Exhibition | Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States
Miracles on the Border features fifty luminous retablos, painted personal expressions of gratitude dedicated to holy figures to consecrate miraculous events. Spanning the entirety of the twentieth century, these particular votives were offered by Mexican migrants or their families to commemorate the dangers of crossing the border and living in the United States. Filled with emotive detail, they eloquently relate subjects of greatest concern to the migrants, including the difficulty of finding work or falling sick in a foreign land and the relief of returning home.
These modern Mexican retablos evoke imagery brought to the Spanish colonies beginning in the sixteenth century, when Catholic orders preached their message of salvation to Indigenous peoples, relying on the power of art and icons to disseminate Christianity. The word “retablo,” from the Latin retro tabulum (behind the altar table), originally referred to devotional paintings hung in Catholic churches in Europe. Retablos emerged as an elite art form in Mexico during the seventeenth century, and by the eighteenth century, retablo (synonymous in this usage with ex-voto or milagro) came to denote a small painting on tin placed on the walls of a shrine or pilgrimage church. When inexpensive tinplate from Britain and the United States became available in the 1820s, the practice spread and painted expressions of gratitude began to adorn church walls throughout Mexico. During the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), when retablos were popularized as artistic expressions of national identity, they profoundly influenced Mexico’s modern painters.
The retablos on view come from the collections of Douglas S. Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and Jorge Durand, professor of anthropology at the University of Guadalajara. Beginning in 1988, Massey and Durand, codirectors of the Mexican Migration Project, realized that retablos depict a side of migration usually not told in statistical reports or even in detailed interviews with migrants. They began to collect these sacred objects and to study them as sociological documents. By analyzing the age, gender, geographic origins, and destinations of the migrants who commissioned the votive paintings, Massey and Durand gained insight into the social conditions surrounding Mexican migration.
Nearly all of the retablos on view were dedicated to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, invariably shown wearing a golden crown, white gown, and blue mantle. A distinctly Mexican manifestation of the Virgin Mary, she is specifically called upon for help by Mexican migrants to the United States. The Basilica of the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, located in the state of Jalisco, is one of the principal centers of supplication in west-central Mexico, the heartland for migration to the United States. There, on a wall rising to the high ceiling, a shifting display of personal mementos—including candles, clothing, and retablos—facilitates communication with the divine.
Commissioned from local artists working anonymously, retablos exhibit vivid colors and theatrical juxtapositions with a narrative that is both written and pictorial. In the central portion, earthly figures usually share space with a larger-than-life holy image and a dreamlike representation of the miraculous event. Inscriptions detail the place of offering; the date, place, and circumstances of the event; and the nature of the miraculous intervention. In the exhibition, each retablo’s Spanish inscription has been transcribed and translated, offering insight into the immediacy and intimacy of these offerings.
In one votive offered in 1917, at a time when tens of thousands of Mexicans worked for the railroads in the United States, Tivurcia Gallego relayed an unfortunate event that befell her in the town of Daingerfield, Texas. As the inscription on her votive reads, “She was walking along a train track holding a little boy by the hand, and as she went over a bridge, some workers with trunks overtook them in a push car. Being unable to move to either side, she invoked the Holiest Virgin of San Juan and suffered nothing more than a few blows, and the little boy no more than a glancing blow, having freed himself from greater danger.” In thanksgiving for this miraculous event, she offered a retablo.
In another votive from the mid-twentieth century, Virginia Velázquez made an offering in Houston to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos “for watching over me while crossing the Rio Grande with my four children.” In an undated offering from Venancio Soriano, the supplicant is pictured in a hospital bed set in a desolate space: “While at work in Harlingen, Texas, I contracted a grave illness of the left lung that was thought incurable.” He thanks the Virgin of San Juan for the relief she brought.
As retablos like these accumulated on church walls, whether in Harlingen, Texas, or Jalisco, Mexico, the vows became public records of the most significant moments in the supplicants’ lives—their faith, fears, and familial attachments. Together, as expressions of identity as much as of iconography, these remarkable retablos offer insight into the lived experience of transnational migration.
Juliana Ochs Dweck
Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement
This exhibition is presented in conjunction with Princeton University’s Migration Lab. It has been made possible with support from the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; and by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, the Program in Latin American Studies, and the Office of Religious Life, Princeton University.