The Healing, Social Justice Touch

A reflection on the qualities that made St. Martin de Porres “the first Black saint of the Americas,” and how he overcame racism for being of mixed race.

Credit: Dominican Friars, Province of St. Martin de Porres

Systemic racism has stood the tests of time as a form of deep oppression against African Americans. The Black community, their skin color acting as “barriers” in society, were barred from the same opportunities as caucasians such as education and voting rights. St. Martin de Porres, half Peruvian and half Black Panamanian, experiences racism throughout the film for being of mixed-race, because Peruvian law restricted Africans and Native Indians from fully joining religious orders. Even so, the titular character works diligently to overcome these limitations, and to become “the first Black saint of the Americas.”

What makes St. Martin de Porres a saint is that he possesses the ability to heal and love the sick holistically. A striking example is when he encounters a beggar with outstanding skin ulcers on the street. Solicitous, the Dominican brother lets the elderly man stay in his cell — not only so he can be on the road to recovery, but so the Apostle of Charity tends to him using his passion for medicine. He also allows the ailing patient to sleep in his bed, much to the other Dominicans’ dismay. The monks, for this reason, accuse him of bringing uncleanliness into the monastery as a result of tending to these “unsanitary” individuals. Yet this negative response mirrors how Jesus’ miracle of touching the leper to cure him stirred controversy in Capernaum, even though Christ’s aim was to grant everyone an invitation to discipleship by strengthening their belief in Him. That goes for the other miracles he and the principal character performs as well.

Often alarmed by the sight of a physically or mentally ill person, an outsider may be inclined to give them the death stare, as if to imply that they are a mistake in God’s eyes due to their disabilities. Or if this same human being sees people with disabilities appear on their For You page on TikTok, for instance, they could be inclined to flood the comments section with derogatory language (like “mulatto,” in the context of the film). St. Martin de Porres’ healing miracle signifies the critical role empathy plays in breaking these stigmas. Meaning, if we take the time to learn about who the least in our midst are at the core, we emerge as equity-informed saints who understand people’s complex experiences and, consequently, provide the exact resources they need to improve their situations.

Juana’s older brother, his vast knowledge of medicine unmatched, also teaches that we mustn’t aspire to materialism to literally and figuratively minister to the poor. We must use and build upon the gifts we already have, such as the patron saint eventually using his medical prowess to establish a hospice in his sister’s home — thus further expanding his Christlike outreach. And to this end, all saints can empower the poor to recognize their wonderful abilities for themselves, so they too can heal the world in their own right. No nursing degree necessary!

As the priest mentioned in his homily on All Saints Day, many Catholics believe that sainthood is achieved by strictly following everything the Bible trachea. If not, even the most venial sin, they fear, could knock them off their perfect pedestal. This strict, fundamentalist approach to Catholicism makes certain believers too selfish to strive for the common good: having respect for yourself, giving groups of people equal access to the tools necessary to meet their basic human rights, and building peaceful, safe spaces for everyone to evolve individually and collectively. Whereas, the main reason why St. Martin de Porres exemplifies sainthood is because he is not ashamed of his imperfections.

Rather, his personal narrative informs his social justice lens, illustrating the power of authenticity to work for equal rights of all people — but especially those coming from the same impoverished, mixed-race/minority communities as him. The titular character, for instance, builds a school for orphaned/abandoned children in Lima, Peru staying in the residence he built. And before his acceptance into the Dominican Order at age 24, he translates his daily servant tasks (e.g. cooking, cleaning) to feeding meals and giving alms to the poor. It is with these concrete acts of service that he assumes the role of father figure, even after his physical passing.

His father is a Spanish conquistador splitting his time between Peru and Ecuador, therefore the precocious, little boy sees him every once in a while. But even more traumatic for the firstborn (and what solidifies his father’s commitment, or lack thereof, to fatherhood) is the visible shame the absentee parent feels for conceiving a dark-skinned child. So in some respects, St. Martin de Porres — as far as manhood, morality, and social action are concerned — has no immediate male figure to lean on; he must learn everything himself.

The orphaned/abandoned children, in a similar vein, grow up not having parents to model human dignity and respect for them. Instead, they may meander through life being severely disrespectful, malnourished, and/or dehydrated. School, however, brings the social justice notion full circle by instilling not only a robust education in each child, but instilling the confidence to embrace their individuality as minorities. What’s more, educators like him would be there every step of the way, teaching the students right from wrong. Equally important is ensuring their physical well-being. Without a sufficient amount of nutrients, the young children risk suffering from a series of health problems; yet, not having a steady food supply means wondering when their next meal will come. Hence, the capital and food St. Martin de Porres provides can also be interpreted as a consistent, definite answer to their Right to Life problems.

Thank you for reading,

Avery Danae

❤️🧡💛💚💙💜

This reflection was originally written for my Religion class on November 5, 2021, when we were studying Prayer & Spirituality.

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