There’s a vacant lot on the west side of Main Avenue, just south of the corner of Main and Cushing Street. At the far end of the lot is an adobe wall featuring a central niche. Candles burn in glass containers in front of the wall, and the ground around them is darkened by decades of candle wax.

An historical marker near the entrance to the lot tells us that this is “the only shrine in the United States dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground.” We are at El Tiradito, “the little cast-away one,” – Tucson’s Wishing Shrine.

The plaque goes on to give the city of Tucson’s “official” legend and story behind the shrine: a young sheepherder named Juan Oliveros, who worked on a ranch out of town, was carrying on a passionate affair with his mother-in-law who lived in Tucson. One day the husband/father-in-law discovered the couple in their guilty love, killed Juan with an axe, and fled for Mexico. Juan was buried where he fell. People praying for Juan’s soul began to notice that their prayers were answered.

The only problem with this story is that there is no contemporary account of these goings on, and that in the archives of the Southwest Folklore Collection at the University of Arizona Library there exist more than twenty mutually contradictory stories of what happened. These range from complicated love triangles to the story of a man who was struck and killed by a bullet while walking past a bar-room door.

The earliest mention of the shrine seems to be a short article in the April 1, 1893, edition of the Arizona Daily Star, which simply states that a Mexican man was killed at that spot “many years ago.”

Maybe the safest thing to say is that the story now belongs to the community, and that whatever happened took place in that segment of time which is only accessible through oral tradition.

Yet the shrine is still there, and it is constantly used. Every time I have visited it over the past 40 years there have been candles burning.

Who uses it? To my certain knowledge: people who want miraculous cures, people who enter their dogs in dog shows, people who pray for successful hunting trips, people who are in need of the difficult or improbable. In other words, it is a place where folks go to plug into some source of power to which they feel they might otherwise not have access.

And so they write little notes and thrust them into holes in the wall, and light their candles in hopes that if the candle burns all night, their needs will be met.

Coming Next: A Little History.