In Spanish, the word milagro literally means miracle or surprise. Milagro also refers to ex-votos offered to God, the Virgin Mary, or a favorite saint, along with a prayer or petition, and they are offered in thanks for answered prayers. Milagros can be made of gold, tin, wood, lead, bone, or silver. I’ve seen flat milagros, three-dimensional, and small and large examples, which often have ribbons attached to hang on a statue, onto clothing, and on the walls of a home or church. On my home altar, I have three Austrian examples made of wax along with hand-carved French wooden statues of Our Lady of Montserrat, Our Lady of Lourdes, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, angels; Russian icons; and various rosaries collected over the years, made of Jerusalem olive wood and beads.
The use of milagros is an ancient custom in the Hispanic world, first seen with the Iberians who inhabited the coastal region of Spain in the first centuries before the birth of Christ. Many examples are found in museums in Hispanic America, at the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as collections in Mexico and the Caribbean. One such collection was generously offered to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC by Puerto Rican-born, Theodoro Vidal. This beautiful collection is called the Vision of Puerto Rico: The Theodoro Vidal Collection.
Catholicism in Puerto Rico
With the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, many new laws and forms of social organization were imposed upon the Taínos and, later, the enslaved Africans. One of these was Catholicism. Over the years, formal Catholic traditions sanctioned by the Church evolved alongside beliefs and practices from other cultures, especially those from Africa.
In its early colonial years, Puerto Rico had very few priests. This made the establishment of church ritual and other rules very difficult, especially in remote areas. Rural Puerto Ricans consequently created their own distinctive religious observances and practices. They often worshipped at home, their altars filled with santos carved by local artisans called santeros. Santeros may work individually or as a group, with workshops employing their family and apprentices. Notable santeros include the Espada family, Genaro Rivera, and the Cabán group.
Images and objects of both Roman Catholicism and folk Catholicism are prominent in the material culture of Puerto Rico gathered in the Vidal Collection. They include santos, milagros, and rosaries, the strings of beads used in Roman Catholic prayer cycles. Santos are devotional wood carvings of saints and the Virgin Mary in her many manifestations. The carving of saints probably goes back to the 1600s, when rural populations had few priests and churches but many home altars. Ex-votos, known in Puerto Rico as milagros, are offerings to a particular saint for help in curing an ailment. Many milagros are shaped as a specific body part. Usually made of silver or tin, they can also be found in wax, gold, and other metals. Santos and milagros in the Vidal Collection date from the 1700s.
Our Lady of Montserrat
For more than a thousand years, Our Lady of Montserrat has been venerated in Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain. Hidden in a cave from vandals and infidels, her statue was later found in the Montserrat mountains of Catalonia. The statue of the Virgin is said to have been found in a coal mine. What is particularly distinctive about this Madonna is that her skin and that of the Christ Child remained “miraculously” black after cleaning.
La Virgen de Monserrate may be the most popular of all religious figures celebrated in Puerto Rico. Many refer to her both as Montserrate and as her uniquely Puerto Rican manifestation, El Milagro de Hormigueros (The Miracle from Hormigueros). In 1599, Our Lady of Montserrat appeared to Gerardo González, a farmer, near Hormigueros, in southwestern Puerto Rico. Attacked by a bull, González invoked the name of the Virgin. Immediately, the beast fell, its legs broken and its forehead touching the ground as if in prayer. In gratitude, González built and dedicated a church to Our Lady of Montserrat. This popular image always depicts the Virgin with a man and kneeling bull.
This Madonna (term for a representation of the Virgin Mary holding her son, Jesus Christ) is one example of how ideas about puertorriqueñidad are expressed. It reflects both the range of skin tones among Puerto Ricans and the broader understanding that santeros have about the cultural exchanges that have shaped the island’s history. Different santos depict the Virgin as brown, white, or achocolatá, the color of chocolate. Some show a Christ Child and Virgin in the same color, and others depict a black Virgin and white Child.
The Espadas: Santeros from San Germán
Felipe de la Espada (about 1754–1818) and his son Tiburcio (1798–1852) were the most important santeros, or sculptors of santos, in Puerto Rico during the Spanish colonial era and produced some of the earliest surviving examples of the carvings. Of ethnically mixed descent, the Espadas worked in San Germán, a cultural center on the island. They created religious images for churches and for home worship. In 1813, Bishop Juan Alejo de Arizmendi commissioned Felipe to make a Virgen de Belén (Virgin of Bethlehem). Tiburcio sculpted for Porta Coeli in San Germán and many other churches.
During lifetime of the Espadas, Puerto Rico experienced rapid economic growth, and ideas of a distinctive Puerto Rican culture began to emerge. Teodoro Vidal was the first to systematically research the lives of the Espadas, beginning in 1958.
The Theodoro Vidal Collection, A Vision of Puerto Rico
Excerpt from A DECENT WOMAN, Chapter 5, Oraciones, Milagros y Amuletos ~ Prayers, Miracles, and Amulets
It was a miracle the locals of the Playa had survived the latest storm. La Virgen had spared them, and now it was time for Ana to think about adding a new milagro, a charm, to the little créche to show her appreciation and continued devotion to the Virgin Mary and Yemayá. The crude doors Ana had added to a wooden crate wobbled when she opened them to reveal the makeshift sanctuary that housed small plaster statues of Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba, and Our Lady of Regla, who Ana especially loved, as she was the only black Madonna Ana had ever seen. The humble sanctuary held the long history of her clients’ prayer requests and answered prayers: a small silver charm in the shape of a foot for the healing of an injured ankle, a tin heart with an arrow through it for a returned love of long ago, and small locks of hair tied with now-faded ribbons given to her by clients from their children’s first haircuts. Small medals depicting various saints lined the sides of the wooden crate along with several small crosses in tin and silver, and Ana’s red precatory rosary, which hung from a small nail. With little space left on the walls of the créche, the base of the crate glistened with religious relics like a carpet of silver and gold, memories of days gone by. Ana remembered most of the individual stories behind the amulets, and had become the keeper of the milagros. Often times, she bought an appropriate charm as a gift for clients with little money, and several mothers had asked Ana to keep the amulets for them because they believed she had special favor with God. If they knew I’d killed a man, they would never have asked, she thought.
The only milagro Ana owned was a wood charm in the shape of a half-moon her father had wrought for her. He’d shoved the charm in her hand before hiding her in the bowels of the steamer ship. “To remind you of Cuba,” he’d said, “because I don’t know where this boat is headed.” She still remembered the sharp prick from the tip of the half-moon against the palm of her closed hand as she lay in wait, praying Yemayá would calm the seas, and that she might stop vomiting.
Ana gently ran her fingers over the cool plaster of the smaller statue removing dust, and inspecting the figurine for damage from top to bottom. Our Lady of Charity’s crown needed touching up, and there was a chip at the base of the statue, where three fishermen, eyes cast upward, sat in a small boat at the Virgin’s feet, begging for protection against heavy seas in the cove. Ana had been protected during her voyage to Porto Rico, and continued her devotion with the hope that, in time, her penance would come to an end. Now it was time for the new mother, Serafina, to make her first addition to the créche.