Tucked away south of downtown Tucson lie the last remnants of the old Barrio Historico. The Barrio is the original Mexican neighborhood that was established at about the time of the Gadsden Purchase, when the entire area changed hands from Mexico to the United States. Tucson’s original barrio was decimated by the short-sighted urban renewal wave of the 1960s, but what remains is still the largest and best preserved collection of old adobe Sonoran-style building in the U.S.
It is said that the Barrio is inhabited by countless ghosts from its violent past. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but there is one legend from the old Barrio that is worth mentioning. The details of that legend are very sketchy, but it goes like this: sometime before the turn of the twentieth century there was an illicit love affair between a man and a married woman. It was an affair that was kept hidden for a very long time, but at some point the woman’s husband found out about it and murdered the man.
Because the murdered man was a sinner in the eyes of the Church when he died, he was denied a Catholic burial at the church’s cemetery. His body was barred from consecrated ground. So he was instead buried underneath his home somewhere. Today, that legend holds, he lies there still, somewhere within the crumbling walls of that old adobe home.
Whatever happened, one thing we know. The community took pity on the young man and today the brick walls which stand in for his unconsecrated grave have been consecrated by popular acclaim as a makeshift shrine known as El Tiradito (“the little castaway” or “the little discarded one”). Over the years, people have come from all over to pray at the shrine, both for the murdered lover and for others who have become lost to them. They leave small photographs, milagros, and other small tokens representing their prayer requests around the old fireplace which is now a revered nicho, and sometimes they’ll write their prayers down on small scraps of paper and leave them in the cracks of the crumbling adobe walls. And always they leave behind lit candles, typically those candles that you’ll find in Mexican grocery stores in South Tucson with images of saints printed on the sides. It is said that if you leave a lit candle at nightfall and the candle is still burning in the morning, then your prayers will be answered.
Legends have a way of growing out of small kernels of facts while ignoring other facts. My friend Homer, an archeologist and local historian tells me that he remembers reading newspaper accounts from around the 1920s in which the shrine was moved a short distance to its present location. He also says that nobody has been able to uncover historical records to verify the legend. But he also says that territorial newspaper accounts from the 1800s are full of stories about husbands murdering the paramours of their wives. Arizona was especially violent in those days and living was hard. As many as a quarter of the people who died in the 1870s met a violent end. And even today, the remains of dead bodies turn up every few years or so in unexpected places underneath streets and sidewalks whenever a reconstruction project is taking place.
But whatever the actual facts may be, legends and myths have a way of speaking to greater truths that register in the hearts of those who hold them as true. Legends lift us from the world of the mundane and carry us to the plane of aspirations and ideals. And it’s those greater ideals embodied by El Tiradito which fascinates me. This shrine, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is reputed to be the only known shrine in America dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground. Whether that is true or not, a shrine dedicated to the memory of a sinner is a very odd thing. Shrines are the sorts of thing we’re more erect for reserve to heroes.
By all traditional understandings of morality of the day, the husband should be seen as the victim. He was the one who was wronged by his wife and her lover. And according to the frontier mores of the day, he was entirely within his rights to shoot the interloper. In fact, frontier justice demanded such an honor killing. By all rights, the man commemorated by this site would be looked upon as the villain. He’s the one who messed around with another man’s wife. But here, it’s the wife’s husband who is reviled. Why is that?
Clearly those who first carried the memory of the murdered lover knew more than we do today. What was it about the love between the murdered man and the married woman that touched their hearts? Was the woman’s husband cruel to her? Malicious to others? Was he a drunk all the time? Did he beat her? Cheat on her?
And what of the poor soul who was murdered? We can safely say he was a poor soul, otherwise his memory wouldn’t have been so lovingly tended. He clearly is the sympathetic one in the story. Why is that? Was he particularly kind? Generous of spirit? More to the point, was he the one she was meant to love and be loved by in return?
Who knows? All that we do know is that this man, the one who was reviled by the proper authorities of the day — he is now the folk hero, the one who is the beneficiary of generations of prayers and tender thoughts.
We are all familiar with the “love that dares not speak its name,” but here we have a man whose name is no longer spoken and is therefore unknown to us. And so we arrive at the greater thing which, I think, this legend represents and which no factual historical record can touch. In his anonymity, an unknown man is remembered, and he is loved because he dared to pursue a love that was prohibited to him. Yet in his pursuit of a forbidden love, his love achieved a sort of immortality that has long outlived him.
Many times love cannot be constrained by the rigid boundaries of what is considered proper, nor by the limits of a premature death. This love broke through all of those boundaries and its effects have endured beyond death and memory. It has pushed forward through the centuries and burns still today, flickering tentatively like the candles at El Tiradito, precisely because others have carefully tended it through the night so that it may greet the dawn once more.