A terrible thing has happened, Sr. Perez's best bull wandered away from the farm last night and still hasn't returned. He has been looking everywhere for it, poor man. He knows that there is only one thing to do now, ask for a miracle.
Since he is a man of simple means, he finds a piece of tin and very carefully cuts out the shape of a steer. He scratches onto the metal the distinguishing markings of his most valuable possession, and takes the handmade charm to church. Poor Sr. Perez, I can see how distraught he is, kneeling so humbly as he says a short prayer for the animal's safe return. What will he do without that ox? It is the center of his livelihood. He painstakingly looks for the best place to nail the amulet, making sure that it is in clear "sight" of the glass-eyed patron saint.
In Mexico's countryside hope is expressed in this unique way, with a prayer and a small gift for the gods. The little charms are called "milagros" (miracles), and the practice dates back centuries.
Hernán Cortés is credited with making the first Mexican milagro, now housed in a Madrid museum. His was not quite so simple as that of Sr. Perez, it was made of gold and adorned with emeralds, pearls, and other precious stones. But the sense of urgency and search for hope within the two men was probably equal.
Cortés was very sick from a scorpion sting and feared he would not recover. He begged the Virgin to cure him, promising to give her a beautiful gift if she would grant him health. A native man helped him overcome the effects of the poison. Cortés, sure that his prayer for a cure had been answered, commissioned a gift for the Virgin in return for the "milagro." The charm is a beautifully executed gold scorpion.
To this day milagros are used throughout the Mexican countryside when asking for a prayer to be answered. In large cities they are now mass produced, but in towns and villages, churches are home to some wonderful hand-made charms. The metals used for milagros can range from lead to gold, though most common is zinc or an aluminum alloy. Unlike ex-votos, which are like thank-you cards to the saints, milagros are tokens of hope. The charm is left as a reminder... Please help me find my torito this is what he looks like.
Oversized milagros, usually in the form of a heart, are often pinned to the breast of figures representing the town's patron saint. These adornments ask for nothing personal in return. They are a reminder that a generous spirit hears the woes of it's people, and will answer with fair justice in return.
Not sanctioned by the Catholic Church, milagros are a representation of the unique blend of indigenous and European beliefs which is still very prominent throughout Latin America. Milagros come in all shapes, depending wholly on the prayer of the individual. The most common forms are kneeling men and women (searching for a prayer to be answered); hearts (which represent spiritual unbalance to lost love); and arms, legs and eyes (common injuries associated with farm-work). But hope has no bounds; I have seen Volkswagons, dogs, noses (Michael Jackson, do you carry one in your back pocket?), and several other unusual charms.
Like all things hand made, it is not so much the material from which they are fashioned (a Picasso boiled down to canvas and paint has little value), but the artistic value that lends worth to these charms. Does it make you smile, or feel sad; do you feel anything? That is part of how you judge value. Do you want Sr. Perez's prize bull to come home?
Milagros are little tokens of what makes us members of the same family; tokens of hope.