Collecting Milagros

An ancient custom in Hispanic folk culture
has led to some interesting contemporary jewelry.

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Kneeling Figure

The 1988 premiere of Robert Redford's movie, The Milagro Beanfield War, caused many non-Spanish-speaking people to ponder the milagro part of the title. In Spanish, milagro literally means miracle or surprise; in the movie, milagro refers to the miraculous greening of a long fallow beanfield. Milagro also refers to an ancient aspect of Hispanic folk culture: small silver or gold votive offerings in the shape of arms, legs, eyes and other body parts; animals, fruits, vegetables, etc. These milagros are often attached to statues of saints or to the walls of certain New Mexican churches--and now are also found as components in necklaces, earrings and other jewelry.

In the classical sense, milagros (also known as ex-votos or dijes) are offered to a favorite saint as a reminder of the petitioner's particular need, or they are offered to the saint in thanks for a prayer answered.

If, for example, someone has a sore arm, a tiny silver arm is hung on or near the favorite saint; the farmer who hopes that his pig will bear him many healthy piglets, asks his patron saint for intercession, and pins a pig milagro on the saint's robe. Milagros can be flat, three dimensional, tiny or large; they can be of gold, silver, wood, lead, tin, bone, wax or whatever the petitioner desires. Traditionally, milagros can be specially made by a silversmith for the occasion, or ready-made milagros can be purchased from a vendor's stand outside the church. Many milagros have been recycled by the church for when the parish priest determines that the saint's statue is over-laden with milagros, he sells them back to the religious goods vendor.

The use of milagros is an ancient custom in the Hispanic world, traceable to the Iberians who inhabited the coastal regions of Spain between the fifth and first centuries before Christ. Tiny bronze milagros, nearly identical to contemporary ones, can be seen in Spain's archaeological museums. Although the custom is not as prevalent as it once was, the use of milagros or ex-votos continues to be an important part of folk culture throughout rural areas of Spain—particularly Andalusia, Catalonia and Majorca—as well as other parts of the Mediterranean, especially Italy, Crete and Greece.

Milagros as votive offerings accompanied the Spanish into the New World; their use has been documented in nearly all areas of the Hispanic Americas. As is true of many aspects of the conquistadores' Hispanic Catholicism, the custom of offering milagros to the saints dove-tailed neatly with Native American religious practices.

Legs and Hands

The Native American culture had existing customs surrounding the use of amulets, talismans and votive offerings. (As the amulet/talisman/milagro display at the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe clearly shows, the practice of using such tangible symbols as prayer aids and as protection for oneself, loved ones, animals and property, exists in folk cultures throughout the world.)

Local customs vary in those parts of Latin American where milagros are still being used. In Brazil, where African influence is strong, milagros are primarily used as amulets and talismans, and are worn about the neck or wrist; milagros are also used to intercede with the saints. In coastal regions of Peru, silver milagros of fish, fishing boats (some nearly life-size) and fishermen once filled seaside chapels to help fishermen obtain good catches and to return safely from the sea. Unfortunately, these milagros have suffered the same fate as millions of one-of-a-kind silver or gold milagros, and have been destroyed for their metal content.

In Guatemala, as elsewhere, milagros are used as prayer offerings; but in addition, silver milagros/dijes have a talismanic function and are worn as part of women's chachales (silver chain necklaces with silver coin, coral, glass trade beads, etc). Certain bird and animal dijes in a woman's chachale may refer to her nahual—the bird or animal reflective of her personal spirit, her animistic alter-ego.

The use and prevalence of milagros is most noticeable in Mexico, where entire altars are coated with tiny silver milagros, and where statues of the saints are literally festooned with them. Small, flat, stamped Mexican milagros made in a village near Guadalahara are those most commonly seen in the United States. While they may be silver or gold in color, they are rarely of true silver or gold. It is thought that the relatively recent use of milagros in New Mexico came north from Mexico with immigrants.

Today, one sees a variety of milagros offered for sale in New Mexico. Occasionally one can find old Peruvian, Bolivian, Guatemalan, Mexican or Ecuadorian milagros, but they are not common. Sterling silver reproductions of old milagros from all parts of Latin America, hand-finished in New Mexico, are available in various shops and museum stores. The milagros most commonly offered for sale in New Mexico are the thumbnail-sized, silver-washed, flat Mexican milagros. Sometimes they have been tacked onto a cross made of old wood, or a wooden shoe last. While the Mexican faithful certainly have hung milagros on wooden crosses as prayer offerings, it is unlikely that the milagros crosses which one sees for sale are historical pieces; the crosses and shoe lasts are nonetheless decorative, ingenious ways of displaying a collection of milagros.

Apart from the contemporary use of milagros as decorative elements, milagros as symbols have new uses and meanings in New Mexico these days. If a friend is about to have an eye operation, the gift of a eye milagro helps to say, "I wish you well." A pair of lungs can say, "I hope your cold gets better." An arm and a leg given to a couple trying to buy a house can wish them good luck obtaining financing. An ear milagro can suggest that someone be a better listener. An axe milagro might suggest that a relationship should end.

Milagros then, are not solely religious items, nor are they only for collecting. They are part of the magical and symbolic past common to all cultures which continues to influence our lives today. Whether used traditionally or in modern ways, milagros are an ongoing part of a fascinating folk culture in New Mexico and elsewhere.

Thanks to Martha Egan and Pachamama pic Santa Fe, NM.

Photographs by Cecilia Portal.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Albuquerque Metro Area - Volume 3

Related Pages

Relicarios: Devotional Miniatures article
Traditional New Mexican Hispanic Crafts article
The Pomegranate in New Spain article

Hispanic and Native Churches in Albuquerque article
Museum of Spanish Colonial Art article
Three Hispanic New Mexico Metal Traditions article

Collector’s Resources

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