Santito Rescue Mission (Photo by author)
Winter 1984, The West Side of Tucson
Lázaro first arrived at Nana Coyo’s as a 15-year-old. Almost as soon as he stepped foot into the house and was shown to his room, Lázaro wove himself into a cocoon. Except for visits to the bathroom, he slept. It’s not that he’d planned it this way, but something in him felt, at long last, that he could retreat into a space that wouldn’t fall apart if he closed his eyes and withdrew his senses. He hibernated. Some might say that was a good thing. Lázaro wasn’t so sure. He didn’t know if he ever wanted to return to the outside world. He was ready for the earth to swallow him up if she wanted.
As days turned to weeks, Lázaro slept less and found it harder to keep Nana Coyo’s world at bay as it whirred around his cocoon. Hers was not the household of a quiet, single, fifty-something-year-old barrio woman, like he’d expected. Nana Coyo’s house seemed like the social crossroads of Tucson’s west side. Someone was always coming over for something. As soon as the sun began to lighten the sky, someone was walking through the kitchen door with panecitos and café. All day long, Nana’s friends flowed in and out—even when Nana wasn’t home. There were Friday-night potlucks and Sunday brunches. They cooked together, gardened together, talked non-stop, laughed, cried. Sometimes Lázaro would hear drumming, and he’d peer out of his bedroom window to see them all circled up in the backyard—smoke billowing and who-knows-what-else going on.
By every stretch of the imagination, Lázaro should never have been able to tolerate Nana Coyo and her people. He’d been raised by parents who taught him that you couldn’t put your trust in anything. Yet there was something disarming about Nana Coyo and her friends. They didn’t seem easily offended. Nana didn’t get upset when Lázaro refused to join her at the table for the umpteenth time. She didn’t need him to thank her for the roof over his head and the food in his belly. She didn’t tap her foot outside the door, waving a finger in the air calling him a good-for-nothing huevón.
Which wasn’t to say that Nana Coyo and her friends just ignored him. At every meal, Nana set a place for Lázaro at the kitchen table. He’d never show up, so after the meal, Nana would serve him a plate, cover it, and leave it for him on a TV tray set up outside his room. She’d knock on his door and scamper away, so he could sneak out like a little mouse and collect his tray in peace.
That TV tray quickly became too small for all the things Nana Coyo wanted to leave outside Lázaro’s door. She replaced the tray with a side table and immediately set up a veladora to Madrecita Guadalupe and a glass jar to hold an arrangement of plantitas she harvested from the garden every day.
Then other things started showing up on the table: jokes written out on post-it notes, little drawings on scraps of paper, feathers, shiny stones and crystals, cookies, chocolates. Nana’s friends signed their names to the offerings. Sweets from Pili, funny drawings from Rafa, and shiny treasures from Carmelita. A rhythm unfolded where there was a new gift or treat every day. He began to rely on it, savoring that moment when he’d peek outside his door and see the day’s surprise.
One day, a figurine of San Antonio appeared on the table. It wasn’t just any San Antonio. The santito had been decked out to look like a superhero. He wore a starry blue cape with his initial “A” stitched on with sequins. The next day it was San Francisco in a golden cape. One by one, these superhero saints showed up. Soon they were joined by all sorts of different Virgen Marías and angels. Then the others started coming—cheetahs, mermaids, monkeys, fairies, elves, Buddhas, and deities the likes of whom Lázaro had never met. Even though he thought the collection was entirely absurd, curiosity got the best of him, and he checked for a new arrival each day.
After they’d formed a critical mass, the santitos started showing up arranged into scenes. Like the time Lázaro found them all organized attentively in rows, listening to a lecture Guadalupe was giving in front of a miniature chalkboard. Or the time he found them all sweeping—each creature poised with their own miniature broom. Mostly Lázaro would glance at these scenes, roll his eyes and return to his bedroom.
Then there came the day that long would be remembered in the oral history of Nana Coyo’s circle. The story would be told over and over again. It was known as The Day of the Santito Rescue Mission. On the 6th of January, 1984, Lázaro woke up, went to the bathroom, then snuck into the kitchen for a cup of coffee while Nana Coyo was in the garden. As Lázaro was about to step back into his bedroom, coffee cup in hand, he glanced over at the table outside his door. It only took him an instant to take in the sight before he’d sprayed a mouthful of coffee all over the table and dissolved into a fit of laughter.
It was a ridiculous scene: San Francisco was climbing a ladder, trying to rescue San Antonio, who was dunked upside down in a glass of water. A very annoyed-looking Virgin and Child were pulling on the rope with the help of a cheetah. There were others standing by. A speech bubble was taped to the side of the glass with San Antonio’s plea:
“Don’t let me drown! I promise to find you your soulmate!”
On an index card in front of the whole scene, written out in block letters:
SANTITO RESCUE MISSION
Lázaro felt something in him begin to unravel. It was the last thread of the cocoon that had been incubating him so tightly ever since he left home and came to live with Nana Coyo. Overcome by gales of laughter, everything began to swirl around him—this world of altars and plants and rocks and smells and sounds and so many santitos. Lázaro suddenly burst out with the first words he’d uttered outside of his room in three months:
“You people are so f*&@!n’ weird!”
His voice felt bold and free. Alive. It surprised him.
He stopped laughing.
Then out from around the corner in the kitchen, he heard an eruption of laughter, not just from Nana, but a whole group of people. Someone cried out:
“’Manito, we got you good!”
The words descended upon him like a benediction. That’s when it dawned on him. Nana didn’t create this world alone. All those people that trickled in and out of her house every day. The friends that came for coffee, the potlucks, the people cooking and gardening. He didn’t know them by face, but he heard their voices in the house. He ate their sweets and received their offerings. These bizarre santito scenes that he’d come to look forward to—they all did it for him.
For the first time in a long time—maybe ever—Lázaro felt like he might know what a family was. This odd assortment of people who occupied an otherworldly space tucked into the corner of a hill on the west side of a desert city, 1500 miles away from where he was born. They had brought something back to life in him.
At that moment, he realized that there was room for inexplicable surprises in life. Miracles.
And just like that, Lázaro came back to life again. Just like his tocayo—the namesake santito who’d emerged from the underworld, his life restored. Just like him. He was santito Lázaro.
Read about Lázaro and Nana Coyo 37 years later:
Lázaro and Nana Coyo Give Thanks for the Monsoons