Santo Niño de Atocha

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Santo Niño de Atocha, traditional portrayal

Santo Niño de Atocha or Holy Child of Atocha is a Roman Catholic image of the Child Jesus popular among the Hispanic cultures of Spain, Latin America, the Philippines and the southwestern United States. It is distinctly characterized by a basket he carries, along with a staff, drinking gourd, and a cape with the shell symbol of a pilgrimage to Saint James.


Devotion to Santo Niño de Atocha originally began as a Marian devotion with a medieval statue of the Madonna and Child in Toledo, Spain. According to Juan Javier Pescador, it originally reflected devotions to three different depictions of the Virgin Mary: Our Lady of Atocha, Our Lady of Antigua, and Our Lady of Pregnancies that later coalesced into Our Lady of Atocha.[1]

The image of the Divine Child was detachable, and devout families would borrow the image of the infant when a woman was about to give birth to her child.[2]

In the 13th century, Spain was under Muslim rule. The town of Atocha, a now-lost district nearby Arganzuela, Madrid was lost to the Muslims, and many Christians there were taken prisoners as spoils of war. The Christian prisoners were not fed by the jailers, but by family members who brought them food. According to pious legend, the caliph ordered that only children under the age of 12 were permitted to bring food. Conditions became increasingly difficult for those men without small children. The women of Atocha prayed before the statue of Our Lady of Atocha at a nearby parish, a title of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to ask her son Jesus for help.[2]

Reports soon began among the people of Atocha that a child under the age of twelve had begun to bring food to childless prisoners at night. The unknown child was dressed in pilgrim's clothing but could not be identified. The women of the town returned to Our Lady of Atocha and thanked the Virgin for her intercession, and noticed that the shoes worn by the Infant Jesus were tattered and dusty. The shoes of the child Jesus were replaced but became worn once again. The people of Atocha interpreted this as a sign that the infant Jesus went out every night to help those in need.[2] This later developed into a Roman Catholic devotion.


The Holy Child of Atocha is depicted dressed as a boy pilgrim dressed in a brown cloak with white lace collar over a blue robe. He wears a brimmed hat with a plume and carries a basket full of bread in one hand and a pilgrim's staff in the other. The pilgrim's staff is often depicted with a water gourd fastened to it. On the cloak he wears a Shell of Saint James, symbol of the pilgrims to the Shrine of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The Child is said to roam the hills and valleys, particularly at night, bringing aid and comfort to the needy, and thereby wearing out his shoes. He is usually shown seated.[3]

Devotion beyond Atocha[edit]

The Moorish conflict extended well beyond the town of Atocha. During dire points in their journey, travelers reported that a young boy, dressed as a pilgrim, would come to them bringing food and other necessities. The boy would often travel with them until they were out of danger and then guide them to the safest roads to reach their destination. Pious legends continued to be developed and the miraculous Child later became considered to be the Child Jesus and was given the title the Holy Child of Atocha.

North America[edit]

There are two primary shrines to Niño de Atocha: at Fresnillo/Plateros in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico and Chimayo, New Mexico, USA.[4] The original Mexican Niño de Atocha was installed in the church of Saint Augustine along with the silver Christ in 1554 not long after a silver strike in Plateros.[5]

In those years silver was discovered in Fresnillo and mines were being opened in the mountains near the settlement. Within a few weeks of the opening of the mine of Fresnillo, there was an explosion and many miners were trapped. The wives of the miners went to the church of St. Augustine to pray for their husbands and noticed that the child on the image of Our Lady of Atocha was missing. At the same time, it was said that a child came to the trapped miners, gave them water and showed them the way out of the mine. Whenever there was a problem at the mine the child helped the miners in need. Each time this happened, the image of the child on the Virgin's arms was found to be dirty and his clothes had little holes in them. After that the Holy Child was taken off his mother's arms and put on a glass box for everyone to see. The Holy Child of Atocha has become a symbol of Zacatecas and the protector of miners. Many make pilgrimages to Plateros at Christmas to bring toys to the Holy Child.

The Philippines[edit]

Santo Nino de Atocha is also honored among the Filipino people in the Republic of the Philippines.[6] A variant, commonly known as Santo Niño (Holy Child) in the Filipino culture, is portrayed very similarly to the Spanish Atocha, except that it is always standing rather than seated pose. A cane or staff with an attached bag or basket is also commonly featured, usually filled with coins or candy, with a pilgrim hat resembling the Atocha image. These depictions are commonly associated by the original Santo Niño de Cebu brought by Ferdinand Magellan in the 16th century. The current Santo Niño featured in many Filipino homes is traditionally featured in either green or red garments. A red garment is traditionally associated for the residential home, while a green garment is traditionally associated for business locations. In addition, many Filipinos make special tailored garments for the Santo Niño depending on their professional roles, such as nurses, doctors, janitors, teachers and many other occupational roles. A special tailored garment for the Santo Niño depicts the occupational role which a person or business establishment enshrines under this patronage.

Pop culture and other references[edit]

In the film Napoleon Dynamite, Pedro suggests placing santos around the hallways of his high school, recommending El Santo Niño de Atocha. He says that his Aunt Concha has seen him.

Santo Niño de Atocha is sometimes associated with the Yoruba orisha Eshu, or Elegua.

This santo appears in the 1991 novel Mojo and the Pickle Jar, by Douglas Bell.

In Michael Jackson's video for "Beat It", there is a picture of the Santo Niño above his bed.

On the television sitcom George Lopez, the Santo Niño de Atocha is displayed in the family's kitchen.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Pescador, Juan Javier. Crossing Borders with Santo Niño de Atocha, University of New Mexico Press (2009), ISBN 978-0826347091

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 23°13′34″N 102°50′28″W / 23.22611°N 102.84111°W / 23.22611; -102.84111