Monday, February 12, 2018

El Tiradito-- the Wishing Shrine

by Rain Trueax

With Valentine's Day approaching, it seems a time to look at a story of love gone wrong and wishes from those who hope for it to go right.

Tucson, Arizona is a land of many cultures drawn here by the river valley and its ability to nurture life. To me, having been here off and on since 1965, both to vacation and live, it is a land of mysticism, violence, history and mystery. One of its mysteries is that of el Tiradito. I only learned of it five or so years ago, even with all the time I'd spent in the area. The first time I went looking for it, I didn't have an address and thought another shrine (the region is full of them) was it. It was not. 

Finally, I got the right spot, took photos, absorbed its ambiance, and was inspired to put it into an historical romance. Years later, it appeared again in my paranormal contemporaries based in its neighborhood, Barrio Viejo. The old adobe community, many of the dwellings being lovingly restored, seemed a logical place to have a family of natural-born witches involved with protecting the street from evil. 

El Tiradito's mythology could make a book all on its own-- but not with the happy ending romances require. It has many versions of its story, secrets protected by the mists of time, as to its meaning and why it is there.

The neighborhood, Barrio Viejo has its own secrets and its history goes back many hundreds of years. It is the end of El Camino Real also called the Royal Road to Mexico City. It served as a road for the first Spaniards who entered America. Father Kino, who founded many missions in the area came down the road in the 1690s. 

For any who might be visiting Tucson, el Tiradito, the Wishing Shrine , is on Main Avenue between Cushing and Simpson Streets. It is south of downtown Tucson. When you see it, it looks like the remains of an older building with adobe walls, a simple shrine at its center. The reason for its existence may begin in the 1870s when its story was first told-- or was it? 

El Tiradito is a story of the West, of love, tragedy, and of a curse or is that a blessing? There are, of course, many such stories, what made this one special enough that people still visit this place and hope for a miracle? 

Not all who come may know its story. There are, after all, at least twenty versions of it-- all with a common thread-- a love gone wrong. Here is one version, which might well be the true one, of course.

It was in the 1870s, and Juan Oliveras was eighteen, a shepherd, who frequented Tucson, while he lived north of town with his young bride and his father-in-law, on the older man's ranch. Juan fell in love with his mother-in-law, who must have been a beautiful woman to inspire such a risky affair. Their adultery was possible because she lived in her husband's large main home in Barrio Viejo. 

It might've gone on for some time; but one particular day, Juan chose to visit her at the same time his father-in-law also came to town. The older man discovered the two making love in his own bed. Not surprisingly, there were angry words and a fight. Juan broke away, running from the house. His father-in-law followed with an axe. Yelling for help, to no avail, the older man hacked at him until Juan died in a pool of his own blood.

The murderer, believing he would be arrested by the Tucson marshals and hanged for the crime, saddled his best horse and rode south sixty miles to Sonora, Mexico.  

One story, as to the father-in-law's end, is that he didn't stay there. He wanted his sheep and rode back to get them. Near Tubac, he was attacked by Apaches, who scalped, stabbed and shot him repeatedly, tying his body to a cactus (yes, the Old West could be brutal and I am leaving out the most gruesome details). His dead body was found by the south bound stage coach and carried to Nogales, Sonora where it was buried.

Juan's widow was despondent after this horrible tragedy. There are several stories as to how she died but they all claim hanging. One such version is that
even though she was pregnant, she couldn't bear to continue living after Juan's and her mother's betrayal and her father's murderous deed. Without hope, she untied the bucket to ranch's well, tied the rope around her neck and threw herself down the deep well. When neighbors came to check on her they found her body and buried it right there, under a large mesquite, where it remains-- no shrine that I know of.

Some say Juan's body was left to rot on the dirt road. The Catholic Church refused him burial in hallowed ground, given the nature of his sin. One story says he was buried on the spot where he had been murdered. It has led to the name for the site. El Tiradito means castaway or little throwaway. Of course, there is another more romantic story that his mother-in-law buried him under her porch and built a wall around the grave-- the wall that still surrounds the shrine (unlikely given later events).

Now why should such a grave inspire becoming a shrine where even 140 years later people visit with prayers? One story lays it to the barrio women who
romanticized the love affair. They visited the grave to light candles and ask God to forgive Oliveras, the handsome (of course, he must have been) young man.

It soon evolved into a place where others could go to make a wish, writing their request on a small piece of paper and putting in the wall. Today it is claimed that if a candle is lit and the flame lasts the night, the wish will be granted-- possibly by Juan's ghost or was it the weeping mother-in-law's ghost, who some claim to hear when they visit. I saw no stories as to her end, which is unusual in that usually adulteresses must pay the ultimate price. Maybe she did-- or maybe she found another handsome young man.

El Tiradito is the only shrine dedicated to a sinner (that is known). It is now on the registry of historic places and contributed to preventing the freeway from wiping out the barrio more completely than downtown Tucson's expansion was already attempting. 

I have liked my time there, whenever I've visited. I can't say I felt any vibes either way. It feels peaceful and has a quiet beauty. I certainly didn't cast a wish, who knows how that would have worked out.

I used the legend when I wrote Arizona Sunset set in the 1880s. In this snippet, Abigail and Priscilla, longtime friends, are stopping at the shrine on their way down to picnic on the Santa Cruz River.

“So what are you going to ask for?” Abigail asked.  

"If I told you, would it come true?" Cilla quieted her voice as they neared the shrine. Lit candles, rosaries, crucifixes and bits of cloth were fastened to the adobe enclosure. If a candle continued burning through the night, it was believed it was a sign the wish would come true.

"My dear friend, this isn’t like blowing out a birthday candle. Besides, you can't believe in this sort of thing?" Abigail hushed her own voice at least partly because an old woman, a shawl almost covering her white hair, was kneeling in front of the small structure and gave her a gimlet eyed look.  

"And if I do?" Priscilla pulled a candle from her shawl. She knelt and lit it, closing her eyes.

Abigail looked at the shrine wondering if it did have some kind of magical powers. If so, from where might the enchantment come? A catastrophic result on love could fix someone else’s problems. She resisted a sarcastic laugh. For what would she wish if she believed in such? Nothing could be wished into existence. She had prayed when her mother grew sick and what good had it done. 

Wishing for freedom, for adventure, for forbidden fruits, none of that would bring her what she wanted—if she even knew what that might be. Would a wish bring the dark gunman into her life? She remembered how he had looked, what she had felt in that moment when their gazes seemed to lock. He had been a handsome man even under the beard. Would she want to conjure a reckless love like that into her reality? No, that was not for her. Wishes were for children or naive adults, not practical women. 

When Priscilla rose, she met Abigail’s skeptical expression with a benign expression of her own. “What can it hurt?” 

Abigail made a dramatic shudder. “Perhaps wishes are dangerous.” 

Priscilla laughed. “I will risk it.”

“What we wish for sometimes has another thing connected. Something we may not have considered.” “Maybe I would want the other thing too.” Priscilla laughed even though she received another stern look from the old lady. 

Arizona Sunset
Tucson Moon (where this business of making wishes is a major issue)

Both books are also available at most other sites and can be found through Arizona Sunset-- 
Tucson Moon--


  1. Rain, what an interesting and actually, considering how the story has continued through the ages, amazing tale it is! Haven't explored Arizona much, but might have to make that one of our upcoming road trips this year.

  2. Hope you do it when we are still in Tucson. We only come here now and again but it's definitely one of my 'spirit' homes. i love it for so many reasons and stories like this one are among them.

    1. Wow...what a story! And so many facets to it, too. I understand about the violence...I wrote a post some time ago about Rachel of the early Texas women. I'm not sure but I believe she suffered more than any other woman. Just gruesome.
      Thanks for the good research.

  3. What an interesting story! And more proof that we tend to romanticized the West and fail to tell the real stories of the women who inhabited it, which are by far so much more interesting. I'm sure that mother never told her daughter that she was having a torrid affair with her SIL when they were caught. That poor widow only knew her darling father killed her beloved. What a mess!

  4. That is quite possible that the widow didn't know or maybe she had a terrible relationship with her mother anyway, explaining why the woman would betray her that way; and she feared she'd be treated poorly in the future. The fact that the woman had a townhouse might be the part of the story we don't know. It would definitely not make a romance though lol

  5. Ohmygosh, murder,betrayal, mayhem, and a heck of a mess in the after math. Isn't it weird how all that hot mess led to a shrine where people leave messages and wishes on pieces of paper in the crevice of a wall?
    Great post, Rain. That's some awesome research.

  6. I've thought of that too, Sarah. Why would such a negative series of events lead anyone to believe wishes would be granted. Kind of amazing.

  7. Interesting legend and what horrible deaths.

  8. So far though never heard of the mother-in-law's end. I suppose it would depend on whether she had loved anyone but herself. You'd think there'd be something out there on her end, but I didn't find it.


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