THE BLOG
02/19/2014 08:02 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2014

Does Castaway's Tattoo Reveal His Religion?

Adding to the mystery surrounding Salvadoran castaway Jose Alvarenga is his religious faith. In an interview with CNN on the Marshall Islands the shark fisherman made it clear that it was his faith in God that sustained him through the harrowing ordeal, which included moments of despair so great that he considered taking his own life. But like so many other aspects of his story, the nature of his faith remains cloaked in mystery. The one statement that he's made beyond having faith in God is that he isn't Catholic. While Catholicism has sharply declined in Alvarenga's native El Salvador over the past five decades, it's still the religion of the majority, and much more so in Mexico where he lived for some fifteen years.

So if he's not Catholic the most common other faith tradition for both Salvadorans and Mexicans is Pentecostalism. This charismatic branch of Protestantism has flourished throughout Latin America since the 1950s, especially in El Salvador where approximately a quarter of the population belong to churches such as the Assemblies of God. The fact that the Castaway's mother is a member of the Pentecostal denomination Prince of Peace might suggest that Alvarenga himself is affiliated with this spirited form of Protestantism. Moreover, the Mexican state of Chiapas where Alvarenga has lived recently has the highest percentage of Protestants in the country, close to one third of the population.

However, if Alvarenga were a practicing Pentecostal he would typically have made more specific and enthusiastic statement about God's role in saving him from a watery death. Pentecostalism, though, has been around long enough in El Salvador and throughout Latin America that there now exist millions of nominal believers, who like their Catholic compatriots, claim the faith but don't institutionally practice it. Press reports of Alvarenga engaging in drinking bouts with co-workers and friends would also make the nominal affiliation, if he has any at all, more likely since Pentecostals are teetotalers.

A story reported in the Mexican press last week offers another intriguing possibility for the Castaway's religious orientation. A woman at whose house Alvarenga and fellow fisherman would gather to eat and drink claims that she recognized the castaway by one of his tattoos, which is possibly the one seen on his left arm as he might have more than one. When acquaintances of Alvarenga in the small Mexican fishing village of Chocohuital were shown photos of him by reporters, Guillermina Morales, known as "Aunt Mina." told them she recognized the Santa Muerte (Saint Death) tattoo on his arm, which she referred to as his identifying mark.

I have spent the past five years researching the Mexican folk saint whose cult is the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas. Usually it's only devotees of the skeletal saint who personifies death that permanently ink her Grim Reapress image on their skin. Devotees normally do this as an offering of gratitude in exchange for a miracle they believe the Bony Lady has granted them. A smaller group of Central Americans and Mexicans who aren't devotees, some with cartel and gang affiliations, sport her tattoo more as a symbol of fierceness.

In an attempt to solve the religious part of the enigma that is Alvarenga I've communicated with journalists both on the Marshall Islands and now in El Salvador. A couple of local journalists who live on the islands took offense that I was even inquiring about his tattoo, which if it does exist might cast more doubt on the hero narrative that some are trying to spin. One local journalist told me "He (Alvarenga) is a simple fisherman, I doubt he's a devotee of anything." The journalists I've talked to on the ground in El Salvador have been intrigued by the possible Santa Muerte connection, but haven't been able to explore it since Alvarenga has not been talking to the press for the past few days.

There are, of course, other religious traditions to which the Castaway could belong, but demographics from both El Salvador and Mexico combined with his working class background make these options less likely. Whether Alvarenga believes it was God alone who saved him from a watery death or if death herself (Santa Muerte) also granted him a few more grains in the hourglass of life, will only be known if and when he decides to talk to the press again.