A couple of years ago, back when we could leave the house and mingle with other humans, we went to an exhibit called Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States, at the Princeton University Art Museum (honestly, one of my favorite museums in the world.) These hauntingly remarkable retablos, mostly painted in enamel on tin, are votive paintings commissioned to give thanks to a saint for help in overcoming sickness or adversity. Each contains a short, hand-written narrative describing the event or tribulation, along with a painting depicting it. They’re beautifully luminous and dreamlike, with proportions and angles that defy logic, in the perfect way that dreams do. The enamel on tin produces colors that are rich and flat, like the sky before an important event: portentious.
These are votives, or ex-votos, they are the fulfillment of a promise, the resolution of a vow made at the moment of distress. They are prayers, but not asking for anything, rather prayers of gratitude. Time runs backwards and forwards at the same time, memories mingling with anticipation, and saints occupy the same strange space as sufferers, glowing in the corner of their visions. The”retableros” (!)(!)(!) were often untrained artists, but there is something perfect in the way in which they capture the drama of the moment, the depth of spirits, and the glow of hope on the other side. And though they describe dark times, these are all stories with happy endings.
Art has the power to heal; art has the power to capture a prayer and to express the gratitude when it is answered.
The collection spans the entire 20th century, and the stories mostly concern the dangers of travels North and South across the border and of life in the United States. We see tales of sickness, accidents, imprisonment, dangerous border crossings, the difficulty of finding work. Viewing them during the Trump era felt especially poignant, a sad recognition of how much had only changed for the worse. They’re often steeped in the idea that the world of humans–doctors, bosses, policemen–offered nothing to the supplicants, and left them seeking the help of saints. And thinking of them now, during the pandemic, the prayers for the health of family members, the gratitude for recovery from illness are all too familiar.
Here are some of my favorite stories. They’re not the saddest or most serious of stories, but they have odd details that I love:
On the 18th of November of 1918, finding myself lost in Chicago, I commended myself to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, asking that she illuminate the road that I sought. I give her thanks for granting me what I asked, and for this reason, I dedicate to her the present retablo as a memento. Matías Lara. San Luis Potosí
On the 15th day of January of 1947, having become annoyed with my companions with whom I went to work in the state of Tamaulipas, I separated from them. Advancing deep into a forest, I went up to a house where I asked permission, and about ten at night the owner of the house called me outside, mistaking me for a bandit. He said that he was going to kill me, and seeing myself in such grave danger, I commended myself to the Holiest Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos and to Saint Martin of Terreros. Juan Luna
I dedicate the present retablo to the Holiest Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos for having saved me from a Texan who tried to carry me off. I hid under a tree by the side of the road with my little brother. “Concepción Zapata.” San Luis Potosí. May 10, 1948
And here’s “Indocumentados” by Akwid. I love them.
This meal came about from a combination of post-work fatigue and crankiness. I started the dough in the morning and I was going to make naan and some kind of vegetable curry, but by the end of the day I didn’t feel like any of that any more. So I just pressed the naan onto a baking sheet, and combined some of the curry ingredients make a sort of very green pesto or salsa verde and some to be toppings. It’s a little weird, but very very flavorful and tasty. Naan is softer than pizza dough, and it turned out a little thicker than I usually make my pizza crust, but the flavors on top are so sharp it worked well. I love love love cilantro, lime, and jalapeño, and that combo shines here. You can add any other toppings you like. Olives would be good, or peppers, or capers, or … anything really!
2 t yeast
2 T sugar
1/2 cup warm water
2 T olive oil
1/2 cup plain yogurt
3 (+/-) cups flour
2 t salt
Combine the yeast, sugar, warm water and flour in a big bowl and leave to bubble for 10 – 15 minutes. Add the olive oil, yogurt, flour, salt, and enough warm water to make a soft but not too sticky dough. My new kneading method is to knead for a minute or two every ten minutes for about an hour. It’s less work and fits in better with a work-from-home schedule. At the end of this time lightly oil the bowl and set the dough aside in a warm place for about 2 hours.
1 jalapeno, deseeded if you like
1 small shallot, peeled and chopped
1 plump clove garlic, peeled
Big handful of cilantro, cleaned
Couple of big handfuls of arugula leaves
Couple of big handfuls of spinach
about 1/4 cup pine nuts (though walnuts would work too)
About 1/4 cup crumbly salty white cheese. I used Cojito, but you could use queso blanco or even feta. Or parmesan. or no cheese at all.
1 T olive oil
Juice of half a lime
1 t cumin powder
1 t smoked paprika
Cayenne to taste
Squeeze of honey
Salt & Pepper
Combine everything in a food processor and process until combined but a bit chunky. Taste and adjust seasonings.
1 cup cherry tomatoes, chopped
1 cup chickpeas
Handful of grated parmesan & Mozzarella, or whatever cheese you like
Lightly grease a baking sheet and spread the dough in a fairly even layer, though higher on the edges. Leave to sit while you preheat the oven to 425.
Prebake the crust for about 10 minutes. Then spread the pesto on top, then scatter the chickpeas and olives over, and then the cheese over that. Bake for about 20 minutes, till the edges are brown and the cheese is melted.
Thanks for the introduction to the museum. I live in New Jersey and have never been there. I definitely will make a point of visiting and seeing the exhibit. Also, your recipe looks very intriguing and I am bookmarking it to make.
Sadly I think the museum is closed because of Covid at the moment! But when it’s open I definitely recommend a visit. Beautiful permanent collections, thoughtful, well-curated special exhibits, and it’s the perfect size.