Exvotos: Mexican Folk Art

I bought this exvoto (or ex-voto) in the Lagunilla flea market in Mexico City from the painter, Rafael Contreras.
I bought this exvoto (or ex-voto) in the Lagunilla flea market in Mexico City from the painter, Rafael Contreras.

I’ve always loved Mexican exvotos (or ex-votos) ever since I bought one in a little shop in Merida in 2006. At the time I didn’t know they were a form of folk art with a long tradition. I was simply struck by the painting’s emotion. Traditionally, exvotos are left in churches to express gratitude to God, a saint or some intercessor for a miracle. The one I bought depicted 9-11 and flames pouring out of the Twin Towers. On the bottom, it expressed thanks that the author’s cousin survived the attack.

The simplicity of the medium–paint on tin–and the earnestness of the message moved me. But I was also intrigued by the contemporary setting and my connection to it. Of course, the whole world is connected to 9-11 thanks to its ongoing impact on international affairs. But I was also living just a few miles from the World Trade Center and remember the day vividly. The weather was confusingly beautiful, sunny and warm, even as we wondered what the hell was going and worried if anyone we knew had died or was trapped in the rubble. I remember playing in the park with my son, a toddler, who remained unaware despite the fact that fighter jets were racing back and forth and thousands of people were streaming on foot through the streets, wending their way home after the shut-down of public transportation. The exvoto reminded me that I, or New Yorkers, or even Americans, weren’t the only ones worrying. The person who wrote the note about her cousin had also been worrying. Who knows how long she had to wait before news of her cousin’s survival reached her.

Of course, I have no way of knowing if the story about the cousin was real–if someone had been expressing her specific thanks for the survival of a specific person through the creation of this particular exvoto. At the time, I imagined that a woman had written her thanks in a note and left it on an altar and a folk artist had picked it up and painted the scene. But now I know, thanks to Google, that exvotos are a votive offering that frequently combine text and imagery. (The National Library of Medicine had an exhibit on “Medical Imagery in Ex-Votos” in 2008-2009.)

I’m pretty sure that if my exvoto had been connected to a real person, it would have been in a church, not for sale in a shop in Merida. (Then again maybe the church where it had been brought as an offering had been overflowing with exvotos and had sold some off). In the end, I don’t care too much about my exvoto’s provenance. I still find it moving, expressing something true even if the “cousin” is fiction.

This brings me to the exvoto I bought today. Perhaps it isn’t really an exvoto because it doesn’t express thanks. It simply tells a story. “Calixto Verrera and Carmen saw in the sky a flying saucer that followed them to the Zumpango Lagoon.–Zumpango, April 1940.” I asked the artist, Rafael Cardenas, where he found the story. He pointed to his head and fluttered his fingers, indicating he’d made it up. But the date–where did that come from? I asked. Again, he fluttered his fingers around his head and smiled. I asked (not sure why I bothered) about the levitating Lucha Libre fighter, which has nothing to do with the text, and he just laughed.

I found an article about an exhibit, Favores insólitos (Unusual favors), at the National Museum of Popular Cultures in Coyoacán, Mexico City, in 2012 that featured a new brand of exvotos. Contreras’ work was among those featured in the exhibit. According to the curator, Raúl Cano Monroy, classic exvotos became far less common in the 1980s when the painted plates were replaced by “copias fotostáticas, fotografías y recetas médicas, objetos varios, como trofeos, muletas y prótesis” (photostatic copies, photographs and medical prescriptions, various objects such as trophies, crutches and prostheses.)

But the exvoto lives on, as demonstrated in the museum’s exhibit. As Monroy explained in the article: “No obstante, el exvoto tomó un nuevo camino, en el cual hay dos vertientes: la primera es imitar milagros ya existentes en los exvotos tradicionales, cambiando nombres, escenarios, milagreros, ciudades y hasta santos intercesores, con la única característica de que se trata de milagros ficticios. La segunda se deriva de mostrar temáticas desde inusuales hasta transgresoras, que van en contra de la religiosidad y la doctrina católica.”

(However, the exvoto took a new path, in which there are two approaches: the first is to imitate miracles already existing in the traditional exvotos, changing names, scenarios, miracles, cities and even intercessor saints, with the only characteristic that is Of fictitious miracles. The second is derived from showing themes from unusual to transgressive, which go against religious and Catholic doctrine.)

I suppose the exvoto I bought in 2006 fits the first category as it may be fictional in regards to the person named but not fictional in spirit. And the second may be transgressive for not only depicting a UFO as a reality but for not offering thanks to a saint or spiritual intercessor for saving Calixto Verrera and Carmen from being captured and experimented on or perhaps being whisked away to a distant star.

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