If he existed — and this caveat is standard in practically every profile of the fascinating cultural phenomenon fathered by the man or phantom — Jesus Malverde was a Robin Hood-esque “social bandit” who preyed on Mexico’s plutocratic agricultural lords and distributed the spoils to the poor.
According to Patricia Price (“Bandits and Saints: Jesus Malverde and the Struggle for Place in Sinaloa, Mexico”, Cultural Geographies 2005; 12; 175), the Malverde of legend entered the world as Jesus Juarez Mazo, but his own parents died of hunger or a curable illness, and that this was the catalyst for his turn to a life of crime.
While Malverde was said to have worked variously on the railroads, as a carpenter, or as a tailor, he soon joined the ranks of bandits that roamed Mexico’s countryside at the end of the nineteenth century. He reportedly stole gold coins from the rich hacienda owners living in Culiacan and threw them in the doorways of the poor at night.
Truly a figure who, if he did not exist, it were necessary to invent.
All the particulars about his legendary exploits are a bit fuzzy, right down to his end on May 3, 1909 — possibly gunned down, possibly left to die of exposure with his feet hacked off, or possibly (and certainly more picturesquely) summarily hanged from a mesquite tree by a posse.
(In a version that appealingly combines these threads, he’s said to have been dying of gangrene after being shot, and in a last act of charity prevailed upon his friend to bring in his body to collect the reward. The police gibbeted his corpse.)
In the years since, Malverde has become a popular divine intercessor for the marginal social classes who could identify with such a figure, like Sinaloa’s poor farmers of corn and beans.
And other cash crops.
Malverde is also the patron saint — decidedly unofficial, of course — of the region’s robust narcotics trade.
His shrine stationed across the way from a government compound in Sinaloa’s capital city draws a bustle of devotees.* Offerings like produce and shrimp share space with icons of marijuana and AK-47s, and votive notes appreciating “how things turned out, and how nobody was grabbed.”
The underworld angle may draw the gawking Yankees, but Jesus Malverde — man, legend, shrine, all — is a genuine civic institution who meets a genuine need for solace not unlike his very namesake. In the words of a researcher quoted by Price, Malverde draws the poorest, the handicapped, pickpockets, thugs, prostitutes, drug traffickers and drug addicts, in sum, the stigmatized who, in civil or religious iconography don’t find anyone who looks like them, in whom to confide and in whose hands to put their lives.