City Life: Mexico City - Urchins in mourning for their manic street preacher

SAN JERONIMITO is a grotty little church from the outside, with half a dozen gang signatures spray- painted in neon colours half way up its stucco walls.

It is hidden away in a neighbourhood called "Candelaria de los Patos"- a rough translation is "duck weed" - where normally I wouldn't dare to venture. But last week, the chapel was chock-a-block with Mexico City rent boys, pimps, priests, and choirboys all jostling with jugglers, drug dealers, head waiters, nuns and press photographers plus a couple of City Hall types. Boys in ratty jumpers insisted that everyone line up to file past an open casket, where a priest was laid out with his silvery beard spread over his chest. His hairless scalp gleamed under the bare light bulbs and the camera strobes.

Thousands of Mexico's street urchins came out to mourn the man they had nicknamed "Padre Chinchachoma", the bald-pated padre.

It took them five days to gain permission to bury Padre Chinchachoma near this humble altar instead of in a proper graveyard, but they had insisted. The homeless boys kept vigil and refused to be intimidated by the usual rules. Like them, their priest was unable to lie in peace because officials preferred to move him on. When City Hall relented and issued the permit, the biggest lads dug down three metres into the church floor. Now they were mixing the cement for the padre's sepulchre with their own hands. You could hear snivelling and a few muttered curses while a choir sang the send-off hymns. This was no ordinary funeral.

The controversial priest - born 64 years ago as Alejandro Garcia Duran de Lara - was a powerfully built man with little time for self-indulgence. Since the day he arrived in Mexico from Barcelona in 1972, his vow was simply to help "the forgotten portion of Mexican youth"- the homeless ones. But he did not wait for Mexico's estimated 15,000 street children to feel the need to repent and show up at church. You could not find a more manic street preacher.

To reach out to godless and homeless boys, Padre Chinchachoma would seek them in their own haunts. He liked to paint his face as a clown and ride all day on the Metro, so idle children would approach him for a lark. Later the priest learnt to be a convincing fire-eater and sword-swallower. This way he could attract even bigger crowds of the boys who wiped down windscreens at the traffic lights or ran numbers for the syndicates.

They were not aware at first that he was preaching, for his language was direct, full of street terms and analogies drawn from their raw lives. For the Gospel to reach the sewers, the messenger cannot seem unattainable, he reasoned. Once, Padre Chinchachoma lived rough for three months with a group of hardened pickpockets so that he could win them over.

His brothers in the clergy sometimes took umbrage at his salty language unbefitting a priest. Others, especially nuns, complained that his mission did not seem to allow him enough time to bathe. But even regular donors who contributed to his Providential Home funds worried that some of his schemes to boost the boys' self-esteem squandered scarce resources. Frequently Padre Chinchachoma would scrub his urchins and take them downtown to eat off china plates in a smart restaurant, especially one from which they might have been chased away as street beggars.

Padre Chinchachoma was loud and scruffy, so his presence was unmistakable. Often he would drive off street hustlers or bent policemen who were menacing his charges. "My cry comes from my gut," he explained in his 1992 book, El Diamante Cacado "after so many agonies I have witnessed." His Providential Homes for street children still support 546 children at a time in 26 refuges across Mexico City. Since 1974, until he died from a heart attack, he had cared for over 3,000 troubled boys. These refuges provide food, clothing and shelter, and even legal advice, job training, or medical treatment, but the padre's unorthodox and untrained methods were guaranteed to generate uproar.

When it came to detoxification, there was no one harsher. His shock therapy drew the wrath of many sociologists who were competing to rescue the children of the street. Padre Chinchachoma would isolate every addict who arrived at his door and insist that they kick the habit completely on their own in a battle with demons. He would pray fervently, but not assist.

Once clean, if one of his boys started to backslide, and returned to the street to score heroin or glue, Padre Chinchachoma was unrelenting. He would burn his own flesh with cigarettes or else flagellate himself while standing beside the offenders, telling them that their actions hurt him far worse than these self-injuries and that he could feel their pain. Then they would pray together for divine guidance.

For many of the street boys, this method got results. Padre Chinchachoma had generations of followers. After the final prayer at his burial service, hundreds of these boys raised their fists and gave a rowdy shout that echoed around San Jeronimito: "Arriba Chincha, Arriba Chincha" - Up with the Padre.

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