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Milagros: Little Miracles of Hope and Thanksgiving

In Spanish, milagro literally means “miracle” or “surprise.” However, milagro also refers to a metal pendant that symbolizes a request, prayer, or wish. The shape of the milagro is based on the concern or problem it is intended to solve. It might be an animal, a person, or a part of the body. Some milagros take the form of vegetables or pieces of fruit. Traditionally, the milagro charms are offered to a favorite saint to ask that a need or request be granted, or in thanksgiving for an answered prayer. For example, if someone has a broken arm, a small metal arm is hung on or near a favorite saint. An ear of corn might be used to give thanks for a good harvest.

Milagros may be made of brass, silver, gold, tin, or mixed metals. Most are cast in molds by the artisans, however, some are individually hand-crafted by silversmiths as specific and unique works for a particular occasion or request. Milagros can be flat or three-dimensional; they may be tiny or large. In Mexico, ready-made milagros in a wide variety of shapes and forms can be purchased from vendors outside many churches.

The use of milagros is an ancient tradition, dating back to the Iberians who lived along the costal regions of Spain between the fifth and first centuries BCE. Spain’s archaeological museums display tiny bronze milagros that are nearly identical to contemporary ones. Milagros came to the New World with the Spanish and their use spread throughout Latin America. The Spanish custom of offering milagros to the saints in Catholicism fit in well with Native Americans’ existing practices of offering gifts to the gods and was readily accepted. Ancient milagros were sometimes made of materials such as iron, stone, clay, wax, and wood. Although they may be called by different names, milagros are found in many other countries around the world as well, including Greece, India, Tibet, Morocco, and Iran.

Today milagros are particularly popular in Mexico, where entire altars are often covered with them. The use of milagros in the American Southwest is a fairly recent tradition, believed to have been brought north by Mexican immigrants. Milagro folk art has become popular; wooden crosses, hearts and other shapes encrusted with milagros are common. The unique metal charms are also being incorporated into pieces of jewelry. But the original use of milagros has not been lost or forgotten. Many continue the tradition of using a milagro when asking a patron saint for intercession on their behalf.

The San Xavier Mission in Tucson, Arizona and the Santuario de Chimayó in northern New Mexico are two of only a few places in the United States where you will find the small devotional charms known as milagros in traditional use.

Pilgrims, both locals and tourists, visit these churches every day. They come with needs, requests, and thanksgiving for answered prayers. Many times, they bring a milagro with them and pin it to the altar cloth or the garments of a saint. When they do, they are following an ancient custom, one that has brought hope to the faithful for centuries. 

Discussion questions for your students to consider:

If milagros are not a part of your culture, do you have other ways of giving thanks? Are there things you do in hopes of having a prayer or wish granted? What are they?

Lesson Plan: Make Your Own Milagro