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Tijuana: Magic and Mystery

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 20.2, June 2010

At first thought, Tijuana has little to do with the Olmecs, who lived in the rich lowlands of Mexico’s Gulf Coast and created a great civilization that was at its height between 800 and 500 BC.

Beautiful, exotic Tijuana—city of passion and mystery. My first investigative trip to Mexico’s fourth-largest city was in the fall of 2003, when I attended Day of the Dead festivities there and went undercover in the persona of a terminally ill cancer patient to test a fortuneteller and to search for the bogus curative, Laetrile (Nickell 2004). I returned in mid-May 2009 as a side jaunt to an extensive California trip (in which I lectured, received an award [see Hammer 2009], and went on an expedition into Bigfoot Country). This time in Tijuana, accompanied as before by Vaughn Rees, I looked into the magic of Náhuatl dances, an Olmec mystery, and the case of a dubious folk saint.

Náhuatl Dance Magic

In ancient Mesoamerica, the indigenistas used music and dance in religious ceremonies. Apparently the first expressly religious practices came from the Olmecs of the Gulf Coast, who flourished from about 1200 to 400 bc only to subsequently disappear. Olmec means “rubber people” in the ancient language known as Náhuatl (Jones and Molyneaux 2004, 91–92, 131, 133).

Náhuatl was the language of the later Aztecs and Toltecs, and it was spread by them throughout ancient Mesoamerica. It belongs to the same family of languages as Shoshonean, which is well represented among Native Americans of the United States. Significantly,

This linguistic tie supports the old tradition that the Aztecs came from the north and were late arrivals in the Valley of Mexico. Like all American Indians, the Aztecs were descended from peoples who probably crossed from Siberia to Alaska by traversing the Bering Strait. A number of relatively pure-blooded Aztecs still live in central Mexico. They are short, with round heads, dark skin, and straight black hair. Typical of American Indians, they do not differ much from the Indians of Arizona and New Mexico. (Collier’s Encyclopedia 1993, s.v. “Aztecs”)

Today, such “Aztecs”—or at least the linguistically definable Native Americans who continue to speak Náhuatl and who are known as the Nahua—represent between 800,000 and 1.5 million inhabitants of central and western Mexico (“Náhuatl” 2009; Jones and Molyneaux 2004, 131). It was such a family that Vaughn Rees and I happily encountered at the plaza on Avenida Revolucion (“Revolution Avenue”) in Tijuana. There, in native dress, they pranced and whirled in elaborate folk dances, ceremonial expressions of their cultural mythology (see figures 1 and 2).

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

The Náhuatl dances were originally created to please the gods. The dances can be seen as meditation, even prayer, in motion. The movements (expressing specific meanings) include serpent-like actions (to denote fertility), zig-zag steps (water), steps (fire), squatting to the ground (the earth and crops), and twirling in the air (the soul). “The individual dancers also work together to become one entity and reach the goal of complete attentiveness. The dancers unite to create a corporal expression to worship and communicate with their gods as they are expressed in nature” (Danza 2009).

Although today the Náhuatl religion is increasingly influenced by Catholicism (“Náhuatl” 2009), some dedicated dancers attempt to keep alive a tradition with which we can connect at the human level. I feel privileged to have been able to step back, as it were, into an earlier, more magical time, and even wonder again, with the poet Yeats: When the two become one, “how can we know the dancer from the dance?”

Olmec Mystery

At first thought, Tijuana has little to do with the Olmecs, who lived in the rich lowlands of Mexico’s Gulf Coast and created a great civilization that was at its height between 800 and 500 bc. Several farming villages grew into something more, notes Kenneth L. Feder (1996, 410), archaeologist and CSI fellow:

They became ceremonial centers where a unique constellation of art motifs and architectural patterns are seen. The motifs and patterns, called Olmec, include several common artistic and architectural elements: depictions of a half-human, half-jaguar god, the use of jade, iron ore mirrors, large earthen platforms, earthen pyramids, and huge basalt boulders carved into the likeness of human heads....

Fig. 3

It was one such giant head—one of at least seventeen known—that I recognized immediately on a Tijuana sidewalk (see figure 3). Some archaeologists have suggested that the disembodied, helmeted heads represented players of a sacred Olmec ball game (involving a heavy ball of indigenous rubber). Supposedly, these players lost, and as a consequence were decapitated (The World’s 1978, 264–265; “Olmec” 2009).

However, that notion seems fanciful, even trivial, in light of the huge amount of effort necessary to transport and carve the colossal basalt blocks. The prevailing view is that the heads represent Olmec chiefs (Feder 1996, 410). Indeed, a bronze plaque on the Tijuana monument refers to the colossal Olmec head as El Rey (“The King”).

“Ancient astronaut” theorists like Erich von Däniken have exaggerated the difficulty of moving and shaping the stones. In his one-time international best-seller Chariots of the Gods? and other books, von Däniken suggests that space aliens visited Earth in the remote past, mated with humans to produce Homo sapiens, and helped create many of antiquity’s greatest works, such as the pyramids of Egypt and the stone statues on Easter Island. In his writings von Däniken again and again misrepresents evidence to fit his “theory” (Nickell 1995, 186–189).

He writes of the Olmecs that “their beautifully helmeted giant skulls” (sic) can be “admired only on the sites where they were found, for they will never be on show in a museum” (von Däniken 1971, 93). Why? “No bridge in the country could stand their weight,” he asserts. “We can move smaller ‘monoliths’ weighing up to fifty tons with our modern lifting appliances and loaders, but when it comes to hundred-tonners like these our technology breaks down.”

In fact, von Däniken has doubled or quadrupled the actual weight of the heads. Sources place the largest ones in the twenty-five- to fifty-five-ton range (“Olmec” 2009). The boulders of basalt (a dark volcanic rock) used for the heads came from the Tuxtlas Mountains, some forty to sixty miles from the Olmec centers (Whitaker 1951, 51). States Feder (1996, 410), “The movement of this stone over such a great distance is another indicator of the ability of the Olmec chiefs to mobilize and manage the labor of a great mass of people.” The Olmecs may have dragged the boulders and floated them on large balsa rafts along coastal waters (“Olmec” 2009). They were later carved using “stone implements with much skill” (Whitaker 1951, 51).

Not only are some of the giant heads found in museums, but one was transported thousands of miles for a special exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Whitaker 1951, 51). In Tijuana, the great Olmec head provides further silent testimony against the falsehoods of the glib Erich von Däniken and his ilk.


In Catholicism, certain deceased persons are officially recognized as saints, who are held to be in the glory of God in heaven and whose holiness is attested through miracles (Schreck 1984, 153–156). Among the rank-and-file faithful, however, there are also a number of popular, unofficial saints—like Argentina’s controversial “Evita” (Eva Peron, wife of dictator Juan Peron), who is reviled by anti-Peronists but sought for canonization by others crediting her with the requisite miracles (Nickell 2006, 20).

One such folk saint in northwestern Mexico, as well as now the southwestern United States, is known as Juan Soldado (“Soldier John”), the name given by his devotees to Juan Castillo Morales, from southern Mexico. In 1938 at the age of twenty-four, he was in Tijuana, serving as a private in the Mexican army (see figure 4).

Late on February 13, an eight-year-old Tijuana girl, Olga Camacho, was sent by her mother to the corner grocery for meat. When she failed to return, an all-night search for her was conducted by citizens and authorities. It culminated at noon with the discovery of the child’s raped and nearly decapitated body in an abandoned building not far from the police station. The neighbor who found her had been convinced Olga would be found safe, but that woman subsequently claimed she was directed to the site by “a vision” of the Virgin Mary (Vanderwood 2004, 5–6).

Tijuana smoldered with anger, a lynch mob was formed, and finally tensions exploded. The police station and municipal hall were torched, and fire trucks answering calls had their hoses slashed with machetes. Eventually soldiers fired on the crowd, killing one and wounding several. Newspapers dubbed that day, February 15, “Bloody Tuesday.”

However, by February 17, just over three days after the discovery of little Olga’s body, Juan Castillo Morales had been accused of the crime, taken into custody, turned over to the army, sentenced to death following a twelve-hour court martial, and transported to the municipal cemetery where he was executed. He was dispatched by a method known as Ley Fuga (“flight law”) in which he was ordered to flee for his life, then cut down by a firing squad. He was badly wounded, and an officer finally administered the coup de grace (Maher 1997; “Juan” 2009; Vanderwood 2004, 49–50).

How was Juan Castillo Morales transformed from child-rapist and murderer into “Juan Soldado” the popular saint? A rumor circulated that the little girl was actually killed by an army officer who framed Juan for the atrocity. Still later, more conspiracy theories were advanced (Maher 1997; “Juan” 2009). Meanwhile, there were unverified reports of “ghostly voices” near Juan’s burial site. As well, some spoke of “blood seeping from his grave” (“Juan” 2009) or, alternately, claimed “that a rock by the spot where he fell kept spouting blood, calling attention to his innocence” (Maher 1997) or that blood oozed “through the rocks laid [ritualistically] at the grave site” (Vanderwood 2004, 64). Such variants (as folklorists call differing versions), together with the common folk motifs (or story elements),1 are indicative of the folkloric process at work in the evolving Juan Soldado legend. (If real blood was actually “seeping up through the loosely packed soil” of Morales’s shallow grave—his coffin was reportedly “just a foot or so below the surface”—it was attributable to decomposition gases forcing blood and tissue upward [Vanderwood 2004, 64, 190]. More simply, after a rain, a rock containing red ocher—red iron oxide—could have given the appearance of blood.)

Fig. 4

In time, little shrines were built at the supposed execution and burial sites, as well as elsewhere in the area (see figure 4). Votive candles, cards, and other religious items devoted to Juan Soldado are now sold throughout the borderlands. Many people appeal to his spirit before attempting to enter the United States illegally: “Juan Soldado, ayúdame a cruzar” (“Soldier John, help me across”). Others pray to him for help with health problems, criminal troubles, and family matters (“Juan” 2009). Many attest to “miracles” he produced on their behalf. Although June 24, Mexico’s El Día de San Juan (“The day of Saint John”), actually celebrates John the Baptist whose feast day it is, cultists have appropriated it for their San Juan, Juan Soldado, and the cemetery is filled with believers and mariachis (Maher 1997).

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, understandably denies the sanctity of Juan Soldado. Before Olga’s body was discovered, Juan Castillo Morales was seen loitering in the area. He was known to police as one who reportedly made sexual overtures to girls. His common-law wife came forward to say he had returned home very late, disheveled, and spattered with blood, whereupon he broke down and confessed to the crime. Newspaper reporters invited to interview him found him unrepentant, even nonchalant. A Los Angeles paper headlined its report, “Smiling Mexican Private tells Examiner, ‘Yes I did it’” (Vanderwood 2004, 14).

If the evidence is correct and Juan indeed represents depravity rather than sanctity, how ironic is his transformation to solider-saint and even more so his purported ability to work “miracles” seemingly as real as those of any officially sanctioned saint.


In addition to Vaughn Rees, without whose tireless assistance this article would not have been possible, I wish to thank CFI librarian Lisa Nolan and Director of CFI Libraries Timothy Binga for their considerable help with research, and the entire staff of the Skeptical Inquirer for their continuing professional assistance.


1. See, for example, Thompson (1955, 403–458), including motifs “The unquiet grave” (E410), “Revenant as blood” (E422.1.11.5), “Ineradicable bloodstain after bloody tragedy” (E422., and so on.


Danza, Azteca: Step by step. 2009. Available online at
why-did-aztecs-dance/; accessed August 19, 2009.

Feder, Kenneth L. 1996. The Past in Perspective: An Introduction to Human Prehistory. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Co.

Hammer, Owen. 2009. Third annual IIG awards: Mythbusters and Nickell honored, Ben Stein lampooned. Skeptical Inquirer 33(5) (September/
October): 11–12.

Jones, David M., and Brian L. Molyneaux. 2004. Mythology of the American Nations. London: Hermes House.

Juan Soldado. 2009. Wikipedia. Available online at; accessed May 25, 2009.

Maher, Patrick. 1997. After they shot Juan. San Diego Reader, December 4. (Refurbished January 30, 2008. Available online at http://www.sandiego; accessed May 25, 2009.)

Náhuatl religion. 2009. Available online at http://; accessed August 19, 2009.

Nickell, Joe. 2004. Mythical Mexico. Skeptical Inquirer 28(4) (July/August): 11–15.

———. 2006. Argentina mysteries. Skeptical Inquirer 30(2) (March/April): 19–22.

Nutini, Hugo G., and John M. Roberts. 1993. Bloodsucking Witchcraft: An Epistemological Study of Anthropomorphic Supernaturalism in Rural Tlaxcala. Tucson: U of Arizona Press.

Olmec. 2009. Wikipedia. Available online at http://; accessed August 18, 2009.

Thiering, Barry, and Edgar Castle, eds. 1972. Some Trust in Chariots. Toronto: Popular Library.

Thompson. Stith. 1955. Motif-Index of Folk Literature, rev. ed., vol. 2 of 6 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Vanderwood, Paul. 2004. Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Von Däniken, Erich. 1971. Chariots of the Gods? London: Corgi.

Whitaker, Gordon. 1951. The spaceman in the tree. In Thiering and Castle 1972, 40–60.

The World’s Last Mysteries. 1978. Pleasantville, N.Y.: The Reader’s Digest Association.

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at