Created 09/02/2008 – 2:36pm
Theological Aesthetics and the Recovery of Silenced Voices
Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles CA
In March 2004 something unexpected appeared along a stretch of land the Tucson Weekly called “an ugly
wound cutting some three miles across Nogales” . In a moment of intense incongruity, several large
enigmatic figures materialized on the Mexican side of the fence separating the U.S. from México.
“The wall is military surplus,” explained the newspaper noting its war-like nature, “made of corrugated
helicopter landing pads that U.S. troops once laid out in Vietnam’s jungles and in Kuwait’s deserts. The
color of an ugly bruise, its sickly green merges with gun-metal gray. The perfect canvas, in other words, for
a giant piece of political art.”  We, of course, know what these enigmatic figures are…they are
milagros. And we know they are profoundly complicated, much beyond “political art.” I begin with this work that the art world calls “public art” but we might more accurately call “popular religion as public art” to give specificity to my proposal.
A proposal advocating the recovery of silenced voices is nothing new to anyone working in the field of
Latino/a theology. We are all, in some way, actively involved in this work. We know that a commitment to
our quehacer teológico necessitates searches beyond volumes of overly verbose theology in dusty libraries. We have known this for a long time. What is new about this proposal then?
First, this is an invitation from us (and other so-called contextual theologians ) to the wider academic
community to adopt a rigorous and productive methodology growing out of our experiences of doing
theology. Our ways of doing theology respect the variety of ways that our communities theologize. Second,
the invitation has depth and reach because it uses the language of theological aesthetics to connect a
variety of discourses and disciplines. Especially between the arts and theology, aesthetics is a recognized common discourse. Beyond this, its adoption inherently challenges and effectively dismantles overly rationalistic paradigms. These very same paradigms, set as they have been as the only normative type of theological discourse, have been used to keep “the other” as “other” silent. Third, the invitation comes with a “how-to manual.” While many of us have indeed been involved in doing this work for years, how to do
the work is often a struggle. This methodological proposal seeks to minimize the difficulties posed by such radical interdisciplinarity by first articulating and then carefully systematizing a method to make the work of theological aesthetics more accessible.
The final goal is evident as we again look at the border milagros. We will lift voices that are generally
ignored, classified as “folkloric” or “political”, or demoted to the category of “affective religiosity” without regard to their very real theological thickness.
So as we look at the milagros what do we notice?
If we are attentive, if we enter into the relationship, we see a powerful, painful, enigmatic, and quite
beautiful work. The work will help us fill in the definition of theological aesthetics.  First, the work is powerful because it deals with human life; there is none of the aestheticism here
commonly found in art that exists only to gaze narcissistically at itself. Theological aesthetics deals with works that are “oriented to human ends.”   Second, the images are indeed painful, if we dare be
present to the depth of suffering represented by la frontera and the way milagros function in the
community. Theological aesthetics looks with reverence at that which moves the human heart and to that toward which it moves it.   In this work, there is supplication, there is lament, and there’s a communal gaze of hope lifted to God. Third, the work is enigmatic, and theological aesthetics acknowledges the radical polyvalence of creative expressions and experiences as well as their ambiguity. The univocity often claimed for normative written texts is perceptibly impossible with most creative works, and this radicalizes theological aesthetics toward a constantly receding horizon of appreciated otherness.
Fourth, the work is beautiful, its beauty captures us and fills us with longing; it also exposes the horror and
ugliness of the fence and those who put it there. In the beauty of the work we come to know the many
communities for whom and about whom it speaks and their beauty. Theological aesthetics fills in what just
“aesthetics” cannot, because as García-Rivera underscores “theology recognizes that Beauty shines
through the suffering in this world through its communal dimension.”   It is our recognition of this communal dimension that shifts us to the next set of categories of this method and to the image for the “how to.”
Looking at the milagros, which effectively efface the categories of art, popular religion and folklore, we also
notice the inadequacy of the paradigm of intersecting lines. Where does the art end and the religion begin?
Is there a neat and localized point where we can see them meet? Or is there an intricate interweaving, an
interlacing, of artistic religiosity, religious art, myriad iconic traditions, political protest, Latin American
popular religion, European Medieval Catholicism, and Amerindian symbology? ……..
Just one look at the milagros on the border fence tells us the artist as lone genius is a lie. Its very power lies in how broad its voice/appeal is. Interlacing replaces this predominance of the artist with a communal view. As we can see in this border
art, there are three major authorial or meaning-making influences on the work. They are equally important and must be kept in a creative and fruitfully interlaced relationship.  First, we have the work itself, and the understanding that a creative work has its own life; sometimes taking
a very different form from what the artist intended, and often surprising even the artist. Federico García
Lorca radically proposes that unless artists completely let go of their egoistical plans in favor of the work
the work of art will be unsuccessful, missing the quality of depth and power a community recognizes
calling it duende.  In the case of this work, we can see how the milagros would have shifting meanings if placed on the Mexico side of the border, or on the U.S. side. The work has its own life.
Second, we have the artist. An understanding of the artist’s context is important, because creative works
happen in history and reflect the forces at work in that history. Yet caution must be exercised to not reduce
the work to the artist, and especially not require “sainthood” from artists in order to recognize that their works have theological significance. In the milagros we can see the role of the artist mainly as the artful translation and invocation of an old and beloved communal religious tradition. To emphasize his authorship as an individual’s accomplishment would lead us to minimize the tradition.
Finally, and just as importantly, we must focus on the communities involved in the work, behind the art and
in front of it. Rather than one discrete group, the category of communities seeks to recover all of those
whose traditions may lie behind the work, and whose interpretations, appropriations and critiques lie in
front of it. It is an extensive category which offers much richness, and which beautifully embodies the
Latino/a model of doing theology as teología en conjunto and of its pastoral implications as pastoral en
conjunto.  To conclude, the Border Milagros artwork hanging in both desperation and hope on the U.S./Mexican
Border has helped us to articulate some of the initial parameters of theological aesthetics as practiced
through a methodology of interlacing. A methodology that effaces and decenters traditional categories of
engagement between art and religion, and which, owing to its debt to Latino/a ways of doing theology,
expresses itself in a joint, fluid and dynamic approach to a work of art, the artist and the many communities
involved in its beautiful life.
Postscript: About the Artwork
Parade of Humanity: Border Milagros was created by Alfred J. Quiroz, artist and professor at the University
of Arizona’s School of Art, in collaboration with Taller Yonke (Nogales Sonora, Mexico). Quiroz explains, “I
created 16 milagro images, some of which are actual milagro images, but altered for the purpose of
making individuals aware of the dangers of crossing the desert here in Arizona.”   Quiroz received a
grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts to produce this collaborative work. The milagros have
traveled and also hung at Agua Prieta on the Mexican side of the border. Part of the work’s intention is that
it “hang” on as many spots of the border fence as possible. As of the date of publication the art
cooperative has not been allowed to set up the works on the U.S. side of the border.  The work may
Theological Aesthetics and the Recovery of Silenced
be seen on the Mexico side of the border in Nogales where it was re-installed in 2006.
Voices–http://www.latinotheology.org/print/43[1/21/2012 3:58:38 PM]
Created 09/02/2008 – 2:36pm