Adornment Archives: Mexican Milagros
I went to Mexico for the first time at age 18. While my contemporaries were lounging on the beaches of Cancún, my parents took us to visit family friends in the Sonoran city of Hermosillo. Our first night there, we strolled by the Catedral de Hermosillo, an imposing structure built in the early 1900s. In front of the church, there were vendors selling handicrafts on worn blankets – colorful woven baskets, painted clay pots, intricately woven dresses – a feast for the eyes. I bent down and admired a woman’s blanket full of aged adornments. As I slipped a silver bangle onto my wrist, a small pile of metal body parts – legs, feet, hearts, and stomachs – caught my eye. “¿Qué es esto?” I inquired (nearly exhausting my knowledge of Spanish at that point). “Los milagros,” she replied, smiling softly.
Milagros (from the Spanish word for “miracle”) are religious charms used for healing or as devotionals throughout Latin America and parts of the Iberian Peninsula. Also called ex-votos, promesas, or dijes, Mexican milagros are typically made from metal (They can also be made from wax, wood, clay, and other materials) and come in different sizes. They can be worn for protection and good luck, or left to honor or petition an icon (representation of a saint) at a place of worship. Each milagro represents something different to the person who uses it. For example, a heart milagro could be used to pray for the healing of a heart condition, as a sign of gratitude for love, or as protection from heartache. It is the wearer or the giver who imbues it with meaning.
Eighteen years after I saw and touched my first milagros, I encountered them again at the San Xavier del Bac Mission just south of Tucson, Arizona. Each year, this 300-year-old church welcomes thousands of religious pilgrims from Mexico and throughout the United States. As I admired the richly hued frescoes, statues, and racks of votive candles inside this Spanish-style structure, I noticed a woman pull back the corner of her blouse and unpin a tiny milagro in the shape of a foot. She brought it to the corner of the church and pinned it to the cloth of a Saint Francis icon as her lips moved in prayer. When she left, I moved closer to examine the velvet draped over the statue. It was covered in milagros – physical manifestations of hope and honor, all carefully placed by believers who had traveled many miles to get there.
I am equal parts fascinated and moved by the representation of immediate need and devotion and by the greater history surrounding the use of milagros. The Catholic Church does not officially recognize milagros as sacred objects. Instead, their significance is derived from their continued (and, at times, subversive) use, which dates back to between the fifth and first centuries B.C. in what is now Spain. These powerful adornments and the practices associated with them have traveled through many centuries and cultures. They are at once deeply individualized and indicative of shared desires and beliefs that transcend time, place, and religious convention.