Expressions of hope

Roadside shrines along Arizona state and U.S. highways

Although roadside shrines are built for a variety of reasons, in most cases they are places of petition or promise, explains retired Tucson folklorist James Griffith. "Particularly during World War II, many Mexican Americans in Arizona made a promise, or a manda, to build a shrine if their loved ones returned safely from overseas duty," says Griffith.

Most shrines are built by a family or individual and, though rooted in Catholicism, are rarely associated with any particular parish. Constructed of rock, brick, adobe blocks, or even old, upended bathtubs, the shrines can usually fit only one or two visitors at a time. Altars are anchored by statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, or saints, such as St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes. You'll frequently find candles, Christmas lights, and artificial flowers decorating the altar, plus the photographs, notes, and personal items left by those who've stopped to pray.

Travelers won't find many roadside shrines along interstates. Instead, look for them on state or U.S. highways, as well as backroads that connect smaller towns.

In addition to Licano's shrine, several others are easily accessible and popular with visitors. Just outside Patagonia, in southern Arizona, a short series of steps leads up to a shrine tucked into a shallow cliffside niche. Juan and Juanita Telles built it in the 1940s as a plea for their sons' safe return from World War II. The sons did return, and members of the family still take care of the shrine.


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