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. 

Downtown Tucson’s El Tiradito shrine commemorates a sinner, rather than petitioning a saint. There are several versions of the story of El Tiradito, which means “little outcast” or “little castaway.” The most common one takes place in the late 1800s, when Juan Oliveros, a young shepherd, is said to have become infatuated with his mother-in-law. Their adulterous love affair was discovered by the woman’s husband. Enraged, he murdered Oliveros. The youth’s dalliance in one of the seven deadly sins prevented his inclusion in the local cemetery. Instead, he was buried where he was killed, and the shrine was erected at that site.

The present adobe shrine, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was built a few blocks from the original after it was abandoned to a street-widening project in the 1940s. Over the years, the shrine has become a focal point for Tucson residents in times of need. It’s not unusual to find several people at the shrine, praying or lighting candles.

Another version of the roadside shrine is found in home gardens, typically in Hispanic neighborhoods in Tucson and other southern Arizona communities. The majority are small, personal, and tucked into a corner of the yard, but a few are located in front of the house, facing outward toward the street. Between Tubac and Tumacácori, the community of Carmen has several outward-facing yard shrines, which are constructed of everything from red brick to concrete block and sliding glass doors. According to local custom, if the shrine faces the street, you’re welcome to visit.

That philosophy is applicable to most visible shrines, whether they’re in a yard or next to a highway. As Licano says about his shrine, “Everyone is welcome here. It’s a place for anyone who believes.”

Keep Reading: