Divine intervention is a concept that provides hope and sanctity in the everyday lives of those in need, and believers in the phenomenon often express their gratitude with the giving of gifts or offerings. This gesture of thanks is traditionally known as ex-voto. The origins of ex-voto are far from recent, with figurines found in sacred places across Latin America, suggesting that the practice began even before colonisation.
Nowadays, this tradition of repaying deities for the miracles they have granted continues to thrive in countries throughout the continent and has captured the attention of the world thanks to Mexico's unusual pictures, or retablitos. This form of popular art has inspired the creation of online spaces and art exhibitions dedicated to them.
According to the blog Descubre México, the ex-voto image should illustrate the scene of the event in a detailed and descriptive manner. It is also important to have an accompanying explanatory text, enabling the viewer to understand better the scene. The retablito usually depicts the virgin or saint that is being thanked, and believers glorify them by placing it at the shrine.
The central scene of the ex-voto depicts the circumstances before the divine intervention. During the 18th and 19th centuries, these retablitos expressed fears of deadly illnesses and of dangers that travelers might face on their long journeys:
However, the themes of the retablos are changing with the times, revealing new cultural anxieties. The bustle of today's city life has created new problems and insecurities, and urban violence and the risks associated with it have come to play a powerful role in the public psyche. Immersed in a society where there is less and less place for religion, devotees beg the saints for divine intervention in situations as diverse as games of wrestling, homophobia, or married life:
Cuando éramos novios Elisa era muy celosa y el día de nuestra boda hizo tal coraje después del banquete [de bodas] que murió de indigestión. Después de tres años de haber quedado viudo decidí casarme de nuevo y conocí a una linda y buena muchacha con la que me casé, y después [de] que regresamos de la luna de miel el fantasma de Elisa se empezó a aparecer en nuestro cuarto y se veía muy enojada y nos miraba con rencor y furia y a mi me dio mucho miedo y le recé a la Virgen de Zapopan [advocación mariana de la ciudad y municipio de Jalisco] y traje al cura que echó agua bendita en la casa y doy gracias porque Elisa por fin descansa en paz y nosotros podemos estar tranquilos en la casa sin su mirada acusadora.
When we were engaged. Elisa was very jealous and on our wedding day she got herself so worked up that she died of indigestion. After three years of being widowed, I decided to remarry and I met a kind and beautiful woman whom I married. After we got back from the honeymoon, Elisa's ghost appeared in our room and she looked very angry and she watched us with resentment and rage, and it really scared me, [so] I prayed to the Virgin of Zapopan and I brought the priest round who threw holy water in the house. I give thanks to Elisa for finally resting in peace and now we too can be at peace in our house without her accusing look.
Desde pequeña yo era fea y recibí muchas burlas y rechazos por eso, pero no me acomplejé y nunca perdí mi sentido del humor y gracias a ese sentido del humor, Francisco, que es uno de los hombres más guapos del pueblo, se enamoró de mi y doy gracias a san Antonio porque nos casamos en una hermosa ceremonia donde fui envidiada por todos mis compañeros y conocidos.
Ever since I was little I've always been ugly and I was mocked and rejected for my looks, but I didn't let it get to me and I never lost my sense of humour and thanks to that sense of humour, Francisco, who is one of the most handsome men in the town, fell in love with me and I give thanks to Saint Antonio because we got married in a beautiful ceremony where I was the envy of all my friends and acquaintances.
On Facebook and Tumblr, you can find accounts dedicated, almost entirely, to the Mexican ex-voto. Displayed on these pages are retablitos with subjects ranging from the traditional themes of illnesses being cured, to more contemporary pieces relating to domestic violence, undiscovered infidelities, and even prostitutes looking for clients to support their families.
Gracias virgencita de Guadalupe que mi esposo ya no me pega tanto. Te pedí y tú me lo concediste y ahora nos queremos tanto que soy muy feliz y aquí te lo vengo a agradecer. María Torres. Mayo 10, 1970
Thank you, Virgin of Guadalupe, now my husband doesn't hit me so much. I asked you and you granted my wish and now we love each other so much that I am happy and I have come here to thank you.
It's no surprise that in a country like Mexico, where undocumented immigration to the US is a huge issue, you can find lots of retablitos relating to the border between the two countries. Many immigrants have made ex-votos giving thanks for having crossed the border, for the success of a medical treatment in the neighbouring country or even for marriage to a US citizen.
In this video, shared by YouTube user Paurake, we see a sequence of “border ex-votos” expressing the gratitude of travelers who managed to get out of a US prison or who managed to pass by immigration authorities unnoticed. The retablitos in the video features various testimonies from migrants and their families giving thanks for being able to see their loved ones again, or for having survived the many dangers that come with crossing the border:
Dedico el presente retablo a la santísima Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos por haberme salvado de [que] un texano me llevara […] Me escondí debajo de un árbol con mi hermanito a la orilla de la carretera.
I dedicate this retablo to the sacred Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos for having saved me from being taken by a Texan… I hid beneath a tree with my little brother on the edge of the street.