Velorio del Angelito – Latin America’s Little Angels

by P-Francone

A painting by Violeta Parra, a Chilean artist, folklorist and singer songwriter, depicting El Velorio del Angelito.

In Chile, the death of children used to be an everyday occurrence. With poor health care and spotty access to maternal care, 120 of every 1000 children born at the start of the 20th century died, but those numbers have since dropped to 9 of every 1000 born due to the improvement of access to healthcare, lessening of malnutrition and the rise in vaccinations.

The high number of infant deaths led to a popular belief  in the “Velorio del Angelito” or Little Angel’s Wake, which is a tradition practiced throughout most of Latin America, including Argentina, Paraguay and Mexico and has also been carried on by these people who now live in the United States away from their homeland.

The tradition of Velorio del Angelito was initiated to help people make sense of the death of such young children. In Chilean folklore, a deceased child, usually as old as three years, although occasionally as old as seven, becomes a saint and a protector of the family. The deceased child will be dressed in white, with golden wings attached to their back and colored ribbons strewn over them. The body is positioned on a chair or in a cradle and surrounded by lit candles and white flowers and a ceremony is held in the afternoon. People sing, dance, say the rosary, eat and drink while they celebrate the birth of a new angel, rather than mourn the death of a child in this beautiful ceremony. The mother should not cry, as this may wet the angel’s wings.  It is also believed that if mourners are crying then the child’s soul will become an evil soul instead of a heavenly one. The songs and chants sung by the people are supposed to divinely transform the dead child into a little angel, so he or she can fly to Heaven and live immortally with God.

The most famous Angelito is Miguel Ángel Gaitán, commonly known as Migelito (the suffix “ito” is added in Spanish to show affection) or El Angelito Milagroso which means “miracle child of the angels”.  Migelito died of meningitis in the Argentine province of La Rioja (near the Chilean border) in 1967, fifteen days before his first birthday. Seven years later, a terrible storm destroyed his tomb which rested above ground, and the community all pitched in to rebuild it, however they found something quite strange. After four attempts to rebuild the tomb, it kept collapsing at night, and the lid of his coffin was pushed open, revealing his very well preserved corpse. Eventually, the locals took this as a sign that Migelito didn’t want to be hidden, so they purchased a new coffin with a glass lid and left him visible, as he has remained ever since. He is now considered a folk saint, and people come to him asking for divine help to find work, get married or even to ask for assistance on exams. Many come with offerings of toys, which often appear to have been played with the next morning. If a favor is granted by Migelito, his still living mother will let them touch his forehead as a sign of thanks.

Examples of those who have been helped by Migelito include Carmen Gorriz, who travelled 300 miles by bus to ask Migelito for help to get a new car and one week later she won a brand new Peugeot car in a church lottery. Taxi driver Daniel Saavedra asked Migelito for help recovering from a rare disease of the pancreas, and was cured within three years. Even when 11 year old Suzy Ipinza needed help to pass a spelling test, Migelito helped her get a perfect score, which she then mailed to his mother. The Rev. Ricky Alberto Martinez, priest of Villa Union’s church says that although the Roman Catholic Church only recognizes canonized saints, they cannot dismiss unofficial saints such as Migelito. “We can’t negate the feelings that people have for this child and the faith that he has inspired in them,” Father Martinez  told The New York Times in an interview about young Migelito in 1996. “You can’t dismiss them as a bunch of uneducated people from the backwoods. This is a national phenomenon. People are reporting miracles all over the country.”

The tradition of the Velorio del Angelito continues to be carried on today, mostly in the rural areas of Latin America. From Argentina to Mexico, though the death rate of children has decreased substantially from earlier days, the sadness of the event carries on, leaving the Velorio del Angelito as a shining beacon of hope for devastated parents throughout the Latin world.

Read more:

“Miracle Child’ and Answered Prayers | The New York Times

Saving Chile’s angelitos | The Lancet

 

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