The Making of a Saint

By Bach, Caleb | Americas (English Edition), March-April 1990 | Go to article overview

The Making of a Saint


Bach, Caleb, Americas (English Edition)


THE COUNTRYSIDE around Asuncion is typical of much of Paraguay: cotton and tobacco fields, palm trees offering little shade to scrawny cattle, infrequent escarpments of basalt punctuating otherwise rolling terrain. If you come in the springtime, it is a bit cooler but the sun is strong, illuminating the fields of yellow flor de agosto (ragwort) and periodic lapacho trees covered with white or violet blossoms, the north wind dispersing the aroma of bitter orange trees into every corner.

Route Two leads east from the capital, past Lake Ypacarai to Caacupe where the basilica to the Virgen Azul de los Milagros (Blue Virgin of the Miracles) shines like a beacon, its new dome covered with copper plate imported from Chile. Twelve miles to the north, on a cobbled road guaranteed to loosen your fillings, lies the colonial village of Tobati, almost lost in an oppressive haze of smoke from the brick kilns common to the area. Less obvious is a secondary industry, the manufacture of saints (that is, wooden images of saints)--polychromed figures fashioned from cedar destined for the santerias or saint shops of Asuncion. The santos, as they are called, are still very popular and adorn family altars of many homes throughout Paraguay.

The acknowledged grand master, if not patriarch, of the santeros (saintmakers) of Tobati is 63-year-old Zenon Paez Esquivel, whose home, workshop and salesroom, all rolled into one, announces itself on the main street with a crude sign reading: "Artesania y Santeria." Don Zenon learned his craft from his father and grandfather, as part of a family tradition spanning more than one hundred years. Paez has been a carver, much of his adult life, augmenting his income building coffins when he could not make a living by carving saints alone. Something of a living national treasure, he serves also as a spokesman for many regional artisans, appearing regularly to cut a ribbon for a new crafts outlet or urging his countrymen to preserve their traditions and maintain high standards in their work.

Over the years Paez has done large-scale projects, like a huge Crucifix and numerous life-sized images of San Roque, San Francisco and the Virgin Mary for various churches in Asuncion. But his "bread and butter" remains the carving of saints whose attributes are passed from one carver to another: San Miguel with dragon; San Roque with his sores and faithful dog; San Isidro plowing on Sunday behind his oxen (until the Lord sent down an angel to take his place so he could go to church). He knows by memory the iconographic trappings of at least a hundred saints, many of which he stores in a trunk in his salesroom in case a customer appears, suddenly in need of a San Cayetano, Onofrio or Silvestre. If he receives an assignment for a lesser-known martyr not part of his normal repertoire, he consults his collection of oraciones, small popular prints of saints with prayers printed on the reverse side. Or he might check with the village priest, Padre Teofilo Caceres. Caceres himself has commissioned Don Zenon and his brother Emidgio to carve figures for the town's 16th-century Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepcion to replace colonial images stolen from the church's altar.

Today, carving has become a cottage industry for much of the Paez clan. The progeny of the Paez brothers produce an array of religious and secular imagery that respects tradition but also reflects the whims of the individual carver. One of Don Zenon's sons, Alcides, has helped his father with numerous projects while establishing his own reputation as a skilled santero. Another son, Francisco, carves saints but more often fashions masks representing los reyes magos (the Three Wise Men), delicate pesebres (nativity scenes) and replicas of the pioneers and their ox-drawn wagons. Cousin Getulio Paez specializes in small (three inches tall), brightly painted santitos. "I believe that the saints are alive, so they should have a convincing human appearance," observes Getulio, and indeed each santito is rendered with convincing veracity despite its size. …

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