Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Jesus Tortilla of Lake Arthur, New Mexico

(I go through the tiny village of Lake Arthur about once every three months, but I first heard about the tortilla in this book.  The tortilla is also the basis for a 2007 movie.)


No one realized at the time, but the 1977 appearance of Jesus Christ on a flour tortilla set the international standard for miracle sightings. Once confined to obscure grotto appearances, the Tortilla was the crossover miracle that put God in the Extra Value Meal of the average American.

Now, no object is too outrageous for an Almighty (or Virgin Mary) cameo. He's materialized on a Pizza Hut billboard in a plate of spaghetti; on a bowling alley chimney; reflected from a porch light onto a car bumper (until the light was turned off and the car moved); on a diner place mat; and even on a dead priest's shoe.

But the Miracle Tortilla was the first to fully wrap around the collective pop subconscious.

In October of 1977, Maria Rubio was rolling up a burrito for her husband Eduardo's breakfast, when she noticed a thumb-sized configuration of skillet burns on the tortilla that resembled the face of Jesus. Needless to say, Eduardo went hungry that meal as Maria told family and neighbors of the miraculous event. It happened in the small town of Lake Arthur, New Mexico, 40 minutes south of Roswell.

Space Alien fever had yet to infect the state, and visitations were of a predominantly religious nature. NM's historic Santuario de Chimayo, with its miracle dirt pit, drew thousands of annual visitors looking for spiritual connection to the miraculous cross that burst from the hillside in 1810. Elsewhere, statues occasionally shed a tear, or passing clouds took on the shape of the Blessed Mother.

Wide-eyed believers call them "signs."

Cranky skeptics ascribe them to a human faculty for delusion called "pareidolia," a perception of pattern and meaning from natural randomness. At the same time, scientists believe humans are hardwired to recognize facial patterns, our hunkered fore-apes' need to quickly identify foe, friend or mate. We'll perceive a familiar face in an unfamiliar place, before seeing, say, a locomotive or a cotton gin.

Despite the braying of scientists and skeptics, the Holy Tortilla quickly developed a solid fan base. By 1979, over 35,000 people had visited, bringing flowers and photos of sick loved ones.

Mrs. Rubio quit her job as a maid to attend full-time to the hastily constructed "Shrine of the Holy Tortilla" in her home. When away, she'd leave the door unlocked so that no one would be denied access.

She mounted the Tex-Mex Relic in a wooden frame under glass, a puffy wad of cotton along the bottom making it appear as if Tortilla Christ was suspended just inside the Pearly Gates.

In the wake of this first Tortilla visitation, all heaven broke loose. November 1977 -- a competing Miracle Tortilla appeared in the skillet of Phoenix housewife Ramona Barreras. It was the face of Jesus, this time accompanied by the letters K, J, C, and B, which Ramona believed stood for "King Jesus is Coming Back." According to the Phoenix New Times in 1997, the Barreras Miracle Tortilla "rests in a Plexiglas box in a kitchen drawer."

In March 1983, housewife Paula Rivera claimed the image of Jesus appeared on a corn tortilla she was making in Hidalgo Texas. She created her own "Shrine of the Holy Tortilla."

In the meantime, the faithful still traveled to Lake Arthur to see the original. Mrs. Rubio eventually moved it to a small wooden shed in the backyard. Years of merciless southwestern heat have literally fried and refried the tortilla. The image, once recognizable even in photographs, has faded to a half dozen brown spots and a wiggly burnt blotch.

There are no signs that any healings have happened recently -- no leftover crutches -- so perhaps this miracle has run its course. But Mrs. Rubio's family is perfectly happy to open up the shrine for any and all visitors....

UPDATE - December 2006: Disaster! In 2005, Mrs. Rubio's granddaughter took the Miracle Tortilla into school for Show and Tell, and it was dropped and broken! The shed shrine has been closed and the remains retired to a drawer in the Rubios' home.

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