In the years after his death, his spirit gained a reputation for granting favors, especially to criminals; now he's commonly referred to as a "narco-saint," though like other such figures, he's not recognized by the Catholic Church. His image, reproduced on alters and in art, is that of a square-jawed man with thick black eyebrows, a mustache, a slightly sad expression, The chapel in Culiacán was built in 1969, just a block away from the state government building, and it is here that his annual festival takes place.

Related: I Saw Journey and Santana in Mexico and Learned a Lesson About Life.

The May 3 celebration begins around 9 AM, as his devotees enter the chapel and kneel down on the altar, washing their hands and the face of Malverde with holy water. Several bands take turns playing northern-style music; people crack open their still-chilled beers to combat the oppressive heat.

Around midday, the bust is taken out of the chapel, set upon the bonnet of a Ford truck painted in the saint's honor, and paraded around the streets, led by the chapel's guardian and the devotees who have brought along the biggest offerings. As the truck steers slowly through the streets surrounding the chapel, the bust is splashed with water, given cigarettes, caressed by his followers, and—a new occurrence this year—bathed in top-shelf whiskey donated by one particularly devoted worshipper.

Once the bust arrives back at the chapel, the celebration continues. The money collected throughout the year has been spent on preparing plates of food and soft drinks for all the attendees; later in the afternoon there is a raffle dedicated to the people from marginalized neighborhoods of Culiacán, including bags of food and toys for the children.

The saint’s merchandise is sold outside the chapel, including busts of various sizes, cigarettes, caps, jewelry, soap, and key rings.

The day of the celebration, musicians are hired to play inside the chapel while the people pass the altar. These musicians are native Huicholes from the state of San Luis Potosí.

The truck that is used for the parade, which was left as an offering from a devotee.

When devotees ask for favors or give thanks to Malverde, they bath the bust in holy water and caress his face.

A devotee wears a large gold medallion of Malverde, which rests in front of the tattoos made in honor of the saint.

Two female devotees with matching Malverde caps.

The procession makes its way around the streets near the chapel

A tattoo of Malverde.

Devotees share whiskey with one another while celebrating the saint.

At the end of the parade the bust is sent back inside to its place at the altar.