Tucked away in Barrio Viejo ("Old Neighborhood") in Tucson, AZ, lies the only shrine in the United States dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground. The name means “The Little Castaway”, and the history of the shrine is much like most Southwestern lore – part historical fact and part local legend. In a part of Southwest where on both sides of the international border with Mexico “folk saints” are revered alongside the Virgin of Guadalupe and family patron saints, the idea of people praying and asking guidance from a sinner isn’t so far-fetched.
The often-told story of El Tiradito is the one that involves an 18-year-old sheepherder named Juan Olivares who had the misfortune of falling in love with his mother-in-law sometime in the 1870’s. She stayed at the family’s large estate in Tucson, and Olivares was seen frequenting town and the house quite often. In most accounts, it is said that his father-in-law, a very wealthy and powerful man in town, caught the two adulterous lovers together in his own bed and in a fit of rage chased Olivares with an ax in hand. Olivares's father-in-law caught up with him, killed him and left his body in the street. However, the stories vary as to how he was killed and thus make that part of the story more folklore than fact. Knowing that he would be hung for the murder, the father-in-law mounted his horse and fled sixty miles to Sonora, Mexico. There are various accounts that he too met an unfortunate end in an attempt to bring down his herd of sheep to Mexico. This tale says he was met by a tribe of Apache Indians as he attempted to return to his ranch for the first time since the incident. Those Indians then became his killers when they scalped and stabbed him. They took all of his belongings and tied him naked to a large Saguaro cactus along the Nogales to Tucson wagon trail. His body was found the next day by a group in a stagecoach headed to Sonora, Mexico. They brought his body with them and buried him there.
There are also accounts that the mother-in-law hung herself from her balcony over the affair. Then, Olivares's own wife found a well on the now seemingly empty ranch property where she lived, tied the well's rope around her neck and jumped in. Her neck snapped and she too died. She was said to be pregnant with his child at the time. Her body was buried on the property under a mesquite tree that is still there today.
The local barrio residents pleaded with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson to let them bury his body in the local cemetery. Due to the fact that Olivares was an adulterer and died because of his transgressions, the Diocese refused. Instead, he was buried in the same location that his body had been cast away by his murderer.
The original site of the shrine was on Meyer Ave. and Simpson Street. In 1928 the shrine was moved a block west to its current location at 420 South Main Ave. Some 50 years later, the shrine would be credited with stopping plans for a freeway that some say would have destroyed Barrio Viejo. According to the Tucson Citizen, "The Butterfield Freeway, which was to begin on the East Side and end at Interstate 10 near the Tucson Convention Center, would have consumed the area between Cushing and Simpson streets in the barrio." In 1971, the folklore shrine was entered into the National Registry of Historical Places. The shrine currently sits discretely in a dirt lot next to the El Minuto Cafe.
The shrine is also known by another name, “The Wishing Shrine.” Many faithful leave candles, small tokens, or push notes and prayers into the cracks of the shrine’s adobe walls. It is said that some are asking for redemption from their own bad decisions and deeds, and others pray for the soul of Juan Olivares to leave purgatory. A visitor could spend an afternoon just admiring the various items and age that is shown on the adobe walls and dirt floor of the shrine to a sinner. Those that are superstitious may also believe in the "Curse of the Wishing Shrine." According to the Tucson Museum website, "It is said that if one visits with a clear open heart that forgives, they will pass, and they may even get their wish fulfilled. For others, it may just be the beginning of history repeating itself depending on what they themselves bring to the shrine. Also, it is said that if you light a candle at the shrine and it remains burning all night long without going out by sunrise, your wish may be granted depending on your motivations."
Borderlands History - Tucson's Shrine to "El Tiradito", Jennifer Seman, June 26, 2014
El Tiradito (The Wishing Shrine), J. Makali Bruton, May 6, 2015
The El Tiradito - The Wishing Shrine Curse, Tucson Museum
Tucson Citizen: "Shrine to a Sinner", Romano Cedillos, October 28, 2004