Princeton Art Exhibit Showcases Mexican Migration to the U.S.

Mexican folk paintings on display at the Princeton University Art Museum explore migration, faith, and human vulnerability in the 20th century.

Retablo of Concepción Zapata, 1948. Oil on metal. Arias-Durand Collection.
Photo courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.

Small religious paintings can evoke immense emotions, especially when they capture a subject as complex as Mexican migration to the United States.

Considering their timeliness, it’s perhaps surprising that the 50 oil-on-metal paintings on display through July 7 at the Princeton University Art Museum were created between 1917 and the late 1990s. The “Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States” exhibition showcases an extensive range of tragedy, spirituality, and the human experience through vibrant and commemorative artwork known as retablos.

“These paintings tell stories of dangerous, risky, or somehow threatening circumstances that the subjects or the supplicants have been miraculously redeemed from,” says Juliana Ochs Dweck, the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement and the curator of the exhibition. “Many include Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a Catholic saint.”

Through colorful landscapes and religious nuances, “Miracles on the Border” addresses faith, imprisonment, the difficulty in finding work, illness, military service, and the joy and relief of returning home. When the curation of the exhibition was still in its earliest stages, it was clear that there were only three or four pairs of anonymous hands that produced the same retablos and left their characteristic marks.

The term retablo, from the Latin retro tabulum (behind the altar table), originally referred to painted depictions of saints or the Virgin that hung behind altars in Catholic churches in Europe and later in the Americas. Retablos flourished in Mexico in the 19th century. They came to denote the small paintings on tin placed as votive offerings in home altars, shrines, pilgrimage sites or churches in gratitude for divine protection.

“For sociologists, retablos are sociological documents that give insight into a side of migration that’s not usually told in statistical reports,” says Dweck. “They give insight into the social conditions, the lived experience, and the emotion of transnational migration.”

Photo courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.
Photo courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.
Photo courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.
Photo courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.
Photo courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.
Photo courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.
Photo courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.
Photo courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.
Photo courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.

What’s unique about this exhibition, Dweck notes, is that the artwork holds different meanings for different Mexican migrants and their families. All material is presented in both English and Spanish. Each votive states a name of an individual, the significant date, and an inscription of what is depicted. People of all cultural backgrounds, natural-born citizens and immigrants, can relate to the retablos in a personal way.

Douglas S. Massey, Henry G. Bryant professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, and Jorge Durand, professor of anthropology at the University of Guadalajara, have been collecting these historical pieces of folk art since 1988 and, in turn have become co-directors of the research group, Mexican Migration Project.

The idea to display the retablos at the Princeton Museum came about a year and a half ago when the museum was helping to coordinate a collaborative project on the theme of migration. Princeton professor of comparative literature Sandra Bermann, who also directs Princeton’s Migration Lab, suggested the exhibit to museum director James Steward.

“As personal testimonies of faith, hope and family separation, these delicately wrought images serve as powerful reminders about human strength and resilience in the face of acute challenges and hardship,” says Steward in a press release.

“Miracles on the Border” is a new collective concept, but the retablos themselves have been traveling around the world since the 1990s, Dweck notes. The political relevance of the exhibit is coincidental.

“The current political climate wasn’t necessarily the impetus,” Dweck says. “But at this particular moment of humanitarian crisis… it’s hard not to reflect on the current travails of Mexican migration.”

In the wake of the Mexican Revolution in the early 1910s, prominent Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera called retablos the “one true and present pictorial expression of the Mexican people” and promoted them as public manifestations of popular creativity. “Miracles on the Border” seeks to induce that same spirit.

More information about the exhibit:

Two public programs with Durand and Massey accompany the free-admission exhibition in partnership with the PIIRS Sawyer Seminar: Thursday, April 4, 5:30 p.m., McCosh Hall at Princeton University; and Saturday, April 6, 4 pm, at the Princeton Public Library. The Saturday event features a lecture in Spanish and English.

On Saturday, May 4, from 10:30 am – 4 pm, the museum will offer its spring family day with games, art-making and performances focused on the retablos theme of gratitude.

The museum’s bilingual exhibition and its accompanying programs are part of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, Mellon-funded Sawyer Seminar titled “Global Migration: The Humanities and Social Sciences in Dialogue.”

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