Statues and paintings like the Virgen de Guadalupe, the Señor de Chalma, the Cristo Negro de Otatitlán, the Virgen de los Remedios, and countless others in Mexican churches are miraculous by virtue of a sacred presence that empowers them. They belong to a long tradition of empowered objects that spans centuries of pre-Christian and Christian devotion on both sides of the Atlantic and that encompasses objects as disparate as indigenous fetishes and the consecrated eucharist. A prototype Christ or Virgin is usually in the background, but in the foreground are discrete miraculous images that are entities–almost deities–in themselves. These images associated with a heavenly figure are also dissociated insofar as the connection is distended and the sacred object becomes more or less autonomous. Petitions and votive offerings are made not to the heavenly Christ or Virgin, but rather to a local Christ or Virgin image, the one among and for the people of a particular place.
Devotion to miraculous images is concerned almost exclusively with petitioning sacred power for purposes that range from banal desires to resolution of life-threatening crises. It is a practical, goal-directed, utilitarian devotion; a survival strategy; a way of interpreting reality; and a resource enhancement realized through collaboration with a sacred patron. Miracles are petitioned above all for health-related matters, but also for matters concerning employment, family, pregnancy and childbirth, romantic love, education, migration, and agriculture, among others.
Petitionary devotion consist primarily of making miracle requests together with promises to offer something in exchange. In written petitions the promises, or vows, are sometimes explicit, like a signed agreement instead of a handshake, but usually the reciprocation remains unspecified. Promises may be made in prayer, before or after the miracle, but votaries also petition miraculous images without explicitly obligating themselves. Reciprocation is nevertheless always required, and when no terms are stated it is likely to take the form of a shrine visit to give thanks in person. Votaries have little to lose in these arrangements, known as votive contracts, because they themselves establish the terms and are under no obligation unless the miracle is granted.
At some sites, particularly in Oaxaca, miniatures and fake money represent miracle petitions. A clay miniature house represents a desired real house, and fake money represents the real money (work, income, economic stability) petitioned by a votary. The votary proposes the exchange of a symbol for what it represents. The votary provides the clay house or fake money (the symbol) and the miraculous image reciprocates with a real house and real money (what the symbol represents ). The miracle happens through a process of desymbolization when a petition is represented figuratively and a miracle literalizes what was represented. This petitionary exchange between symbols and their referents inverts the order of votive exchanges. In votive exchanges, a miracle provides a real gain and the votary often reciprocates by offering that gain in symbolic form. A wounded arm is healed miraculously, for example, and the votary reciprocates by offering a miniature, a milagrito, that represents the arm.
After a miracle is received, the votary must make the offering that was promised implicitly or explicitly. The promise or vow (voto) is followed by the votive offering (ex voto). The Spanish phrase used to describe this reciprocation, pagar la manda, denotes the idea of paying up, of canceling a debt or fulfilling a promise. A manda itself is a commitment established by a promise. The expression “redeem a vow” captures the idea of reciprocation precisely, as does the Spanish saying lo prometido es deuda (what is promised is a debt). Votive offerings fulfill promises, pay debts, express gratitude, bear witness, commemorate, ratify miracles, strengthen faith, and mediate discursive exchanges between votaries. A votive offering is simultaneously payment and documentation of payment, a votary-issued receipt posted publicly before the image, so that the reciprocation will be acknowledged and credited to the right account.
There is a sense of alleviation when the offering is made, but the closure is only of this particular account, this outstanding debt, not of the ongoing reciprocity that most votaries will maintain with the image. The benefit is acknowledged and the cycle closes, but the relationship remains active and new cycles are initiated as the need arises. It is an open-ended contract maintained in increments and installments. Many devotees have commended themselves to the care of a particular image, or were commended in infancy by their parents, and consequently they periodically affirm, renew, and maintain a lifelong relationship that intensifies as needs and crises occasion.
Votive practice in Mexico has indigenous, Christian, and syncretic origins that contribute to the diversity of offerings, as do social class, gender, age, and location. An indigenous campesino might offer seeds or a livestock milagrito; an urban adolescent a bead necklace; a return migrant dollar bills; and a village mother the hair of a newborn. Retablos (narrative paintings on tin) were commonly offered in previous centuries, but today the most common material offerings include photographs, typed and handwritten texts, clothing, copies of documents (visas, university degrees, ultrasound images), braids and haircuttings, milagritos (tiny metal representational offerings), and votary-made collages that combine texts, images, and objects to represent a votary’s gratitude but also his or her understanding of a miracle.