Learning to Venerate Santo Niño de Atocha: Finding Peace on the Wall of Lost Wishes

This photograph was taken last winter; it’s an interior shot of a church wall at the Santuario de Plateros, a large Catholic shrine venerating el Santo Niño de Atocha.1 The shrine is located 5 km away from Fresnillo, Zacatecas, a city partially sustained via the revenue generated by housing thousands of religious pilgrims who flock yearly to the shrine in search of excitement, health, love, and good fortune. El Santuario de Plateros so happens to house the original statue of el Santo Niño, a relic of the Spaniards’ extensive (and bloody) evangelization of Mexico. Fittingly, it’s said that when the statue arrived to Fresnillo, local residents immediately claimed to have witnessed the child Jesus walk through the town streets and perform miracles on behalf of them.2

This shrine is the third most-visited religious site in Mexico, so consistently filled beyond capacity that walking through the church feels more animalistic than spiritual. Pilgrims continuously flood through the large cathedral doors, there to offer heart-felt prayers to small statue of el Santo Niño de Atocha housed inside the church. Afterward, these pilgrims walk outside the back of the church and attach handwritten notes to the church’s sweeping arches,3 asking the child saint for a wish. It should come as little surprise that this region’s motto is “Tierra de la fe y los milagros,”4 a motto that is at once idealized by new-wave pilgrims and ridiculed by the locals who have come to experience Santo Niño de Atocha’s disillusionments firsthand. The disillusionment, in my personal experience, is so strong it can distort an individual’s sense of reason and reality.

The beauty of the church is as much in its baroque architecture as it is in the church walls adorned with colorful parchments, calligraphy, and hand-drawn religious portraits honoring the holy child.5 In one wing of the church, an entire wall solely consists of personalized ceramic tiles that each contain the story of an individual miracle performed by el Santo Niño. For those fortunate enough to receive the saint’s blessing, the form and function by which the miracle arrives is always said to be different from the expectations of the pilgrim—as was the case with my own asked favor.

From the limited number of locals with whom I have spoken, and having walked through the Santuario as a casual spectator—and as a thief, and as a reformed spiritualist in search of affirmation6 —I have come to define three distinguishable classes of pilgrims that come to Plateros’ sacred shrine and adorn its walls and pillars with their petitions.

(1) Tía Roselda (or whatever form Tía Roselda takes in your personal universe):

By this, I’m referring to that tía of yours who cannot help but take on the personal crusade of lamenting all the sins of her increasingly irreligious children, nephews, grandchildren, and grandnephews. This is that tía of yours who compensates for her short stature with religious fanaticism. Maybe your Tía Roselda insisted, as mine did, on purchasing sage from a florist/spiritualist manning one of the dozens of small stands propped up by residents of Fresnillo just outside the santuario, or maybe, like mine, she insists that your family’s genes confer less natural protection from the Devil’s pestilence than others’, and as such we required the blessing of Santo Niño de Atocha or some equivalent holy figure.

(2) Delusional Optimists:

These may be my favorite type of pilgrim. They are starry-eyed idealists, individuals who all coincidentally have witnessed “real-life apparitions” of a child-like figure like Santo Niño de Atocha in moments of personal distress. Unlike their pilgrims-without-humility counterparts, these pilgrims are not stuck within a personal pit of despair. Instead, their delusion is itself a product of their unresolvable sorrows, anguish so deep that they develop a cheerful disposition as a defense. Think of your primo who’s always sick with something crazy, that friend of yours who always manages to attract a cheating boyfriend. These are people who have lived through it, people who have been struck with some severe form of cosmic misfortune that the only survival mechanism that works for them is maintaining a delusional form of optimism. This class of pilgrim is the Santuario’s most recurrent face and is prone to leaving multiple copies of the same note in the belief it will amplify their message to the holy child.7 Yeah, they’re unlucky, but at least they’re nice people. And that’s more than I can say about other pilgrims.

(3) Pilgrims-Without-Humility:

It is with great consternation that I admit I fall under this category. These pilgrims are self-interested, self-aggrandizing individuals, the type of person who will write in their best handwriting all their selfish wishes and desires. Give me love, give me friendship, provide me clarity where I have none, alleviate my pains even though I don’t understand their origin or nature. Pilgrims-without-humility tend to have the lowest odds of seeing their wishes become reality; I attribute this partly to the inherently insular nature of their desires and partly to their inability to realize when shit’s good. It is because of this—the unlikelihood of their petitions being answered or acknowledged by the holy child—that the walls of Santuario de Plateros might be described by pilgrims-without-humility as the walls of lost wishes, rather than a wall of miracles. Not so true, though, in my case.8

My motivation in returning to the Santuario de Plateros is two-fold: (1) to pray that I learn to forget about Daniel Juarez, my first love, now gone, and (2) to make amends with el Santo Niño de Atocha, a saint whom I both honor and denounce for bringing to me my tempestuous love affair with Daniel.

Without getting into too much detail,9 I can tell you that when I was 14 years old I spent the summer living with my Grandmother Lupe in Mexico. While there, I worked on her ranch and participated in a local youth group of her church. Of the 10 or so teens in the church group, no other person made the frequent youth group outings less painful than Daniel—a native of California who, like me, was forced into this church group by the order of an overly-religious grandmother, and who, like me, was discovering first-hand the reality of what loving another man felt like.

To avoid romanticizing the situation any further,10 I’ll cut to the fact that we both ended up at the Santuario on a youth-group trip. In preparation for the trip to the shrine, our youth-group leader instructed us to put extensive thought into the favor we asked of Santo Niño de Atocha:

Do not consider material goods, do not consider wealth, do not ask for a favor that will provide you fake happiness. Consider that which makes your stronger, that which can be fortified by the holy work of God.

For reasons that—again, in the interest of preserving my mental and emotional well-being—do not have to be explained, I chose to ask the holy child for the following favor:

Santo Niño de Atocha, in all of your divine holiness, please do not allow me to forget Daniel Juarez. Let him live in my spirit and memory till the day I perish.

Daniel, of course, had no idea at the time that I had written this. Our love affair was in its earliest stage of development at that point. I was a crazed teenage boy, dazed and excited by the confusing and new infatuation I felt toward Daniel and insecure about the outcome of our relationship.11 That day, when I attached my favor to Santo Niño de Atocha onto the wall, I ripped off four neighboring notes that had been taped up near my own, thinking that by removing these potential distractions from the Santo Niño de Atocha’s plate, I would be more likely to have my wish come true.

So, last winter, several years after having robbed four unsuspecting pilgrims of their wishes, and after seeing Daniel and myself construct and destroy an epic romantic affair, I finally took it upon myself to return the four wishes I had stolen from the church’s walls to their rightful destination. To be fully forthright, I never gave a shit about whether these notes came true. But amidst the fallout of a relationship, and especially amidst the nuclear fallout that was post-Daniel, certain life truths become crystal fucking clear. One thing my breakup made clear is that you are responsible for the unbecoming of your wishes, and the wishes of others, as much as you are for their fulfillment. It didn’t matter if I believed in el Santo Niño’s powers or not. I felt like I screwed over those four pilgrims, and I had only ever felt that low before when I was with Daniel. People say the first step toward redemption is honesty, even if that means owning up to being a terrible person. So please, marvel in my terribleness and take a look at the holy petitions I was responsible for obstructing:

Wish 1

“Help me discover that which is missing from my spirit.”

I can imagine myself sticking this note verbatim 30 or so years from now onto the church walls. I like to imagine this person discovered the right menial hobby or found the right spiritual group to help her get her psychic groove back on. Or maybe they would have found a love as grand as mine and Daniel’s, had I not stolen the note.

Wish 2

“Find loyalty, maintain humility, protect humanity.”

I always found this to be too altruistic to my liking. Straight up, I doubt el Santo Niño could have even made any progress on this wish. He’s the patron saint of prisoners, dude, not the saint of world peace.

Wish 3

“Illuminate the correct path.”

*barfing* I hated this note when I read it. This sounds like the title of a generic self-help book that scams people into believing that a “correct path” exists. I nearly threw this one away, but was stopped by the guilt of further desecrating this person’s wish.

Wish 4

“More money without trying.”

I mess with this one. Kept this baby in my personal journal. This person isn’t bullshittting el niño—they know what they want and aren’t scared to keep it real.

These notes are just a small sample of the wide range of wishes asked by the hordes of pilgrims that descend upon this sanctuary of lost wishes. When I swiped them, I felt no shame. In the moment, I didn’t even consider the personal worth of each individual wish.12 My strategy worked, after all: I got what I asked for. But as my very own grandmother advised me the day before visiting Plateros, the consequences of asking for a favor are far-reaching. Don’t think that your luck is always so strong.

And so, having discovered wisdom through el Santo Niño’s disillusionment, during my visit back to the Santuaria de Plateros this past winter, I returned these four notes I had held on to for years to their rightful spot on the wall of lost wishes,13 as well as my own following wish:

Wish 5

This time, I stole no other petitions. But, unlike last time, I fear that el Santo Niño de Atocha may not be so generous in his wish-granting. It could be that this holy child cannot undo what has been done. Or rather, if I am to think more sinisterly, maybe this was the holy child’s intention: to give me a love so deep that I would be doomed to live and remember every moment of me and Daniel till death.14 Maybe. I can’t know yet, I guess. Does a pilgrim ever find out they’ve attached a meaningless scrap of paper to the wall of lost wishes, anyway?


Footnotes

1. Holy Infant of Atocha—the far less pleasant English translation. For those spared the pain of catechism classes, or those not forced to attend Sunday mass with an overly pious grandmother, the story of el Santo Niño de Atocha began in the Spanish City of Atocha during the Moorish rule of the Iberian Peninsula. It was said that a child Jesus disguised as a pilgrim worked tirelessly to feed and care for imprisoned practicing Christians that were deemed religious heretics by the ruling Moors. Thus, he is considered the saint of the unjustly imprisoned and those in danger.

2. Local legends hold that when a silver mining crew was trapped underground, el Santo Niño presented himself to them, offered them water, and guided them out. If they got lost while they tried to escape the silver mine, the holy child would guide them in the right direction. It is because of this that many pilgrims believe that el Santo Niño de Atocha specializes in helping individuals who find themselves locked in an emotional or spiritual trap (e.g., coming out, mental illness, repressed memories).

3. The life expectancy of a note varies. Some notes are torn down the same day by the church staff, particularly notes that were made with larger or bulkier materials (as if el Santo Niño chooses size over message, people). Otherwise, some pilgrims and locals maintain that certain notes have remained for decades. So long, in fact, that returning pilgrims to el Santuario de Plateros can often be found scouring the church walls for their old wishes. It seems even fate allows individuals to hold onto certain improbable hopes.

4. Land of Faith and Miracles.

5. Despite the thousands of pilgrims who pass through the church daily, el Santuario de Plateros remains in good working condition. According to local legends, one of the church’s first priests placed a note on the famed walls of the church, asking the child saint to keep the church up for millennia so that all of Mexico’s children may view its beauty.

6. Affirmation, yes, but not in a metaphysical bullshit sense like God or a Jedi Knight magically illuminating the correct path. Affirmation in the sense that I as a person can still feel whole. That life post-Daniel can still feel like living.

7. It doesn’t.

8. That’s correct, I got my wish. But this is not to say I cannot then be categorized as a pilgrim-without-humility. Let’s agree there exist certain universal truths. Truths that extend beyond the Santuario. And one of those truths is that exceptions occur. Even in God’s holy domain, exceptions occur. This boy is evidence that you can act/think/believe selfishly and still, undeservedly, receive your wish.

9. It’d be easy to mislead you and say that I don’t have a full grasp on what happened between me and Daniel. But I completely do. Our relationship was at many points so impassioned, and the details of every moment we spent together so vivid, that providing you the most complete explanation of how our relationship ended would require a serious time commitment. Let’s not.

10. Consider me a coward, but so be it. The sad boy pout doesn’t suit me.

11. Remember how I said el Santo Niño’s divine specialty was resolving emotional entrapments? That includes insecurity. The smart thing to do from the beginning would have been to ask to el Santa Niño for me not to feel so apprehensive, so stuck when it came to Daniel. Instead, I asked to never forget and was handed a Shakespearean-level heartbreaker.

12. Let me be straight here, I’m a man of logic and numbers. The chances that an individual would actually have their wish come true are infinitesimally small. So small that I doubted their wishes, or quite honestly even my own wishes, would come true. You have to understand that in the mind of a young, confused teenage boy, highly romanticized ideas, like stealing other people’s notes to make yours come more true, seem smart. How could I have a Shakespearean-level love affair and not be a bit blinded by my own infatuation, amiright?

13. In pristine condition, too!

14. Melodramatic, but honest. My memory is good and very intact.


Edward Loera is 2016 graduate of the University of Southern California. While at USC, he studied policy, planning, and development with concentrations in public policy and law and urban planning. He grew up in Bakersfield, CA, and spent extended periods of time living at his grandparents’ home in Durango, Mexico. His writing is influenced by the duality of his lived experiences, in particular the traditional spiritual practices of Mexico and the increasing multiculturalism of the Latino-majority communities in which he was raised. Loera can be found searching for cheap bargains and good company in the Bay Area.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Isabelle A says:

    Amazing. Just amazing.

    Like

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