Images of Popular Devotion: The Ex-voto Paintings of Mexican Immigrants

The content of contemporary ex-voto paintings in Mexico reflects specific sociocultural shifts taking place during the last half of the twentieth century.

In memory of Distinguished Professor David L. Craven, University of New Mexico

The rituals of popular religion in Mexico are different from those of the religion prescribed by the clergy. However, they are also different from the dissident religious practices that oppose the cultural tradition of the dominant social elite. In popular, or folk, religion people can have a “direct” relationship with God or particular saints without needing a clerical intermediary. As Eline L. Argaz and Michele M. Beltran argue, popular religiosity in Mexican society “recognizes no perceptible barriers between natural and supernatural, to which all else is subordinated: life, activities involving the natural world, and economic and political problems.” ((Eline L. Argaz and Michele M. Beltran, “Powerful Images: Mexican Ex-Votos” in Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition, eds. Elizabeth Netto Calil Zarur and Charles Muir Lovell (New Mexico: University of Albuquerque Press, 2001), 71.)) In the Mexican context, the basis of popular religion largely includes votive offerings of gratitude after surviving a terrible event or condition. For example, despite its secular elements, the ex-voto (literally, “from a vow”) tradition in Mexico has continued to enable a “direct” relationship with the divine and to deconstruct the dogma of the church.

During the twentieth century, a discernable shift took place in the content of ex-voto paintings, which illustrated the convergence of popular religion with the ramifications of border-crossing among Mexican immigrants. The practical religious function of these forms of artwork has evolved in Mexican society, partially because of the immigration phenomenon in the last half of the twentieth century. While ex-voto paintings are physical objects that form a channel between the divine and the people, they are also important documents that record this social drama. These painting provide historical, ethnographical, and literary evidence of socio-economic circumstances of the Mexican–United States immigration from the perspective of the immigrants. ((See Jorge Durand and Douglas S. Massey, Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States (Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1995).))

Labor immigration from Mexico to the United States has a long historical tradition dating from the late nineteenth century into the present. ((See John M. Hart, Border Crossings: Mexican and Mexican-American Workers (Delaware: SR Books, 1998).)) However, it has intensified greatly over the last three decades. While global economy has grown to integrate many countries in the aegis of neoliberal politics, immigration policies have been formulated according to the needs of the developed countries. ((See Jorge Durand, Douglas S. Massey, and Nolan J. Malone, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in and Age of Economic Integration (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002).)) In the United States today, the undocumented immigrants are far from a peripheral presence in either social or economic terms. Not only do those immigrants contribute to the United States’ economy as cheap labor and the source of accumulated surplus, their purchasing power sustains millions of dollars. ((See Elizabeth Fussel, “Sources of Mexico’s Migration Stream: Rural, Urban, and Border Migrants to the United States,” Social Forces 82, no. 3 (2004): 937-967; and Walter A. Ewing, “From Denial to Acceptance: Effectively Regulating Immigration to the United States,” Immigration Policy in Focus 3, no. 5 (2004).))

For the immigrants from Mexico, making the dangerous crossing of the United States border is not always a matter of choice. Intense poverty, due to Mexican economic conditions, compels many poor workers to seek work “el otro lado,” on the other side of the border. Without rural credit, training and reeducation programs, or health, nutrition, and family planning aid in their local environment, many will continue to assemble in Mexico’s northern states to seek low-paying, dead-end jobs and/or look for work in the United States, taking life threatening risks while crossing the border. As a result of United States border security policies, more immigrants are dying in the deserts of the Southwest while attempting to cross the border. Many fall prey to people smugglers, which is now the second profitable business after drug trafficking across the border. ((See Jacqueline Hagan, et al. “Death at the Border,” International Migration Review 33, no. 2 (1999): 430-454; Ken Ellingwood, Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S — Mexico Border (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004); and Wayne A. Cornelius, “Death at the Border: The Efficacy and Unintended Consequences of U.S. Immigration Control Policy, 1993-2000,” Population and Development Review 27, no. 4 (2001): 661-685.)) If they can make it to the other side of the “great tortilla curtain,” they experience racism, xenophobia, discrimination, and various hostilities on a day-to-day basis. Most Mexican immigrants who come to the United States have little or no education, limited employment skills, and lack the knowledge of how things function in the United States. ((See Oscar J. Martinez, U.S- Mexico Borderlands: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1996) and Border People: Life and society in the U.S — Mexico Borderlands (Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1994); and Pablo Vila, Ethnography on the Border (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).))

Living a clandestine life, those immigrants cannot exercise their legal rights and seek legal or medical help. They cannot openly protest low wages, poor working conditions, violations of labor laws, or sexual assaults. Being deprived of economic and social power, and living with the threat of deportation over their heads, when immigrants cannot seek healthcare or legal help they invoke divine powers for assistance when they are sick, have legal problems, are in life-threatening situations, and so forth. For many of them, religion serves as the only lifeline for their survival. They profoundly believe that God and the saints play a major role in their daily lives; therefore, they do not consider ex-votos an archaic superstitious behavior, but a reasonable act. Votive objects are a part of the migrant’s daily life, aiding him or her in surviving terrible economic and social conditions, thus providing a spiritual connection and cultural anchor to the homeland and community they left behind. Today, shrines throughout Mexico contain countless votive offerings hung or pinned near the image of a deity or a divine object, and this tradition is still very much alive in popular culture practices.

When a practicing Catholic needs divine assistance, he or she can make a direct appeal to Christ or an indirect appeal through the Virgin Mary and other saints. In Catholic Europe, Latin America, and some parts of the United States, where there is a significant Latin American immigrant population, this religious plea is often combined with a folk custom in which the petitioner vows to offer certain gifts and carry out certain rituals. ((In Southern Arizona and Mexico this vow is known as manda, meaning “offer,” or “proposal,” and could be thought of as an agreement or contract between a person and a celestial being. See Eileen Octavec, Answered Prayers: Miracles and Milagros Along the Border (Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1995), 28.)) Those gifts can take the form of any material votive object such as paintings, metal carvings or sculptures, money, flowers, candles, jewelry, and ribbons. ((The term milagros is used in this regard, and can refer to almost any object used as a testimony to a miracle, including cut or cast metal body parts, locks of hair, x-ray plates, pictures (recently passports), and hospital identification bracelets.)) When a gift is offered, the vow should be completed by making the pilgrimage to the shrine to bring the gift to Christ or the appropriate saint. Ex-voto is a Latin term that means “from a vow,” suggesting that those objects are votive gifts in return of divine favors. ((Durand and Massey, Miracles on the Border, 39.)) At the shrine or sacred place, the saint or divine being whose aid one seeks is evoked and a vow is spoken. When the prayer is granted, the votive object (the ex-voto painting) is offered to the spirit of the shrine as a token of the vow and is hung there for all to see. In the language of ex-voto painting, the representation of the supernatural, the human being with worldly troubles, and the text come together to depict the quest of the faithful to speak to the divine without interrupting the hierarchies between them.

In Europe, votive paintings and sculptures traditionally focused on saints and their relics, and in the years following the Conquest in the Americas, the relics remained largely in newly established cathedrals and monasteries where only a few members of the elite were exposed to them. ((The first votive paintings in New Spain are thought to have been made by the elite and have been kept in sanctuaries like Tepayac or Remedios in Mexico City. See Argaz and Beltran, 71.)) In the nineteenth century, with the dissemination of popular religion, the need for objects of popular devotion was not met by saints’ relics, but by sacred images of Christ and the Virgin. ((Argaz and Beltran, 71.)) Often made by untrained local artists, who did not have access to European masters’ drawings or prints, these images were considered miraculous throughout local folk religiosity.

During the nineteenth century, after its independence from Spain in 1821, more than thirty changes to the government took place in Mexico. This instability led to attempts by reform governments to limit the Roman Catholic Church’s power. Popular religiosity emerged when the shift of power of the political, as well as theological, elite occurred under thriving industrial capitalism. ((See Solange Alberro, “Retablos and Popular Religion in the Nineteenth-Century Mexico” in Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition, eds. Elizabeth Netto Calil Zarur and Charles Muir Lovell (New Mexico: University of Albuquerque Press, 2001); and Gloria F. Giffords, “The Art of Private Devotion: Retablo Painting of Mexico” in Art of Private Devotion: Retablo Painting of Mexico, ed. Elizabeth Mills (Texas: Inter-cultural and the Meadows Museum, 1991), 14.)) Consequently, ex-voto paintings were embraced by the peasant-turned-proletariat class as a means for hope to survive and to pay back the divine favor. In most instances, the images offered formed the only realm visible for the faithful who sought the help of a transcendent power in a painfully deprived world. Experiences of physical pain, such as health problems, accidents of every kind, mental depression, surgical operations, as well as less tormenting troubles such as escaping the military draft, acquiring a car or a house, finding a job, and passing through a test, could be the subject of an ex-voto painting.

The ex-voto paintings attempt to contextualize the devotional acts of thanksgiving through both graphic rendition and the narrative accounts. They use both pictorial and verbal language with a double narrative organized around the picture plane. Although constructed as an artistic tradition, complex literary and narrative elements make the ex-voto tradition a unique and authentic Mexican literary practice as well. Moreover, the “act of reading” the ex-voto in the shrine by other devotees is a spiritual experience, and this kind of experience affirms and augments a sense of belonging within the community.

In those extraordinary paintings, different pictorial effects are sought and achieved by different classes. For example, up to the eighteenth century, the ex-votos made for the wealthy were concerned with ostentatious appearances. When the practice became popular among the masses in the nineteenth century, it became important to emphasize the simple nature of the practice in extraordinary conditions, and the picture plane was depicted with more modest elements. In general, the image of the invoked saint appears in the upper section, the action or miracle is portrayed in the middle section, and the written text can be found in the lower section. In some twentieth-century pieces, depending on the artist’s oeuvre, the text might shift to the middle, to the corner, or to the upper part of the ex-voto. Regardless of its position in the work, the text describes the dangerous situation that was overcome and briefly gives thanks to the saint. Most importantly, the text serves as a testimony to the reality of a specific time and place, as well as the private life of the person who commissioned the ex-voto.

As anthropologists Durand and Massey document, for the last three decades, the majority of ex-votos in Central Mexico’s shrines have been those of Mexican immigrants, and the most frequent subject is the dangers of border crossings. ((Examples of these shrines are those of el Señor de Villaseca, or the black Christ, on the outskirts of Guadalajara; el Señor de la Conquista (Lord of the Conquest), also known as el Señor de los Milagros (Our Lord of Miracles) in San Felipe, Guanajuato; and La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos (the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes) in San Juan de los Lagos, Jalisco. See Durand and Massey, Miracles on the Border, 46-47.)) In their experience of crossing the border, immigrants encounter considerable risks and various dangers that result from the measures taken by authorities and lawmakers to restrict those crossings. Ex-voto paintings are not only extraordinary objects vowed, commissioned, and offered by people in need of divine assistance crossing the border, they also provide more complete and tangible data on the immigration phenomenon by being a material reflection of emotions, fears, hopes, dreams, and gratitude of those people who migrate back and forth.

Typical of such ex-votos is that of Manuel Chávez (see image above). Three young men are trying to cross the desert under the night sky, while far away under the image of the Virgin of San Juan, a miniscule black figure prays and makes a vow in the background. The text reads: “I give thanks to the Holy Virgin for having saved us from dying of hunger and thirst in the desert close to California. We were lost for three days in the year of 1947. Manuel Chávez November 1989.” ((Translation by author.)) As conveyed by the text, the incident took place forty-two years before this ex-voto was painted. There could be several explanations for this kind of delay. Some illegal immigrants settle in the United States for many years in order to not take the risk of an illegal crossing, and also, in many cases, to wait for an opportunity that will grant them legal rights and eventual citizenship. In such conditions, if one does not have a family member who could make the pilgrimage in the name of the immigrant and place the ex-voto in the shrine where the vow was made, the act could be delayed many years.

Before the twentieth century, ex-voto paintings were almost always anonymous, perhaps because they were simply trade objects and were not conceived of as works of art; their creators were simply doing their jobs. But, most importantly, these works were executed for the commemoration of a miracle, not for the glorification of the artist in the Eurocentric sense. Until the mid-twentieth century in Mexico, retables (see note below) and ex-voto paintings were considered inferior to the European examples of “fine art”; therefore, many middle-class and upper-class Mexicans did not think they were worthy of collecting or preserving. ((Gloria F. Giffords, Mexican Folk Retablos, revised ed. (New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1992), iv. Ex-votos, although they share the style and medium with retablos, serve different purposes. The term retablo comes from the Latin retro-tabuala, which means “behind the alter table.” According to Gloria F. Giffords, the origins of the retablo can be traced to the early Christian reliquary boxes that were placed at the rear of the altar, and later, in the thirteenth century, to the altar frontals and apse murals in Spain. See Giffords, “The Art of Private Devotion,” 14.)) Thanks to the Mexican Modernists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who collected and exhibited ex-voto paintings in their home, an appreciation for them as an art form was fostered in the mid-twentieth century. Since then, these paintings have become favorable objects for collectors of Mexican folk art and are bought and sold in art galleries, tourist shops, and on the Internet. As a result of this demand from a “different” market, some artists have started producing ex-votos directly for the collectors and have begun signing their names.

During the late 1950s, ex-votos first entered the market to be bought and sold in the galleries in Mexico and the United States. In the 1960s, they attracted the attention of anthropologists and art historians. Soon after Gloria F. Giffords canonized these as works of art, they took their place among exhibitions of colonial and folk art in Mexico. Mainly, as a result of this demand from the art market – a different market for which they traditionally produced these works – the painters of ex-votos began signing their names and assuming authorship. Today, in Mexico, due to the easy access to technologies of mechanical and electronic reproduction, votive offerings come in many different forms and through many different mediums: photographs and copies of passports, green cards, and diplomas cover the walls of the sanctuaries. Even the ex-voto paintings themselves are sometimes made in a different medium; if copper plating cannot be used, which is a costly and rare, though desired, material, the artists come up with creative solutions, such as embroidering the ex-voto on a piece of cloth or painting it on glass or plastic.

Ex-voto paintings can also be appreciated as special thanksgivings to the divine figure believed to have helped heal or rescue the immigrant(s) from physical damage or certain death, as well as the hardships of daily life. For the undocumented immigrants, crossing the border into the United States is a test of their physical endurance, their character, ingenuity, desperation, as well as their faith. These paintings serve as material reflections of the emotions, fears, hopes, dreams, and gratitude of unprivileged people; thus, they are also documents that record social and economic changes in a society, such as the complex phenomenon of immigration. The practice itself augments the sense of belonging within the community and strengthens the cultural networks, which is crucial for the survival of the immigrants confronting dire socio-economic circumstances. Although the aesthetic manifestations and forms of votive offerings have changed over time in Mexico, the tradition has remained a popular devotional practice for the faithful that deconstructs the dogma of the clergy and persists in establishing a “direct” relationship with the divine in times of desperation. The painful process of immigration produces poignant visual manifestations that address and give attention to the various dimensions of dislocation and oppression. Thus, the production and reception of ex-voto paintings further testifies to the contemporary relevance and convergence of popular art and popular religion through their engagement of transnational social processes.

Discussion and Comments

  1. great articles!