Introduction - Historical Context and Contemporary practice
This discussion is based on an analysis of data from an ethnographic study that investigates the “body politic” of representations of gender, race and class in 20th Century health-related Mexican ex-voto retablos. Ex-voto retablos are small paintings depicting a “miraculous event” in which a saint cures, rescues or otherwise aids the supplicant; thousands of these paintings are found placed on or near the image of key saints in chapels, shrines and basilicas throughout central-western Mexico. A syncretic practice derived from both European and Indigenous traditions, 20th century ex-voto retablos are made by anonymous popular artists who are commissioned by the recipient of the miracle to make the painting; once completed, the retablo is taken to the holy site or shrine where the saint resides. At the individual level, the popular practice of offering retablos in return for receiving saintly intercession is central to both the healing process and to expressions of religious faith. At the level of society, the retablo it is also a reflection of the “body politic” – social and political ills, hopes and concerns - of Mexican society.
Major pilgrimage sites and saints are located along the Camino Real in Central Mexico, and include: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico City; El Señor de Chalma in the State of Mexico; Nuestra Señora del Patrocinio in Cerro de la Bufa, Zacatecas; Nuestra Señora de Ocotlán in Tlaxcala; San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco; and Santo Niño de Atocha in Fresnillo, Zacatecas. While the retablo practice blends catholic and indigenous elements, the Indigenous aspects of the ex-voto practice are embedded within in larger practices and events that take place at the pilgrimage sites, such as:
Indigenous Symbols in Sawdust in church plaza (at Chalma)
Ahuehuete Tree and sacred stream at Chalma
Traditional herbal remedies, Milagros of silver at Nuestra Senora de Saluds in Patzcuaro, Michoacan
The popular practice of offering retablos in return for receiving saintly intercession can only be understood if located w/I its historical and contemporary context and is central to both the healing process and to expressions of religious faith. At the level of society, the retablo it is also a reflection of the “body politic” – social and political ills, hopes and concerns - of Mexican society.
Research Methods: Structure of the Project
There are two data sets for the project: 1) Approximately 300 digital ex-voto retablo images (dating from 1797-2006) from collections in museums, the internet, and photographs taken at shrines, and 2) Ethnographic data gathered from participant observation at pilgrimage sites (1997-2005). Analysis of the ex-voto retablo itself entails coding and quantifying (using SPSS and Excel) images and textual data for themes based on gender race and class. Participant observation and social mapping - provides additional information about the socio-historical and political-economic contexts in which the retablo practice is embedded. This paper is unique in that most studies of the modern and contemporary ex-voto or votive painting practices focus on the content of the paintings without linking such practices to the larger socio-historical context in which they are embedded.
Findings and Significance of the Study
Much of the spiritual and/or religious aspects of healing have been divorced from modern healing modalities (i.e. biomedicine). Some contemporary societies do, however, have deep-rooted traditions which link Catholic and indigenous spiritual beliefs to health events and healing practices - the 20th century Mexican ex-voto retablo is such an example. Yet very little research into the social and health implications of Mexican ex-voto retablos has been done. Existing literature highlights key “themes” depicted in retablos including, maritime activities, migration, agriculture, natural disasters, mining, travel, accidents, and surgery, war and politics, however to date no analysis exists of specifically health-related themes or of gender/race/class themes. Previous research has also only superficially analyzed how gender, race and class are depicted in retablos. The dearth of literature is remarkable considering the relevance of these social characteristics in my analysis.
The Body Politic of the Retablo – From Colonialization to Globalization
Given women’s role as the primary caretakers of the household, it is not surprising that women are ‘majority’ (50%) of supplicants featured in retablos, and men are the slight majority (46.4%) of recipients (Table 1).
Table 1: Gender of Supplicant and Recipient
Table 2: Relationships of Supplicant and Recipient
Interestingly, the vast majority of retablos are commissioned for oneself (52%), followed by couples/family (approximately 25%)(Table 2). Given that most retablos are commissioned by women for themselves, the majority deal with themes (Tables 3 & 4) directly connected to health concerns, including: recovering from a grave illness or operation (51%), avoiding or recovering from an accident or natural disaster (19%) and children’s illness (7%) or childbirth itself (7%).
Table 3: Health Themes
Recover/Avoid Accident or Natural Disaster
Favors Granted: Misc
Recover/avoid Accident or Natural Disaster
-- de Octubre de 1924 al s– el campo el union de mi familia, fui atropeado por un Ford que --- En el momento me invoque de corazon el Sr de Chalma la Stma Virgen de Guadalupe y Quede Sano y salvo este retablo lo dedico– Paulino Guerrero.
Approximately 19% of retablos were also commissioned for “favors granted” (Table 4). “Favors” - which range from giving thanks for prosperity, saving livestock, surviving travel (weather/attack), surviving the Revolution, avoiding jail and relationship success – tend to be representative of two primary human concerns: work and relationships.
Table 4: “Favors Granted”
Avoid shame from jail/crime
En el ano de 1897 venia Pedro Martines con su familia en un barco del Puerto de Veracruz y encontrecio que como alas ---de la noche del dia 10 de Marzo del mismo – iva a naufragear la embarcacion por --- Martines y su familia hagandose --- a la milagrosa imagen del Sr. del ---.
The Political Economy of Retablos
While gender roles are obvious, the race and class elements of the retablo itself are often ambiguous, yet become clear when situating the retablo within the larger social context of its final resting place. It is only by viewing the retablo within the larger socio-geographical context that it becomes possible to understand the “political economy” of the retablo art form. For example, pilgrims are usually from rural areas and/or small towns, and are largely working class; this is not immediately evident in the subject matter of retablo paintings because the supplicants are often depicted as more upwardly mobile than they really are. A visit to any pilgrimage site reveals that the vast majority of people at the site at any given time – whether they are pilgrims or vendors – do not match up to the representation of class or ethnicity (in terms of dress, phenotype, language, etc.) within the retablo painting(s). As may be expected from the content of retablos, the majority of pilgrims are women and children and the elderly, however a significant number of men –both young and old- do participate in this practice.
A symbiotic relationship exists between the pilgrims and the vendors that proliferate at each site. Pilgrims, many of whom travel on foot long distances, purchase the goods of vendors selling food, lodging, and religious artifacts and thereby support a burgeoning informal economy.
Santo Nina de Atocha, Fresnillo, Zacatecas
Santo Nina de Atocha, Fresnillo, Zacatecas
Pilgrims at Fresnillo
Pilgrims at Fresnillo
Vendors at Fresnillo
The cultural consumption of the Retablo as a collectible
Given its popular nature, the retablo is highly collectible and there are several significant museum (and private) collections (Table 6). The retablo in both its contemporary and traditional forms became even more popular as Latin artists, Frida Khalo in particular, who used the retablo format in much of her art and who along with Diego Rivera amassed one of the most extensive private retablo collections, displayed on the walls of the stairway in the Blue House in Coyoacan. Other private collectors have managed to purchase old (and now valuable) retablos via the internet (Table 5) and private dealers, some of whom have “recovered” retablos from pilgrimage sites. Indeed, currently, there is a growing “black market” in recovered retablos, as evidenced by numerous websites that sell such items at prices much greater than the original cost.
Table 5: The “black market” in the collection and sale of retablos on the internet
Table 6: Museum Collections
Krannert Art Museum: http://www.kam.uiuc.edu/exhibitions.cfm?show=archives
New Mexico State University: http://artdepartment.nmsu.edu/faculty/zarursite/retablo/
The rationalization of collectors and sellers for “recovering” retablos (with or without authorization) from pilgrimage sites is that the retablos are left to the elements (such as wasp nests, bird guano, wind/rain, etc.) and that there are so many left at sites that it is impossible to display them all properly. Given the cultural value in preserving this popular art form, there is certainly a need to more systematically preserve, catalogue and display retablos at major pilgrimage sites.
Retablos stored in Fresnillo
I show that while the practice of offering votive paintings at pilgrimage sites in Mexico is deeply informed by the Colonization of the Americas and the historical syncretic co-evolution of European-Catholic and Pre-Colonial Indigenous religious and healing practices, the contemporary votive painting offers a re-affirmation of individual spiritual and medical empowerment in the face of Globalization and neoliberal economic and social policies that shift much of the burden of providing public welfare from the state to the citizen. In the face of the expansion of neoliberal global capitalism, decreasing health care budgets and smaller social safety net in general for most citizens, the retablo practice shows the enduring importance of individual expressions of spiritual faith and empowerment in surviving and healing the somatic expressions of the wounds of colonization and globalization.