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.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little