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Mexican Retablos: Prayers on Steel
After a few bites of the cake Raul seemed to realize that she was waiting. “He read about the United States and wanted to go. He tried to cross the desert but the Virgin abandoned him because what he was doing was wrong. He got lost and died in the sun.”
“I’m so sorry, Raul,” Luz said.
“His mother had a retablo made for the Virgin to have pity on his soul.”
“I’m sure his soul rests in peace.”
“When his mother died I had the retablo buried with her.” Raul continued to eat.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, Luz’s heart twisting in sadness. Retablos were primitive paintings of a scene of something that happened in a person’s life for which they were giving thanks to the Virgin. But not this time. The son had died trying to get to El Norte and the mother had probably died of a broken heart. (THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY)
I’ve been giving alot of thought to visual inspiration as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th novel in the Acapulco Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series. The quote above isn’t from one of the Emilia Cruz books, but from romantic thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, which drew on many visual cues such as Mexico’s architecture and food, as well as Mexico’s fine art.
Related: Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico
The Catholic Church is a strong cultural and artistic influence in Mexico, and my books reflect that. Retablos are part of Mexico’s tradition combining art and faith, made all the more interesting to me because they are rustic folk art meant to capure a moment in time for which someone is giving thanks to God.
I bought these two retablos in a small shop in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa a couple of years ago. They are each about 5×7 inches, and painted on rusted steel. The edges are sharp. My guess they were cut from a barrel and done by the same person.
In this retablo, thanks are given to the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes for saving the school children from the ox (el buey) in Jalisco.
This retablo depicts the Virgin appearing and saving Jacinto from the black dog which appeared in the cemetary in Oaxaca. I don’t know if this should be taken literally or is a reference to illness or the devil.
I wonder at the journey these retablos took from Perla and Jacinto, who were giving thanks to God some 50 years ago, all the way to that shop in Mexico City. Now they are part of my writing journey. Just like you.
THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY
“A multilayered novel of love and drama” — Literary Fiction Review
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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.