The Holy Child of Atocha
Santo Niño de Atocha
Chimayo, New Mexico
Portrayed as a small Spanish pilgrim boy, the image of the child Jesus known as Santo Niño de Atocha is dressed in a long gown with a cape that has a wide lace collar and frilled cuffs. The traditional symbol of a pilgrim, a cockleshell, is on his cape, and he holds a little basket in his left hand and a water gourd suspended from a staff in his right hand. The little holy boy wears buckled sandals –huaraches- of silver, and a large, floppy hat with a feather. Although he is known as a wanderer, he is usually shown seated in a little chair.
The pious tradition of Santo Niño de Atocha is a story rich in both history and devotion. Although the Holy Child is the miracle worker, the devotion was originally a Marian one. As is proper, before a child is asked to do something, first the petitioner must ask permission from his mother. Thus, the prayers and novenas to the Infant of Atocha begin with a prayer to Mary, Our Lady of Atocha.
Tradition says devotion to Our Lady of Atocha and her wonderworking child originated in Antioch, and that St. Luke the Evangelist was the sculptor of the first mother-and-child image. Thus the word Atocha could be a corruption of Antiochia. Devotion to Our Lady under this name spread rapidly, and by 1162 a beautiful medieval statue was in Toledo in the Church of St. Leocadia. In 1523, Charles V of Spain paid for an enormous temple and placed the statue under the care of the Dominicans. The image of the Divine Child was detachable, and devout families would borrow the image of the infant when a woman was about to give birth to her child.
The pious legend of the wonder working little Santo Niño is set in Spain.
In Atocha, a suburb of Madrid, many men were imprisoned because of their faith. The prisoners were not fed by their jailors, so food was taken to them by their families. At one time the caliph issued an order that no one except children twelve years old and younger would be permitted to bring food to the prisoners. Those with young children would manage to keep their relatives alive, but what of the others? The women of the town appealed to Our Lady, begging her to help them find a way to feed their husbands, sons, and brothers. Soon the children came home from the prison with a strange story. Those prisoners who had no young children to feed them were being visited and fed by a young boy. None of the children knew who he was, but the little water gourd he carried was never empty, and there was always plenty of bread in his basket to feed all the hapless prisoners without children of their own to bring them their food. He came at night, slipping past the sleeping guards or smiling politely at those who were alert. Those who had asked the Virgin of Atocha for a miracle began to suspect the identity of the little boy. As if in confirmation, the shoes on the statue of the child Jesus were worn down. When they replaced the shoes with new ones, those too were worn out. After Ferdinand and Isabella drove the Moors from Spain in 1492, the people continued to invoke the aid of Our Lady of the Atocha and her Holy Child.
When the Spaniards came to the New World, they brought along the devotions of their native regions. Those from Madrid naturally brought their devotion to Our Lady of the Atocha. In 1540, silver mines were found in Mexico, and Spanish mineworkers migrated here.
In Plateros, a tiny village near the mines of Fresnillo, a church was built in honor of Santo Cristo de los Plateros, a miraculous crucifix, beginning in the late 1690s. A beautiful Spanish image of Our Lady and her Divine child was placed on a side altar. .
The original statue of Our Lady of the Atocha in the Mexican shrine held the Holy Child in her left arm. The child was made to be removable and at one time the original image was lost. A replacement was carved to size. The new infant had Indian features. More of a doll than a sculpture, the image has a wig of human hair and his hands are oversized and roughly made. The parish priests began to take the Holy Child in procession during Christmas and the February feast of the Candelaria, the Virgin’s Purificaton, to the parish church at nearby Fresnillo. The Santo Niño was dressed in different clothing to emphasize seasonal festivities in the liturgical calendar.
By late colonial times, devotion to the Holy Child was rising and eclipsed the devotion to Our Lady of the Atocha and also that of the Lord (Santo Cristo) of Plateros. In an inventory of 1816, the little image of the Christ Child is described as wearing a purple dress and holding a little globe of silver and a scepter. His dress was decorated with several silver Milagros and he had earned two retablos of thanksgiving from grateful clients. By 1838, a new inventory showed that the little image had been moved to a niche in the main altar. Still dressed as a child prince, he had gained a rosary and a belt and had twenty-nine outfits of clothing and thirty two retablos (paintings on tin or wood given as ex voto offerings).
Through the years, as Santo Niño’s reputation as a miracle worker increased, the shrine in the sparsely populated and rugged mountainous area became a major place of pilgrimage. Santo Niño has received so many votive offerings that in 1883 a special building, the salon de retablos, was built to house them and serves as a museum at the shrine.
Just as his annual trips in pilgrimage to Fresnillo fueled his reputation as a wandering or pilgrim image, a novena in his honor written in 1848 contributed to his traditional patronages. The novena was written in completion of a manda, or vow, to praise the Holy Child in return for the author’s recovery from a serious illness. Calixto Aguirre began his act of Thanksgiving by traveling from Guanajuato to Plateros. Here, with the help of two men connected with the shrine, he transcribed the record of nine miracles from the retablos, using each as an inspirational theme for the day’s prayers. The novena described the Holy Child with the attributes of a little wanderer rather than an infant king. The miracles described are in favor of prisoners and those caught in an unfair legal system, miners, immigrants, victims of poor labor and economic conditions and crime, and the seriously ill. He has been called the Patron of the Desamparados, or “the abandoned.” Aguirre’s novena had an enormous distribution in Mexico, New Mexico, and Central America, and spread Santo Niño’s reputation rapidly.
In 1857, Severiano Medina from New Mexico made a pilgrimage to Fresnillo and took back with him a small statue of the Holy Child. This statue was enshrined in a private chapel in Chimayo, near Santa Fe. There, the local devotion began to grow as it had when it came to the New World. At this shrine there is a posito, or well, where devotees come to take blessed dirt as a sacramental in honor of the Holy Child and an aid to healing.
Some of the first American troops to see action in World War II were from the New Mexico National Guard. They fought bravely on Corregidor, with its underground tunnels and defenses. The Catholics remembered that the Santo Niño de Atocha had long been considered a patron of all who were trapped or imprisoned. Many of them made a vow that if they survived the war they would make a pilgrimage from Santa Fe to Chimayo in Thanksgiving. At the end of the war two thousand pilgrims, veterans of Corregidor, Bataan, and Japanese prison camps, together with their families, walked the long and rough road from Santa Fe to Chimayo. Some walked barefoot to the little adobe shrine.
There are other images of Santo Niño as a wandering little pilgrim throughout the world. Two of note are the one in the Cuzco region of Peru and the one called “palaboy” or “wanderer” in the Philippines. The wandering and wonder working little Infant of the Atocha visits the hearts of all with His tender love.
Excerpted from The Holy Infant Jesus by Ann Ball and Damian Hinojosa.