Issue 15 | The Dark + the Light

Ruin and Renewal at El Tiradito

By Megan Kimble

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Stories from the Field: El Tiradito is the Outcast
 

A late-afternoon visitor lights a candle at El Tiradito. Photo by Megan Kimble.
The National Register Information System (NRIS) is a database of over 84,000 historic buildings, districts, sites, structures and objects listed on, removed from, or pending listing in the National Register.

El Tiradito is the nation’s only shrine dedicated to a sinner. Details are scrubbed into dirt, hidden beneath the layer of black soot and melted wax, emulsified into desert dust. Small scraps scatter, flutter, breathe.

Candles, nine of them, flicker in the mid-afternoon light. Tea lights, excavated of wax, burned clean to tin. If it burns to the socket, you’ll have money in your pocket. Every year on New Year’s Eve, my mom lights a bayberry candle before she goes to bed. It melts into a puddle of green wax while we sleep. When we wake up, it has burned to the socket.

Small roses of floppy cotton cloth. Paper wreaths and birds folded of blue origami.

Who comes to El Tiradito? Hidden behind a palo verde—you cannot hide behind a palo verde, you skinny leafless tree—I fade into the pickled green skin of a January afternoon.

El Tiradito makes a Los Angeles Times list of 100 Cool Places In Arizona: “It’s the nation’s only shrine dedicated to a sinner—a man who died fighting for his married lover. Maybe that’s why El Tiradito draws so many wistful souls to light a candle in front of its crumbling walls or to slip a scrap of paper into its adobe crevasses with a prayer or manda (promise). Take advantage of a visit to El Tiradito to walk around the colorful Barrio Viejo to see what old Tucson looked like before an ‘urban renewal’ project wiped out much of this historic Hispanic neighborhood.”

Megan Kimble contributed to this report.

Who is our sinner?

In the 1800s, a sheep herder fell in love with his mother-in-law. His father-in-law found out about the affair and killed him at this spot, the spot that would become the nation’s only shrine to a sinner.

Or in the 1870s, a gambler fell in love with another man’s wife. Man shoots gambler; he stumbles to this place to die.

A tragic love triangle. A husband killed his wife’s lover. The man could not be buried in a consecrated cemetery—Catholic adulterers know no salvation—so locals lit candles at the shrine, prayed for his soul.

If it is January, it is a new year. My mom mails me bayberry candles but I forget to burn them on New Year’s Eve. At home, her bayberry burns to the socket—every year. (“What happens if it doesn’t?” I ask. “It does,” she says.) I make my wishes—am I wistful soul, a soul that wists? I scrawl three words on a small scrap of paper and leave it behind, pushed deep into a crack in the wishing wall.

There’s always a candle lit at this sinner’s shrine. Photo by Megan Kimble.

A tiny white skeleton, plastic legs wrapped around the top of a black drinking straw.

Small bells knotted at the ends of dirty strings, strings knotted to fragile branches.

What do I want from this shrine? We visit and we scatter ourselves, our scraps, into mud, into desert dust.

Local legend says that if a person lights a candle at the shrine and the flame remains burning the next day, a wish will come true.

I came in January. On the cusp of October, I come again. I re-evaluate.

Trista Davis writes in El Independiente: “El Tiradito was nominated for the registry in an effort to save Barrio Viejo from being demolished for the construction of the Butterfield Express. Tucson’s Urban Renewal project destroyed all of the barrios north of Cushing Street to make room for the Tucson Convention Center and La Placita. To stop this, citizens of the barrio and two other surrounding neighborhoods threatened by the construction formed the El Tiradito Foundation.”

Ribbons. Shards of ribbon.

My mom is not superstitious, she says. She is not religious. Every year on New Year’s Eve, my mom lights a bayberry candle. A new year is a renewal.

Who is our sinner, then? If I forget to light the bayberry candle, why do I come to a shrine?

El Tiradito is the Castaway.

 


Header photo, El Tiradito at night, by Simmons B. Buntin.

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