Juan Martin de Porres: The First Black Saint of the Americas

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By Meserette Kentake | Kentake Page

“Compassion, my dear Brothers, is preferable to cleanliness. Reflect that with a little soap I can easily clean my bed covers, but even with a torrent of tears I would never wash from my soul the stain that my harshness toward the unfortunate would create.”

Saint Juan Martin de Porres was a Dominican monk, who was canonized in 1962 by Pope John Paul XXIII. St Martin, recognised as Papa Candelo in the Afro-Caribbean-Catholic syncretist religion of Santería, is the patron saint of mixed race people, innkeepers, barbers, public health workers and all those seeking racial harmony.

St Martin was born in Lima, Peru December 9, 1579. His father was a Spanish conquistador named Don Juan de Porres and his mother was a freed Black woman from Panama, named Ana Velázquez. Seeing that Martin had African rather than European features, Don Juan de Porres refused to acknowledge his paternity. Martin grew up in deep poverty, as his mother supported her children by taking in laundry.

Stories of Martín’s remarkable generosity apparently began to surround him even in childhood; sent to the local market by his mother, he would often give away the contents of his basket to homeless persons before reaching home. By the time he was 10 he was spending several hours of each day in prayer, a practice he maintained for the rest of his life. He once asked his landlady for the stumps of some candles she had discarded, and she later saw him using their meager light to behold a crucifix before which he knelt, weeping. Perhaps as a result of the boy’s spiritual accomplishments, Don Juan de Porres acknowledged when Martín was eight years old that he was Martín’s father, a remarkable admission at the time. His father finally abandoned Martin and his mother, for good, after the birth of another daughter. Ana recognized in her son the signs of an intense spiritual quality, and she tried to obtain for him an education beyond mere subsistence level. When Martín was 12, he was apprenticed to a barber—a profession that in sixteenth-century society involved much more than cutting hair. Young Martín learned the rudiments of surgery: administering herbal remedies, dressing wounds, and drawing blood—something that was thought to be curative at the time.

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