Wandering Testimonies: The Diaspora of Mexican Ex-votos (and Their Stories)

Nurse Bartolo Garcia thanks Saint Cosmas, patron saint of physicians, for having been transferred to another hospital ward, so he doesn’t have to give enemas anymore. Remedios Mendoza is grateful to Saint Anthony of Padua for saving her boyfriend’s life after he had an embolic stroke at the altar during their wedding. And the Virgin of Guadalupe is being credited for having accomplished the ‘miracle’ of ridding Tereso Garcia of his hangover. The William H. Helfand collection of ex-votos and devotional paintings on medical subjects, recently donated to the Kislak Center, is a treasure trove of such anecdotes, and an open portal to late 19th and 20th century Mexican folk religious practices.

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“Nurse Bartolo Garcia was very unhappy with his job because he did not like giving enemas, so he invoked San Sosimo [possibly Saint Chosmas] and since he was transferred he gives thanks with this small retablo. Puebla 1927”

A graduate from Penn (CHE 1948), Helfand is a well-known historian of pharmacy and medicine, and a collector of prints, posters, illustrations, and ephemera on medical subjects. Such interests are reflected in this collection of ex-votos, votive paintings on tin or other cheap metal sheets, which were — and still are — usually hung in Mexican churches and other religious venues as a sign of gratitude for received blessings or healings. In a nutshell, the long ex-voto tradition is a reflection of the rich cultural history of Mexico. Public offerings of symbolic objects in response to the benevolence of the divinity are common in Europe, and their origins may be traced back to the ancient Greeks. In Mexico, votive customs had existed even before the arrival of the Spanish, but a figurative tradition emerged only in the 16th century, with the dissemination of Marian cults promoted by European evangelists. Until the end of the 18th century the offering of votive paintings was mostly a prerogative of the wealthy, but after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the tradition was gradually appropriated by the lower classes. With this social shift came a corresponding change in the ex-votos themselves. In the 19th century, tin replaced the expensive canvas that had previously been used, and local, unschooled painters began to specialize in this kind of production, gradually developing personal styles.


Room dedicated with votive paintings and other ex votos at the Sanctuary of Chalma in Mexico State [source: Wikipedia]

20th-century Mexican painters such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, and Roberto Montenegro highly valued ex-votos, and employed them as a source of inspiration for their own works. Unmediated by academic pictorial influences, the genuine devotion embodied and transmitted by these small paintings – “masterpieces on tin,” Rivera famously called them – can be appreciated in the ex-votos of the Helfand collection. Even in the case of the most overt and comical deviations from official religious practices, viewing these images is a touching experience, for both the simplicity of the drawings, and the shaky handwriting of the captions accompanying them, never fail to reveal the emotional participation of the worshippers, if not their personal struggles. Such is the case, for instance, of a 1943 ex-voto from Mexico City, in which a woman is portrayed kneeling, her hands covering her face,  next to the bed in which her son is suffering from measles. Or of another example from 1960 dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, in which the praying mother and her baby daughter with pneumonia are humbly portrayed at the very bottom of the painting, while an ochre-colored backdrop symbolizes both the intimacy of the domestic space and the immensurable distance separating the mortal world from that of saint.

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“I lovingly give thanks to Saint Anthony of Padua for having listened to my pleas and prayers and for having cured my daughter Sanara Luego from pneumonia, while the doctors said that she would die. Antonia Tura, June 26, 1960”

But the ex-votos in the collection also tell us another story, not less moving than the personal stakes of the people being portrayed: that of their extraordinary life as historical objects, scattered around the world as collectible items after having been discarded from overcrowded walls. It is a story that ex-votos have in common with much other archival material, and it is in most cases hard to reconstruct. Yet, an ex-voto represents not only a personal testimony of the blessing received in a given historical moment, but also a sum of human emotional encounters, enabled and accrued through the decades by the religious subject-matter, the image on the painting, or even the material carrying them. An ex-voto to Saint Paschal Baylon, patron of the kitchen and of cooks, was painted on a circular metal lid: an object with its own life story, maybe used in that same kitchen represented in the scene, and which has experienced so many uses and meanings before having been handed to us.

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“While she was in her kitchen in Puebla, in 1928, a wounded Cristero rebel came to the house of Maria Nojera, so she entrusted him to San Pascualito [Saint Paschal Baylon] and since everything went well she dedicates this small retablo to the saint, giving him endless gratitude”

Building the American Chemical Empire: Woodrow Wilson and the Strange Case of A. Mitchell Palmer and Francis P. Garvan

Pennsylvanian Democrat lawyer and politician Alexander Mitchell Palmer (1872-1936) is usually remembered as the U. S. Attorney General who launched thousands of unwarranted police raids – the infamous Palmer raids – against suspected radicals during the first Red Scare of 1919-20. But a previous chapter of Palmer‘s life might turn to be even more controversial (documented in the Bob and Jann Perez collection of A. Mitchell Palmer materials).


Alexander Mitchell Palmer in the years in which he was serving as Alien Property Custodian

The year was 1917. Right after entering into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson created the Office of Alien Property Custodian to confiscate, administer, and sell any enemy property that might constitute a danger for the United States. Palmer was the one chosen for the job. During his time in office, he was allowed to seize all the belongings of interned immigrants, regardless of their actual involvement in political crimes. In a short time, the Office became a powerful organ of the Wilson administration. At the end of 1918, Palmer estimated the worth of the almost 30.000 trusts he administered to be around half a million dollars. Along these enterprises, the Office took possession of 4.500 German patents, processes, copyrights, and trademarks, especially chemical ones.




Aims and Purposes

Aims and Purposes of the Chemical Foundation (1919)

In 1919, Wilson created a specific organization, the Chemical Foundation, whose main purpose was to buy and resell the chemical patents accumulated by the Alien Property Custodian to “any competent, equipped, and patriotic American firm, or corporation”. The president of the Foundation was Francis Patrick Garvan, a colleague of Palmer who was serving as director of the Bureau of Investigation of the Office of Alien Property Custodian. When Palmer was appointed Attorney General in 1919, Garvan took his place as Alien Property Custodian, and the circle was fully closed. Garvan could now uncover enemy patents in the U.S., sell them to the Chemical Foundation, and finally—as the head of the Foundation — resell them to American companies for the benefit of the national technological progress. In a booklet on the Aims and Purposes of the Chemical Foundation, published in 1919, Attorney General Palmer justified this process on the ground of patriotism and, frankly enough, mere financial profit:


Francis P. Garvan (1875-1937)

 “The great field of chemical industry… was, or had been until importations ceased, saturated through and through with German influence. In regard of no branch of human endeavor was the myth of German invincibility more firmly fixed in the public mind. The country was flooded with German chemists; and those who were not German by origin, were mostly German, directly or indirectly, by training… The German chemical industry, which had so thoroughly penetrated and permeated our own, was gigantic, perhaps the strongest, and certainly the most remunerative of all Teutonic industries. The task of identifying and taking over its property in the United States was thus a direct attack upon a most formidable opponent, while the information on which the work had to be based, had to be derived, to an exceptional extent, from men hostile by birth or tradition.”





Among the German companies that were most affected by the intervention of the Alien Property Custodian was Bayer, the famous pharmaceutical company, which lost its U.S. patent for Aspirin along with its own name and trademark for the United States.