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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Waiting for the Holy Infant of Atocha

A child-saint who defends both travelers in peril and the unjustly imprisoned is a fitting patron for someone who works at a jail for child refugees…

In Dilley, Texas, there is only one grocery store, and that grocery store is Lowes. (It is not a Lowes, like the home improvement center. It is a totally different and legally distinct store that also happens to be called Lowes.) Lowes is a place of many mysteries. I once went there to buy vegetable broth for a sick coworker, and combed the soup aisle for nearly 20 minutes before being forced to admit that no, Lowes does not carry vegetable broth. The closest thing they had was a can of something called “vegetable beef.” Lowes does, however, carry bacon-flavored pancake syrup, quite a lot of animal pheromones in spray cans (including such choice selections as “raccoon urine” and “sow in heat,” which I assume are for agricultural rather than cosmetic purposes), and a large selection of devotional candles in glass cylinders.

I had never paid much attention to the candles, but a friend of mine was in town, volunteering at the child internment camp where I work as an immigration lawyer, and he wanted to bring back a candle for some eclectic ofrenda-type situation he had set up in his D.C. apartment. He is a meticulous and thoughtful sort of person, and took a long time debating between various candidates. I had come to Lowes primarily to buy Cheez-Its, and was getting impatient. I picked up a candle at random. “How about this one?” I said.

The candle had a picture of a Little Lord Fauntleroy-type in a plumed hat and a white ruff, with a pink seashell pinned to his cloak. I glanced at the label on the back. Glorioso Santo Niño de Atocha, it said, patrón de las que están injustamente en prisión, protector de viajeros y que das la mano al que se encuentra en peligro

I didn’t know anything about this saint at all, despite having grown up Catholic, so I looked him up on my phone. I soon discovered that he was not really a saint, per se, but a special Limited Edition version of baby Jesus. Wikpedia offered up the following backstory:

In the 13th century, Spain was under Muslim rule. The town of Atocha, now part of Madrid’s Arganzuela district, was lost to the Muslims, and many Christians there were taken prisoners as spoils of war. The Christian prisoners were not fed by the jailers, but by family members who brought them food. According to pious legend, the caliph ordered that only children under the age of 12 were permitted to bring food. Conditions became increasingly difficult for those men without small children. … Reports soon began among the people of Atocha that an unknown child under the age of twelve and dressed in pilgrim’s clothing, had begun to bring food to childless prisoners at night. The women of the town returned to Our Lady of Atocha to thank the Virgin for her intercession, and noticed that the shoes worn by the Infant Jesus were tattered and dusty. They replaced the shoes of the Infant Jesus, but these became worn again. The people of Atocha took this as a sign that it was the Infant Jesus who went out every night to help those in need.

This all got me rather excited, because I am very fond of medieval history, and regularly drive around rural Texas blasting 13th-century Spanish pilgrimage music. Who would’ve thought that a little vestige of the medieval world would turn up in my local grocery store? Secondly, what better patron for someone who works at a jail for child refugees than a child-saint who defends both travelers in peril and the unjustly imprisoned?

And that was how I first ended up buying a Holy Infant of Atocha candle for my kitchen table.

Later, when I researched the matter further, I found out that the Wikipedian history of the Holy Infant was—shockingly—likely incorrect. The medieval origin story was a post hoc invention, an attempt to give an older European pedigree to a wholly Mexican tradition. The Holy Infant’s mother, as it turns out, was an authentically medieval character: Holy Mary of Atocha appears in several of the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria (a.k.a. the sick beats currently blaring from my Kia Forte), mostly as a patroness of field workers. When her shrine at Atocha was selected for special favor by the Spanish monarchy in the 17th century, she was transformed from a saint of the people into an emblem of Spanish governance. It was in this capacity—as a defender of Spanish colonial might—that Mary of Atocha found her way to Mexico. Sanctuaries in her name were built in the state of Zacatecas, in Fresnillo and Plateros.

But through some obscure evolution of local devotion, it was the image of her child, the Holy Infant, that became the primary locus of worship. The Holy Infant of Atocha eventually came to be revered as a protector of ordinary people, especially of miners, travelers, and prisoners. An 1848 novena written by one Calixto Aguirre was instrumental in popularizing the cult of the Holy Infant, and the cover illustration of the printed pamphlet version was the first to show him as a pilgrim rather than a prince. Instead of a crown, a globe, and a scepter—the traditional iconography of power—he had a big hat, a food basket, and a traveler’s staff with a gourd hanging from it. The first episode of the novena tells of a legal miracle. It begins with the tale of a poor woman by the name of Maximiana Esparza, who wanders to four different cities, seeking succor. In each city, she is imprisoned for her malas costumbres—some unspecified bad manners—and, having no family or other advocate to speak on her behalf, she languishes for years in prison in each place. At last, after being in prison a year in Durango, she prays to the Holy Infant of Atocha:

…who listened to her kindly and took her out of her captivity; for in all the time that she had lived there, there was nobody who would defend her, until the Holy Child of Atocha, dressed as a handsome youth, visited her in that prison and gave her some bread in the name of his mother, saying to her that same afternoon she would see the judge and he would take up her case, which caused no little amazement among the rector and the other inmates; and when the time arrived that the Child had named, she was set free.

Mary of Atocha, the former people’s saint, may regrettably have become more conservative in her waning years, but she nonetheless succeeded in giving the world an even more radical son. We should all be so lucky!

It’s actually pretty absurd that I knew nothing about the Holy Infant of Atocha until a few months ago. Once he was on my radar, I soon realized that he’s a pretty standard figure in Mexican and Chicanx Catholicism. But I stumbled into immigration advocacy three years ago knowing next to nothing about Latin American cultures, and even now there are huge gaps in my understanding. My Spanish, too, is still pretty atrocious. I have been working at it for three years, but it’s like speaking through a mouthful of broken glass. I muster my words with pain, and my meaning comes out all mangled. I now feel a strong affinity for all those immigrant grandparents who understand English perfectly and never learn to speak it; I am sure I would be just the same if I were ever to immigrate to a non-English-speaking country. I often feel that any bilingual person, with or without a law degree, could do most of my work a lot better than me. But I am here, so I do my best.

Sometimes I wake up in the mornings very anxious, usually when I have to draft a big court filing or an important request to the asylum office, to try and stop a detained family’s deportation. I come up with soothing little rituals to ease my transition from fretful sleep to focused work. I put on some music. I make a big pot of coffee. I light my Holy Infant of Atocha candle. It’s really because I like the way the candlelight makes me feel, not for superstitious reasons. I’m really not one for good luck charms, astrology, or premonitions. I remember that shortly after Trump first announced the family separation policy this summer—this was when I was still in Massachusetts, getting ready for my move to Texas—I was walking down a familiar street near my home, feeling very disturbed and heartsick. All of a sudden I saw a rabbit on the sidewalk a few feet ahead. It was standing quite still, and it let me walk up close. For a moment the encounter felt almost magical. Then the rabbit loped off, and where it had been, I saw two small baby bunnies lying dead on the pavement. When I bent to look, a little cloud of flies dispersed, then settled again. As omens go, that was some Roman-level bullshit. But I don’t think it was anything but coincidence.

The area of south Texas where I live now is teeming with strange sights, and sometimes everything I see feels pregnant with meaning. The drive from my apartment to the internment camp is only four minutes, but the road is always strewn with strange corpses. A dead dog or house cat is an everyday casualty; but I have also seen bodies of armadillos, bobcats, and javelinas, all mowed down by a speeding truck, or a passenger-bus of incoming detainees, or one of the heavy tankers that barrel continually to and from the nearby oilfields. No waste collection service ever disposes of the animals, so I watch their corpses bloat and distend and then disintegrate over a period of weeks. I have heard a rumor too that there are zebra on one of the ranches around here, flown in and kept in captivity so that deer-weary hunters can have something exotic to shoot. I’ve yet to see an escaped zebra lying dead by the side of the road, but give it time.

Also on the same road as the child internment camp, if you can believe it, there is a Texas state prison. It lies alongside a large ranch, and in front of the jail there’s a field of watermelons. Sometimes in the early morning, on my way into work, I see a group of prisoners in white jumpsuits and white caps, working the watermelon field. Ringed around them are three or four heavily-armed officers on horseback, in case anyone tries anything. The thing is so ludicrous it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. It’s as if this tiny town has been selected as a kind of roadside showcase of human cruelty.

Other times, I arrive at work to find a helicopter blocking my entry to the parking lot. We are so far from a hospital that can treat children, serious medical emergencies have to be airlifted out.

Inside the internment camp, hundreds of new women and children are bussed in every week. We provide legal services to every single one of them. This level of legal representation is unusual in the United States. Most immigration jails have few to no lawyers continuously on the ground, and they must—of necessity—heavily triage cases. It’s amazing how little has changed in 170 years. For Maximiana Esparza, trapped in prison in Durango, nothing short of a divine intervention could save her from the machinations of an indifferent legal bureaucracy. Even today, some immigrants address letters to the Holy Infant of Atocha, often asking him for that greatest of miracles, the mercy of a judge. Juan Javier Pescador has compiled a number of them in a book called Crossing Borders with the Santo Niño de Atocha:

Dear Santo Niñito: I write to You hoping You are fine. We are doing OK so far, but I am a little sad because my husband is in jail. I ask You to move the judge’s heart because right now the immigration laws in California are very strict. My husband did not do anything wrong. It is just that he was caught by the Migra and he was deported to Mexico at once. Then he came back to the U.S. and was caught again. They are giving him five years. Santo Niño, grant me the miracle that his sentence be reduced. I have three children, and one of them cries all the time because she wants her daddy back.

Santo Niño de Atocha, You know better than anybody about my needs. … My son is in prison without a chance to be free for several years. That breaks my heart with sadness, for I am economically poor. I don’t have the enormous amount a lawyer would charge for defending my son in court before the judge who will sentence him. That is why Niño de Atocha, I beg You to attend that trial as my son’s defense lawyer. Don’t allow a long sentence for him as is expected. At least let the court show compassion for him and reduce the jail time to a minimum.

My clients, at the very least, have a lawyer—and because they have brought their children with them, they have the prospect of being released within a matter of weeks rather than a matter of months or years, provided they can pass a threshold interview with an asylum officer here and demonstrate that they have a potential asylum claim. But the government is still as capricious as any ancient god. When it suits the government’s logistical purposes, they can simply issue everyone at the border a court order and let them all go, without making them pass a threshold screening. They know that mothers with babies are no threat to anyone, and probably would have passed their threshold screening anyway, so they can do this whenever they feel like it, with no real political repercussions. Or the government can choose to schedule a hundred interviews a day, and my colleagues and I will work 12- or 15-hour days just to prepare the families for the questions they’ll be asked. It’s all arbitrary, all performance theater, and everyone in the system knows it, and pretends not to know it. At their interviews, the women detained here are forced to disgorge their deepest, most intimate agonies to a bureaucrat before the government will give them any chance to remain in the country to seek protection for their families. If I locked up some bureaucrat in a camp and made him relive all his worst traumas before I allowed his child a chance at safety, we would call that torture.

The government knows most of the families have cases—almost everyone at this center ultimately passes their interview—and that it’s legally bound to let them in as asylum-seekers. But every so often, someone comes along who doesn’t fully understand the nature of the interview, or is holding back something that she fears to tell. Those people are the sacrifices, caught in the government’s nets. They are chosen to be deported with their children as a show of might, to prove that we don’t just let everyone in. The women deported from Dilley have a genuine fear for their life if they return, a fear that is usually totally undisputed by the asylum office. But maybe the wording of the threat they received doesn’t easily conform to one of the few protected categories under existing asylum law. People who have been raped, tortured, or threatened with violent death are often found not to have viable asylum claims. If they happen to cross the border one week, they might be let into the country without even doing an interview. If they happen to come on another week, they will be interviewed, tripped up on an idiotic technicality, and deported right back into the hands of their abusers.

I work primarily with people who have failed their interviews and are on the verge of deportation, trying to appeal their cases. I had a run of several months where it feels like nearly all my clients were very young women with very small children. By bad luck, they all happened to have the kind of case that is especially hard to save—out of confusion, or fear, or both, they didn’t say quite enough in their credible fear interview to pass the threshold screening. The details these women withheld, had they emerged in the original interview, would likely have gotten them through, but the new information isn’t quite horrific and dramatic enough for the asylum office to think it’s worth giving them a second chance. One night, I played peekaboo with a fussy one-year-old and, in between “boos,” asked his 20-year-old mother if the sexual abuse she suffered as a child had ever made her feel suicidal. She raked the settled muck at the bottom of her memory, painfully extracted every buried trauma, let me look at them under fluorescent lights. She gave me everything I asked her for. She told me things she said she had never told another living soul. It was not enough. They deported her.

Sometimes, the ones we lose vanish into the void, and we never hear of them again. I think about the living person that was in front of me—where is she? Maybe she is alive. Maybe she is alive, but maybe she is crying and afraid. Maybe someone is holding her down and hurting her right now. Maybe she is dead, maybe she is rotting in a black bag somewhere under a few inches of dirt, maybe no one knows where her killer hid her. Where is her little boy? Where is his little body? Who is taking care of him?

Other times, I get text messages and voicemails from the outer darkness. Abogada, they deported me but I never agreed to it, I never signed my papers. That’s not right, is it? Can you appeal my case? I can’t work because the gangs are threatening me again. I have so many debts from my journey. My child is hungry. Is there someone who can help me?

I used to not think of myself as an angry person—and stupidly, I used to believe this was a virtue of some kind, that I was sanguine enough to give other people the benefit of the doubt. Well, that was fine, back when all I had to be annoyed about was some workplace drama, or an unrequited crush, or someone not doing the dishes. I had no fucking clue. In our immigration system, you sometimes run across people who are so petty, who are so ready to put their egos above the real lives of other human beings, that they feel like some kind of comic-book parody of a villain. At Dilley, too, you often get to hear the stories of how the detainees were treated just before getting here, while they were still at the border, far from observant legal eyes—made to sit in their wet clothes for three days in ice-cold temperatures, given frozen masses of rotted food to eat, forced to use an open toilet in a room packed with people while their children’s bottoms blistered in unchanged diapers, kicked and screamed at all night to keep them awake. These are things monsters do. This is what our country does to the poor and helpless, in a time of prosperity and peace. I think of how the little children I see every day are going to grow up, those who end up allowed to stay in the United States, with this their first welcome as refugees.

I am so angry that I am rapidly losing the ability to communicate with people and their facile opinions: “Well, but what’s the solution?” and “Well, but we can’t just let everyone in.” In the past I would have thought these people were moderates, probably. Now I think they are the accomplices of extreme evil. I don’t know what to do with all the rage in my body. And this is how I feel merely as an advocate and onlooker. If my family and friends were being tortured in this way, how would I live? Would my heart simply explode? How are there so many people in our country carrying this feeling in their body every day?

My roommate sees me lighting my Holy Infant candle sometimes and thinks it’s funny. “You remind me of my grandma,” she says. “I keep thinking it’s some religious thing.”

“Nah,” I say, “I just like the way it looks.”

That said, I could probably use the help.

Illustration by Mike Freiheit

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