- Corridos for the Holy CoyoteGhost Smuggling Ballads and the Undocumented Migrant Journey
Como un ángel o un fantasmaSe aparece al ilegalLos cuida y hasta los curaPa' que puedan continuarY luego desapareceSeñal que van a llegar
Like an angel or a ghostHe appears to the illegalHe protects them and even heals themSo that they can continue onAnd then he disappearsA sign that they will soon arrive—Excerpt from "Santo Toribio Romo" by Los Originales de San Juan1
Many ghost stories are shared as chilling folk narratives, shrouded in macabre details that elicit fear and terrifying suspense for listeners. In other ghost stories, the threat of confronting malevolent spirits warns listeners against transgressing certain moral codes. However, based on musical testimonies circulating on social media, several undocumented migrants are telling a different kind of ghost story marked by themes of religious devotion, transborder survival, and an apparition who protects them and helps them cross the US–Mexico border. Since the early 2000s, a new phenomenon of corrido composition and performance, which has received little to no attention outside of its listening community, narrates the near-death experiences of undocumented Mexican migrants and their miraculous encounters with the ghost of Saint Toribio Romo in the desert. Saint Toribio Romo, a Mexican Catholic martyr killed in Jalisco in 1928, is referred to by migrants as El Santo Coyote, the Holy Coyote (or holy smuggler), whom migrants have adopted as the unofficial Patron Saint of Immigrants.
While the corrido, Mexico's emblematic ballad tradition, saw its peak compositional and performance period during the years surrounding the 1910–1917 Mexican Revolution, Mexican migrant and border-crossing narratives have long been preserved in song and corrido texts dating back to the nineteenth [End Page 24] century.2 Corridos about and dedicated to Saint Toribio Romo, which I define as ghost smuggling ballads, depict the migrant journey in the transborder region, the liminal space of the thousands of miles of desert that stretch along the US–Mexico border. Ghost smuggling ballads redefine and transform the coyote figure—a human smuggler known among the migrant community as a potentially untrustworthy, dangerous, yet necessary guide in the border-crossing process—into a source of trust and divine protection. These ballads, shared primarily as informally published videos on social media, relay testimonies of transborder survival and miraculous intercession. One such corrido, for example, "Nueva Vida," or "New Life" (Table 1), whose video is also accompanied by a dramatic reenactment of the lyrical text, narrates the story of an undocumented migrant and his heavily pregnant wife who lose sight of their migrant group just as his wife goes into labor in the desert.3 After leaving her behind to run after the group for help, the migrant returns to find his wife holding their newborn baby, saved by the miraculous intercession of the ghost of Saint Toribio Romo.
The few scholars who have discussed Saint Toribio Romo's role as the unofficial Patron Saint of Immigrants focus on mass pilgrimage to his shrine in Jalisco, on milagros (miracles), which are votives left as offerings in a room next to his chapel, and on the increasing transnational devotion among Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States.4 However, no scholar to date has compiled or analyzed the collection of corrido testimonies that document the Holy Coyote's apparition and migratory miracles in the desert. Between 2014 and 2019, I collected nearly twenty ghost smuggling ballads dedicated to Saint Toribio Romo as part of my doctoral dissertation research, exploring their significance to the migrant community and his devotees, including Mexican American families descending from Saint Toribio Romo's home region in Jalisco.5 Almost all Saint Toribio Romo corridos in my compilation are exclusively shared and available on YouTube, which serves as a vital digital archive in my ongoing study of ghost smuggling ballads. The scope of this article centers on my analysis of the corridos' lyrical content, inherent migrant narratives and testimonies of the migrant journey, and the dramatic reenactment included in video footage that accompanies select performances. The reception of these Saint Toribio Romo...