Mexican Retablos: Prayers on Steel

Mexican Retablos: Prayers on Steel

After a few bites of the cake Raul seemed to realize that she was waiting. “He read about the United States and wanted to go. He tried to cross the desert but the Virgin abandoned him because what he was doing was wrong. He got lost and died in the sun.”

“I’m so sorry, Raul,” Luz said.

“His mother had a retablo made for the Virgin to have pity on his soul.”

“I’m sure his soul rests in peace.”

“When his mother died I had the retablo buried with her.” Raul continued to eat.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Luz’s heart twisting in sadness. Retablos were primitive paintings of a scene of something that happened in a person’s life for which they were giving thanks to the Virgin. But not this time. The son had died trying to get to El Norte and the mother had probably died of a broken heart. (THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY)

I’ve been giving alot of thought to visual inspiration as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th novel in the Acapulco Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series. The quote above isn’t from one of the Emilia Cruz books, but from romantic thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, which drew on many visual cues such as  Mexico’s architecture and food, as well as Mexico’s fine art.

Related: Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

The Catholic Church is a strong cultural and artistic influence in Mexico, and my books reflect that. Retablos are part of Mexico’s tradition combining art and faith, made all the more interesting to me because they are rustic folk art meant to capure a moment in time for which someone is giving thanks to God.

I bought these two retablos in a small shop in Mexico City’s  Zona Rosa a couple of years ago. They are each about 5×7 inches, and painted on rusted steel. The edges are sharp. My guess they were cut from a barrel and done by the same person.Retablo as visual inspiration

In this retablo, thanks are given to the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes for saving the school children from the ox (el buey) in Jalisco.religious retablo inspires a mystey series

This retablo depicts the Virgin appearing and saving Jacinto from the black dog which appeared in the cemetary in Oaxaca. I don’t know if this should be taken literally or is a reference to illness or the devil.

I wonder at the journey these retablos took from Perla and Jacinto, who were giving thanks to God some 50 years ago, all the way to that shop in Mexico City. Now they are part of my writing journey. Just like you.


“A multilayered novel of love and drama” — Literary Fiction Review

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Padre Pro, the Catholic Martyr Who Inspired a Mystery

Padre Pro, the Catholic Martyr Who Inspired a Mystery

The long road that has become DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3th Emilia Cruz mystery novel, started nearly 4 years ago, in Rome, Italy. I’d had my tour of the Vatican and was now on the hunt for gifts and souvenirs. A large Catholic gift and bookstore looked promising.

Mex_bookHistoric Surprise

On the second floor I found a small paperback entitled MEXICAN MARTYRDOM by Wilfred Parsons, S.J. The author name’s name was buried in the text on the back cover which told of “true stories of the persecutions” and the “atrocities of those times” and the “heroic resistance of Mexican Catholics” in the 1920’s.

I was astounded. I’d lived in Mexico for 3 years, gone to church on a regular basis, even been president of the parish council. It was certainly a more devout country than the US, with no hint of anti-Catholicism. Perhaps I should have been aware about this period in history during a tour of Oaxaca, when the guide had referred to government seizure of the former convent were were touring, but I was too agog with the loveliness of Oaxaca to give it further thought. But in the late 1920’s the Mexican government of President Plutarco Calles tried to outlaw the Catholic Church, provoking what became known as the Cristero War.

Padre Pro

portrait of Cristero martyr Padre Pro

A rare photo of Padre Pro in a cassock in Mexico (vestments were against the law) from

From MEXICAN MARTYRDOM I learned the the story of Miguel Pro Juarez, S.J., a Jesuit priest executed for practicing his faith in 1927. Padre Pro, as he was called, was born in Mexico, ordained in Belgium, and returned to Mexico at the height of the crackdown on the Church. Wearing disguises, he walked, bicycled, and took taxis to dispense the sacraments and assist the poor–often by finding homes for unwanted babies and distributing food to those displaced by the government’s crackdown and mishandling of the economy. His legend grew large as the priest the army couldn’t catch but he was finally snared when he was accused of an plot to kill the head of the army (later president) and ratted out, along with 2 of his brothers. No one ever produced any evidence that the Pro brothers were involved in the plot.

Padre Pro and his brother Humberto were executed by firing squad. To make an example of him, the government took plenty of pictures during the event. But it backfired. Padre Pro blessed the head of the firing squad, forgave him, then flung out his arms, holding a cross in one hand and a rosary in the other, and shouted Viva Cristo Rey, just before the bullets struck. His words became the rallying cry for the Cristero War, which was captured in the movie “For Greater Glory.” Padre Pro was beatified by the Vatican in 1988 (first step on the road to sainthood).

Although the Emilia Cruz series is set in today’s Acapulco, I wanted to draw on Padre Pro’s life story for a novel. When things can get rough for Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz  in both CLIFF DIVER and HAT DANCE she turns to her parish priest Padre Ricardo for advice and solace. In DIABLO NIGHTS, she’ll find a relic supposedly from Padre Pro that gives her hope and the courage to keep moving forward. She needs her faith to survive Mexico’s drug war violence, but she also needs the relic as a means to ease her conscience, because  . . .

No spoilers today, but DIABLO NIGHTS is shaping up to be the most psychologically suspenseful Emilia Cruz mystery yet.

In Padre Pro’s Own Words

Padre Pro was a man of many talents. He played the guitar, sang, wrote stories and poetry, and was a great comedic actor (which enabled him to assume many disguises and improvise his way out of numerous close shaves with the Mexican authorities before he was finally caught.) A poem included in the biography BLESSED MIGUEL PRO by Ann Ball has a haunting stanza that I received permission to use as the opening quote in DIABLO NIGHTS:

The very breath of Hell floats in the air;

The cup of crime is filled by tyrant’s hand

“Return in Haste, O Lord” by Miguel Pro Juarez, S.J.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


About the Time I was Absolutely and Terrifyingly Lost in Panama

About the Time I was Absolutely and Terrifyingly Lost in Panama

A year ago I was Lost.

No-cell-phone-service Lost. The-road-is-a-gravel-track-through-cane-fields Lost.

Set Sail One Day

Five girlfriends had set out from Panama City to go to El Valle, about two hours away. We’d go to the Sunday crafts market there and have lunch at a boutique hotel afterwards.

A quick stop for cheese empanadas and gas and we were on the road. The miles sped by as we talked and laughed and it was well over an hour before we started to look for the turnoff to El Valle. There wasn’t a sign, but the intersection was the one with the pink shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

More talk. More laughter. More miles. Eventually we turned on the GPS and it signaled a turn. Not the road with the shrine, but it was the right direction.

At Road’s End

About half a mile down the new road, tarmac gave way to gravel. With deep ruts. Then worse ruts. We passed a small village and asked if that was the right road to El Valle. Yes, we were assured. One person said El Valle was just 10 minutes. Another said 30 minutes. The GPS seemed to split the difference.

Bad ruts turned into a dry stream bed weaving through Panama’s low mountains. The doughty SUV slid downhill, the tires unable to grip the loose stones. We jolted in the car like peanuts in a tin can. A dashboard light turned on—overheated transmission. We stopped on a rocky plateau and scouted ahead only to find that the gravel track narrowed ahead. The five of us were quite alone in the hot rustling jungle.

The SUV cooled and we started off again, now having discovered that we were all Catholic and that two of us carried rosaries. The jungle gave way to cane fields. Hard green stalks as high as the car roof rattled against the windows.

Two Hours Later . . .

After two hours off-road we broke through the cane field and clambered onto tarmac again. We were on the eastern edge of El Valle. Never were five women more ready to buy souvenirs.

I learned a few things that day.

About being lost. And knowing when to turn at the shrine.

  1. Don’t be so distracted by peripherals—entertainment, Twitter, mooning over the wrong guy—that you forget to look for the shrine that points the way to where you really want to go.
  2. If you’re lost, keep going. Take a break to rethink the situation, take care of problems, or give yourself a pep talk, but don’t confuse “taking a break” with “breaking down.” Cheerlead as you go—you’re handling the uncertainty well, you’re learning about yourself and wherever this “lost” place is—even if it is inside you.
  3. The shrine doesn’t have to be the pink altar on the side of the road. A shrine can be any pointer that helps you travel where you want to go. A shrine can be the project you handled well—you can use it as inspiration for managing a bigger one. A shrine can be a passing grade in a tough subject—you know you can master the next class, too. A shrine can be a hard decision, a recovery from an illness, the day you stood up for yourself, the time when you were scared but did it anyway.
  4. Maybe today’s the day you build a shrine. The day you make a decision and carry it out. The day that you see new possibilities. Believe an inspirational quote and translate it into action. Once you build the shrine, it’s yours forever, ready to inspire if you get lost.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


The Power of Daddy

The Power of Daddy

Once upon a time, when we lived in Panama, I was walking the dog and passed a construction site where the workers were engaged in a furious argument. The Spanish flew too fast for me to catch every word but anger came through in every red-faced yell and hostile gesture. The whole block rang with the shouts between a worker on the would-be second floor of the roofless structure and another on the ground below.

As we passed I wondered if bad karma was being transferred from the workers’ anger to the house. Would it silently bleed over into the lives of the people who would one day live in that place?

It made me think of an opposite scene I’d witnessed in Greece, when a family gathered at a construction site in our Athens neighborhood to have their new home blessed. The Greek Orthodox priest, resplendent in his embroidered robes and gray beard, solemnly intoned a blessing while swinging a huge golden incense brazier over the cement foundation. The extended family, all in their Sunday best, stood proudly together in the mud of the construction site, responding to the prayers. They would have a good life in that house, I thought at the time, living in a place infused with God’s blessing.

I grew up in such a house, a long duplex that my grandfather built. My family lived in one side and my maternal grandparents in the other. As a very small girl, I recall being frightened by a school presentation about fire and asked my mother what would we do if the house burned down. Nothing bad could ever happen to the house, my mother informed me, because when he poured the foundation my grandfather had dropped religious medals into the cement. Mary and Joseph were part of the house and would always protect it.

Years later, my husband and I were raising small children. There were no blessings or religious medals factored into the construction of suburban builder homes to keep us safe. We were on our own.

My toddler daughter was scared, she told me one night as I tucked her into bed. There could be monsters in her room that came out when the lights were off. Maybe in the closet.

“Daddy doesn’t allow monsters in the house,” I replied.

And such was the Power of Daddy that the issue was never raised again.

To this day, it remains the smartest thing I ever said as a mother.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Padre Ricardo and the Sacristy of Santa Clara

Padre Ricardo and the Sacristy of Santa Clara

The Hidden Light of Mexico City contains a number of references from my own experiences in Mexico City.  I’ve already written about the  class struggle of simply standing in a line but also wanted to share a sadder, more compelling event that helped shape the book’s narrative through the character of Father Santiago.

Related: Read HIDDEN LIGHT’S First 2 Chapters

Father Richard

Father Richard Junius–or Padre Ricardo–was the pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Mexico City when I lived there.  He was an Oblate Missionary who had been in Mexico for years, ministering mostly to the rural poor.  St. Patrick’s was a sizeable urban parish  in a fairly tough neighborhood. It was the only designated English-speaking church in the city.

Fr Richard Junius

Years ago the church had sold off the school building next door. Funds from the sale  were held in escrow by the diocese for maintenance of the church and attached rectory.  The previous pastor had been removed due to a number of misconducts; when Father Richard arrived we were all cautiously hopeful that the new priest would set things right.

St. Patrick’s sacristy was a place I came to know well; the ladies of the parish cleaned it up for the incoming priest, removing layers of grime and polishing the few silver items the church possessed. My son was an altar server and I remade and cleaned all of the altar server vestments, hanging them in the room’s small closet.  The description of the sacristy of the church of Santa Clara in The Hidden Light of Mexico City is based on St. Patrick’s.


Father Richard was old and patient and tireless in his efforts to reach out to the local community and deal with their family issues. He made his new English-speaking congregation aware of prison irregularities in Mexico and didn’t flinch when an armed drug addict, stoned out of his mind, walked through the church and accosted him on the altar during midnight Mass.  He spent nothing on his clothing, wearing threadbare corduroy pants and sweaters that became the fictional Father Santiago’s wardrobe. 


Father Richard had spent most of his time in Mexico in rural areas. Now in Mexico City, he seemed naive in the midst of Mexico’s spiraling crime and drug war. 

Twice he was assaulted and robbed while alone in the church counting  the Sunday collection. When parishioners insisted that the funds be handled differently, he disagreed, adamant that church funds were solely his responsibility and that he would not close the church at any time. 

He lent a substantial amount from the maintenance funds to an unscrupulous businessman man who never repaid the loan. Father Richard contracted for the bathroom repair without consulting with the parish council. Again, funds disappeared. The job was left half done and toilets didn’t flush.

Never afraid of controversy, he petitioned the bishop to change the church’s status from English-speaking to multi-lingual. The move angered some of the original congregation, but was welcomed by local families.

Much of the English-speaking congregation moved on, angered by his financial floundering. Several years later I was to learn that he’d been murdered.

A violent death

In August 2007, Father Richard was found stripped, tortured, bound and strangled to death in his bedroom in the rectory of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mexico City.  His body was found the morning after a fire had broken out in the basement of the church late at night.  Initial Mexican news reports speculated that the death was a result of “sexual misconduct,” and downplayed the fire as well as the theft of several items from the church.  The charges were heatedly denied by Catholic Church officials in Mexico, thousands of faithful, and the  Oblates, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Other reports of his death noted that he’d been in conflict with the owner of  a bar near the church whom Father Richard had publicly called out for serving alcohol to minors. The Oblate website reported that “many believe that the brutal crime was in retaliation for Fr. Ricardo’s efforts to impede the drug traffic and the sale of alcohol to minors in the neighborhood. He had reported to the police that such activities were taking place in a building near the corner of the parish church.”

From the family

Fr. Richard’s cousin got in touch with me in April 2016 as a result of this blog post. In an exchange of emails, she related how she was informed by the Oblate Provincial in Belleville, Illinois that Fr. Richard was murdered:

“After I explained my connection, the Provincial began hesitantly stating, “I don’t even know how to say this.” When I asked what he needed to say, he responded that Father Richard had been murdered between the Saturday night Mass of Anticipation and the early Sunday morning Mass. I later heard that his sister expected his body to be returned to Eagle Pass for burial near the grave of his cousin, my uncle Father Bernard C. Junius, OMI. Sadly, the Mexican authorities buried the body quickly in Mexico City.
Prior to his death, Father Richard had written a lengthy letter to my uncle Paul explaining all of the activities he was involved in – a thrift store, a radio show, marrying Spanish and Anglo couples. His passion for service and love of those he served threaded through the letter. His death seemed like the waste of a true servant of the people.”

Catching his killer

Father Richard was 79 at the time of his death and only a month away from celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest.  To my knowledge, his murderer has never been brought to justice and the official record remains death by misadventure.
Not content with that, I wrote “The Angler,” a novella based on the murder of Father Richard. In “The Angler,” Detective Emilia Cruz, the first female police detective in Acapulco, faces a similar crime. This time, the murder is solved.

The Angler by Carmen Amato


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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Carmen Amato at Spring Hill

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