First published: Summer 2019

Paintings that connect European icons and indigenous American offerings 

At the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco, Mexico, miracles are depicted in small paintings on pieces of scrap tin. Car crashes and surgical operations, violent crimes and animal attacks, illnesses and house fires all appear in vivid, often crudely illustrated scenes. Each one shows a celestial figure – the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ or a saint – who is interceding to protect these unfortunate souls from harm. Known as retablos, these works of folk art come from the ex-voto tradition of using material objects to communicate with the divine. The paintings are commissioned or created to show gratitude for a prayer answered or a disaster averted.
 

Retablo of Amador de Lira, mid twentieth century, oil on metal, 9 x 6 in. / 24 x 15 cm, courtesy: Arias-Durand Collection; Translation: “Amador de Lira gives the most infinite thanks for the miracle of saving them as they crossed the dangerous river in Texas”

Retablos can be found in churches and shrines around Mexico, with Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos being one of the biggest pilgrimage sites. As such, it is an ongoing reflection of contemporary concerns. In 1988, while conducting fieldwork for the binational research initiative the Mexican Migration Project, Jorge Durand, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Guadalajara, and Douglas Massey, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, noticed that this church’s retablos frequently represented themes of Mexico-US migration.

“Unlike other sources of information on Mexico-US migration, retablos would capture events as they were experienced by the migrants themselves”, Massey explains. “The pictures and texts could provide a rich source of data on a subject that has been notoriously resistant to study because much of the migration was undocumented. We thought that by analysing retablos left by migrants and their family members, we could understand how US migration felt and was understood by the people who experienced it.”

The two men began searching antique stores, curio shops and galleries to create a collection of retablos specifically about migration. They found paintings of border crossings and safe returns, as well as representations of the issues that often face migrants, such as the difficulty of finding a job, getting sick while far from home, hazardous working conditions, legal troubles and getting lost in an unfamiliar place.

In December 1990, Durand and Massey debuted their collected retablos at the Diego Rivera Studio Museum in Mexico City, but they also continued to visit rural shrines throughout west-central Mexico – a major area for migration to the US – photographing and acquiring more examples of the artworks. This collection now includes 58 votive paintings, ranging from a 1954 retablo for a woman who was caught under the wheels of a bus in border town Brownsville, Texas, to a 1990 depiction of a man behind bars, asking that with this offering he be granted his freedom in the US. In 1995, Durand and Massey co-authored Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States. In their text they noted that, while themes like homecoming were significant across the decades, later in the twentieth century retablos related to legal problems and documentation increased, reflecting how the US had begun applying stricter rules for immigration.

This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #102.

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