Human Interest

El Tiradito: An Arizona shrine for Latinos, migrants where a sinner is venerated

Tucson, Arizona, Jun 20 (EFE).- The adobe wall of an old building is the backdrop for El Tiradito, an open-air shrine and sanctuary in a historic part of Tucson, Arizona, that is popular with Hispanics and migrants and a place where they can remember their friends and loved ones who have died along the US-Mexico border.

Although there are always candles lit for Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and Catholic saints there, this is not a place of religious worship. On the contrary, the site has a dark history.

It’s believed to be the only place in the United States where a “sinner” is venerated, writer Elaine Romero told EFE, adding that the improvised altar there inspired her to write a play that will premiere at the site in September.

Romero was referring to one of at least a dozen urban myths about the sanctuary’s origin, a story dating back to the 1870’s and the most widely accepted by historians.

As the story goes, Juan Olivares was murdered on that spot by the jealous husband of his mother-in-law, with whom he had fallen in love.

Because Olivares was considered to be a “sinner,” he was not allowed to be buried in a consecrated ground, so his body was simply left, or interred, at the site, and now a plaque there states that the name of the site – El Tiradito – means “the rejected one” in Spanish.

The story has been handed down from generation to generation among Hispanics in South Tucson, many of whom often go to El Tiradito to light candles or to ask Olivares’s spirit for “favors.”

El Tiradito was added to the US National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and was described in the Arizona Daily Star in 2021 as “a three-sided shrine of crumbling adobe walls, small and nondescript, mere streets away from the bustle and noise of downtown Tucson.”

It’s located in the Barrio Viejo (Old Neighborhood), one of the local Hispanic community’s oldest zones and now filled with restaurants, schools and a convention center.

It’s also a sacred spot for the migrant community and for many local Hispanic and non-Hispanic residents, although it’s not affiliated with any particular faith or church, said Romero, a professor of theater writing at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The little shrine seems lost in time, but it also represents the “heart” of local activism and complaints by the Hispanic community over the ongoing deaths of desperate migrants along the US-Mexico border.

Romero said she wanted to rescue that story by writing a play she titled “Memoria y resistencia: El Tiradito, un lugar sagrado para honrar a los migrantes y la comunidad” (Memory and resistance: El Tiradito, a sacred place to honor migrants and the community.)

Every Thursday for more than two decades, groups like the Human Rights Coalition of Arizona have held a vigil at the site to remember the migrants who have died trying to get to the US seeking a better life.

Plastic and paper flowers adorn the sanctuary, and bottles of water are placed here and there in memory of the people who died of hunger and thirst in the Arizona desert.

According to migrant defense groups, estimates are that since 1990 some 8,000 migrants, including children, have perished while trying to cross the border through the waterless desert under the brutal sun.

El Tiradito is also the site for protests where alleged abuses by the US Border Patrol and local authorities are denounced.

The site has become a “synonym of struggle,” a story that needs to be transmitted to new generations, Romero said.

The professor and playwright, who is of Mexican origin, said that her play is based on the story of three people who, in various ways, are linked to the site, along with its significance for the community.

Each November, the local Hispanic community places a large altar at El Tiradito for the Day of the Dead to remember deceased migrants, laying out food, candy, beverages and bread in their memory.

Every day, the site is visited by people who pray for loved ones or place messages bearing wishes or thanks for received favors written on paper in the cracks and crevices of the brick wall.

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