- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 9, 2001

CARACAS, Venezuela Ernesto Lopez is convinced his rusting hulk of a city bus would have died long ago in the cutthroat traffic of Caracas if it weren't for divine intervention.

"It gives me trouble occasionally, but for some reason it just keeps on going. I'm convinced it's powered by the Virgin. There's no other explanation," said Mr. Lopez, whose 18-year-old bus bears the name "Our Sacred Virgin."

Naming buses after patron saints is standard practice in Latin America, where potholes, reckless cabbies, thieves and corrupt police are just a few of the hazards drivers face in overpopulated cities and on dangerous rural roads.

Brightly painted and adorned with Catholic, indigenous and African religious icons, the crowded buses are one of the region's most recognizable symbols.

"Like all Latin Americans, bus drivers have a deeply ingrained need to believe in the divine. Not all of us are faithful churchgoers, but we are believers," said Vinicio Romero, a historian and theology professor at St. Rose of Lima School here.

"I think this is true of almost all Latin Americans, no matter what social class they come from."

In Andean countries, a glass-encased statue of the Virgin Mary often is perched above the driver's seat on buses that run treacherous mountain roads at night. A light inside the case shines each time the driver, barreling around sharp corners at high speeds, hits the brakes.

All too often, that light is the last thing a driver and his passengers see in this lifetime. Hundreds die each year in mountain accidents.

Henri Gonzalez, who maneuvers through downtown Caracas every day, painted an image of Maria Lionza, an indigenous goddess who promises order amid chaos, on the rear window of his bus.

"I always try to stay calm despite the commotion and clutter of these streets," Mr. Gonzalez said. "Other drivers go crazy. They lose their cool too often."

One of the most popular religious icons on Venezuelan "carritos," as the buses are called, is Jose Gregorio Hernandez, a mustachioed doctor who administered to the poor at the turn of the 20th century.

Venezuelans believe Dr. Hernandez protects both drivers and passengers even though he was one of the country's first road fatalities, dying in a 1919 car accident.

"His idolization as a protector may seem ironic given his end, but Venezuelans have turned it around," said Guillermo Moron, a member of the country's National History Academy. "His cult followers strongly believe that by paying respects to Jose Gregorio they won't end up like he did."

In Peru, folk saint Sarita Colonia appears on dashboards. In Colombia, the Virgin of Carmen is the most venerated saint among drivers of that country's rainbow-colored, open-air buses.

Bible passages in French or Creole protect Haitian bus drivers on often dangerously narrow and rutted roads. Multicolored Haitian jitneys feature portraits of biblical characters or gods from the voodoo pantheon, such as Ersulie, goddess of love. "Glory to God," "Divine Justice" and "God Is Love" are common names for the vehicles.

In Mexico, crosses of wood, finely molded metal and brightly colored plastic dangle from dusty rear-view mirrors. Older drivers paint "Jesus protect me on my way" in fancy letters on the inside walls. Virgin Mary stickers are next to each letter.

Younger Mexican drivers also put up crosses but in their buses, as in some other countries, symbols of wealth, patriotism, globalization's trinkets and Latin machismo contend with religion. Good-luck charms include stolen Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen hood ornaments, stuffed animals and Mexican and U.S. flags.

In a profession where female drivers are few, slogans such as "The Grand Seducer," "Watch Out Ladies, El Macho has Arrived" and "The Road is Long for a Family Man" frequently crop up.

Others paint messages of faith to their loved ones. "Sit tight, Carolina. Daddy's Coming Home," reads one Caracas bus.

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