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
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.