When in Need, Some Peruvians Pray to Unofficial Saints

Imagen de Sarita Colonia, ampliamente difundida en línea.

Photo: Image of Sarita Colonia, widely shared online and offline.

Folk saints are individuals who, after their death, have become venerated by some Catholics as saints, even though they aren't recognized as such by the Roman Catholic Church. Believers turn to them in times of need and say these folk saints even perform miracles.

Peru has a good share of folk saints to whom people pray for help. The most known is probably Sarita Colonia. Although there are no official birth certificates, it's said she was born in Belén in the Áncash region. We know for sure, however, that she passed away in El Callao when she was 26 years old.

The youth-oriented news website NAPA outlines part of her biography on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of her death in December 2015:

Sarita Colonia nació en 1914, se mudó a Lima cuando era una adolescente y trabajó como vendedora de pescado en el Mercado Central [y] también fue empleada doméstica. Según los historiadores, a Sarita le dio paludismo, enfermedad que terminó con su vida en 1940.
Al fallecer no tuvo un funeral y su cuerpo terminó en una fosa común. Sin embargo, sus fervientes fieles la siguen venerando hasta el día de hoy. Aunque muchos peruanos la consideran una “santa” por los milagros que se le han concedido, la Iglesia católica no la ha reconocido como tal.

Sarita Colonia was born in 1914, and moved to Lima when she was a teenager and worked as a fish seller at the Central Market [and] also worked as domestic maid. According to historians, Sarita caught malaria, a condition that ended her life in 1940.

When she died, there was no funeral and her body ended up in a mass grave. However, her devotees continue worshiping her until today. Although many Peruvians consider her a “saint” due to the given miracles, the Catholic Church has not recognized her as such.

In spite of what appears on her death certificate, her family claims that “the cause of death was an overdose of castor oil”. In her hometown, they say she:

[…] realizo milagros estando viva. Cuentan en su ciudad natal que apenas siendo una niña, vaticinó la muerte de un comisario diciéndole: “Usted ya no está detrás de usted. No hay nadie detrás de sus ojos. Resulta que ya no lo veo, señor comisario”.
A los siete meses en el mismo lugar que Sarita Colonia le comento lo mencionado, [el comisario] murió.

[…] performed miracles while she was still alive. In her hometown, they say that when she was just a little girl, she predicted the death of a police inspector and told him: “You are not behind you anymore. There is nobody behind your eyes. It turns out that I don't see you anymore, inspector”.

Seven months after this, on the same place where Sarita Colonia made these comments to him, [the inspector] died.

The only photo of Sarita is the image that appears at the top of this post, and is very popular on religious illustrations, T-shirts and posters. Among her first devotees were seasoned criminals from Peru's chief seaport, El Callao, and that's why she became known as the “saint of the deprived and the poor ones“. Her devotees even turn to Twitter to thank her for the favors they believe she has bestowed upon them:

Today marks the birth of Sarita Colonia, when devotees pay homage at the chapel in Callao.

Today in Huaraz, Sarita Colonia was born, a folk saint to whom a number of miracles are attributed.

Ways in which Sarita Colonia's followers celebrate her have evolved with the passage of time. For example, rock band Los Mojarras has a song dedicated to her (see lyrics in Spanish here):

Chacalon, an angel of the poor

Another folk saint with devotees in Peru is cumbia singer Lorenzo Palacios Quispe, widely known as Chacalón (Big Jackal). Palacios Quispe, who died in 1994, is called “an angel of the poor“, and is considered a male version of Sarita Colonia:

Chacalón ya no canta pero su voz además de seguir perpetuando un estilo para los provincianos de la Lima, informal y achichada, hoy habita en los fastos de los prodigios y hasta le quieren construir un parque. Hace milagro también, dicen, si le rezas con fervor. «Chacalón» fue el artista que vivió en el magma de la pobreza más cruel y hoy sigue siendo un paradigma de los desterrados, que a más de una década de su muerte hoy lo consideran un santo y ocupa la versión masculina de otro personaje venerado por los humildes, los ladrones y las prostitutas, Sarita Colonia.

Chacalón doesn't sing anymore, but his voice, in addition to perpetuating the off-the-grid and “chicha” lifestyle of the provincial people in Lima, lives on today in the opulent celebrations of his miracles, and they even want to build him a park. He does miracles too, it's said, if you pray to him zealously. Chacalón was an artist who lived in the magma of the cruelest of poverty and is still today a paradigm for the disenfranchised, and a decade after his death, he is today considered a saint and is the male version of another figure worshiped by the poor, thieves and prostitutes, Sarita Colonia.

In this case, “chicha” is a tropical Andean musical style, and by extension, it's used to refer to the off-the-grid lifestyle that's common among many residents of Peruvian cities, especially migrants from Andean zones.

On Twitter, some have expressed nostalgia for Chacalón:

To open your box of memories and find your first LPs of LosShapis and Chacalón!

Los Shapis is a tropical Peruvian band that started in the early 1980s and still plays together today.

According to Peruvian anthropologist Luis Fernando Calderón Carvajal, the penetration the Roman Catholic Church still has in Peruvian society is very deep:

Es tan importante en el Perú la presencia de la religión católica […] que la existencia de los santos como iconos es muy relevante; los hay para todos los gustos y condición […]. No solamente son patrones o patronas de instituciones los santos oficiales (canonizados), los hay también los que la voluntad popular ha santificado, es el caso de Sarita Colonia, la “santa” de los delincuentes y prostitutas; el mismo camino esta siguiendo el malogrado cantante de música popular “Chacalón”.

The presence of the Catholic religion is so important in Peru […] that the existence of saints as icons is very relevant; there are all sorts of them. […] Official saints (canonized) aren't the only patrons of institutions; there are also those who have been made saints by popular will, such as Sarita Colonia, the “saint” for criminales and prostitutes; on that same path we find the deceased popular music singer “Chacalón”.

This tweet picks up a popular phrase:

When Chacalon sings, the mountains go down. Y no va shel

The phrase “y no va she” is a distortion of the very common “y no va a ser” (roughly translated as “and that's that”), used to refer to something that isn't a matter of dispute.

Other Peruvian folk saints are Brother Ceferino, the Unknown Soldier and Sister Maria.

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