Mexican Retablos (Jorge Durand and Douglas Massey)

Artstor has collaborated with Douglas Massey to present 170 images of Mexican retablos in the Digital Library. Massey is Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. His research focuses on international migration, particularly Mexican immigration for the United States. Since 1988, Massey has collaborated with long–time colleague, Jorge Durand, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Guadalajara, collecting and studying retablos — religious folk art produced for Mexican migrants to the United States. Together, they co–authored Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States (University of Arizona Press, 1995), in which they examined individual retablos as sources of sociological data for the migration experience. Massey photographed the retablos that appeared in Miracles on the Border, and has contributed the digitized images to Artstor, along with other images of retablos taken by him and Durand.

Mexican retablos are small, colorful oil paintings, generally made on tin. The term retablo, from the Latin retro tabula, or "behind the altar," originally referred to the large paintings depicting saints, Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, which hung behind altars in Catholic churches. In Mexico, retablos, also called laminas, came to denote the small devotional paintings that devout Mexicans would commission as ex–votos, or votive offerings, given in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude for divine intercession. They typically comprise three distinct parts: a painted scene depicting the miracle, an image of the saint or deity invoked by the worshipper, and a written description that places the miracle in context. Usually produced by anonymous artists, retablos were displayed in home altars, shrines, or churches. As a genre of folk art, retablos flourished in Mexico from 1820–1920, reflecting traditions embedded in Mexican culture by Spanish colonization and the Catholic Church. Converted Indians adapted the traditional ex–voto to present Catholic iconography with the bright palette and vibrant style of indigenous folk art. The influence of this popular art form can be seen in the work of Mexican artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

The retablos collected by Massey and Durand for Miracles on the Border, which date from 1912 to 1996, represent modern expressions of this traditional Mexican art form. Produced for Mexican migrants to the United States, these retablos were left anonymously at churches as offerings for miracles granted. They are united by the types of miracles they commemorate, specifically, the trials undergone by migrants crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. Massey and Durand used these images to study the social conditions surrounding Mexican migration, conducting statistical analyses of the age, gender, geographic origins, and eventual destinations of the migrants who commissioned the votive paintings. However, the retablos are also inherently interesting as visual documents, vividly illustrating the subjects of greatest concern to migrants, whether the hazards of crossing the border, the trials of finding work in the United States, struggles with immigration officials, illnesses and accidents endured in a foreign land, and finally, the relief of returning home to their families in Mexico. The personal survival stories depicted in these cultural artifacts put a compellingly human face on contemporary debates surrounding Mexican immigration.