The image shows an imprisoned man. Words in Spanish below the simply painted picture read: “With the present retablo, I ask the Lord of the Conquest to permit that they give me my freedom in the United States. San Felipe, Guanajuato, Juan Jose Sánches C. October 10, 1990.” Seeing this image stirred in me a recognition of our current situation: a man with outstretched arms appears to wait incarcerated behind bars — perhaps a detention center. Beyond the walls, Jesus on the cross floats in a cloud, powerfully present in his suffering, able to transfigure all things and unlock all doors to freedom.
I recently spent some time with the 'Miracles on the Border/Milagros en la Frontera' exhibit (March 16-July 7) at the Princeton University Art Museum. I first encountered retablos (also known as ex-votos) in Mexico City, where whole walls of churches and museums are plated with the small devotional thanksgiving paintings. They are stitched side by side with icons, sacred hearts, and photos of people who have been healed or connected to intercession. A physical quilt of gratitude for each answered prayer.
Retablos tell stories of gratitude to Christ or a specific saint/devotional icon for granting someone healing or mercy; many begin with “Doy infinitas gracias” ("I give infinite thanks"). Retablos give thanks for many things: recovery from illness, forgiveness of a debt, the healing of children.
The Milagros exhibit reframes the use of the retablo. Each small painting on a flat aluminum canvas records an agradecimiento related to cross-border migration: safe journeys of family members across rivers, freedom from security incarceration, healing from illness, a safe return to the homeland. The Milagros exhibit collects retablos from the early 20thcentury to the 1990s, showing the constancy and history of the faithful making this journey across the border and back again.
These retablos reflect on the faith that people had to begin the journey of migration, entering a foreign land. Often leaving family and home into the unknown, on a journey that is fraught with peril but also promise. Young fathers and mothers, children of families who will pray for them daily as they go. As the exhibit description mentioned, these retablos "depict a side of migration usually not told in statistical reports or even in detailed interviews of migrants."
Stories We Tell
In the first primary debate for the 2020 election, Democratic presidential candidates were brought to a standstill every few minutes with questions about immigration — camps, detention centers, border practices that separate children from their parents, putting babies on trial without representation, remembering a father with his small child who had recently died on their journey. Speaking of 25-year-old Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, who lost their lives crossing the Rio Grande and were made famous in what became a viral image of their lifeless bodies, Julián Castro said, “It should piss us all off.”
Disturbing images like that of Martinez and his daughter, which reveal a horrific but truthful tale of the risk and crisis at the United States southern border, are also indicative of the sensational narrative around migration in this era. As someone who creates images and tells stories for a living, I find myself questioning the oversharing of trauma for the consumption of the “concerned.”
“I just have to share,” some people write.
In exposing these brutalities via images for a voyeur culture, are we helping? Are we extending a dehumanizing narrative? These images create a deeper separation of our individual humanity from the faceless person we interpret as weak, broken, migrant, lost.
There’s a saying that goes: “Migration is a human right.” The beauty of the retablos is that people migrating from one side of the U.S.-Mexico border to the other are giving thanks for their safety, or their family members’ safety on the journey. In these retablos, we witness stories not only of the trauma and peril of migration, but also victory of the faithful. They are kneeling before God by the banks of a river or on the border itself, marking it as sacred. They are putting their lives in God’s hands, in faith that another phase of life and work is possible. This journey continues today – in caravans, in the desert, across borders.
In many of these humble stories painted onto tin, someone is returning home from a period of work in the U.S., a normal experience among people who migrate to and from Latin America. People who are undocumented or who have found their way through the immigration system to become legal residents often send money back home to families in places where there is little opportunity for work, where conflict threatens lives, and where climate change is changing agricultural industries.
While the crisis at the border demands our attention and action, migration should not only be depicted as traumatic or explosive. How can people migrating be viewed as beautiful, or even, as the Milagros exhibit proposes, a miracle? An abundant vision of the land is possible which says, “There is room for everyone. Migration will make our country better, stronger, fuller.” How could a shift of vision change the stories we tell of people crossing to a new land?
These little snapshots in the retablos of thanksgiving, told from migrants’ own voices and out of their faith, are a reminder that crossing the border is not meant to be a ruinous enterprise. Migration is a human right because people have a right to move. For many, this movement is a gift from God. As God said to Isaac, when he was fleeing a famine, " Stay as a foreigner in this land and I will be with you and bless you." (Genesis 26:3). A safe crossing is a part of an interpretation of God’s faithfulness. Isn’t that true for all of us? When we arrive safely at a new place, we are grateful we went safely along the journey, or that we found ourselves back at home. These retablos are pictures of that experience of gratitude we all share for safe passage.