Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 11, 2019

El Tiradito: Shrine of the Castaway

Whether you investigate a previously unexplored place near you or travel far, you hope for that unexpected, unforeseeable and — ideally — extraordinary encounter.

Residential Barrio Viejo in Tucson, Arizona is one of the oldest parts of the city. Just south of downtown, it has 150 year-old adobe houses within easy reach of the busy city.

On South Main Avenue in the barrio, we happened on an unusual site.

El Tiradito Brad Nixon 5866 680

Shrines to saints, martyrs — even revered political or historical figures — aren’t unusual. You encounter them everywhere in the world.

This unassuming local shrine is different than others located in parts of the United States settled by populations of Roman Catholic faith: it’s the burial place of a “sinner” who was refused interment in sanctified ground. There are claims that it’s the only “shrine to a bad guy” in the United States.

The site is called El Tiradito: The Little Throwaway, or, The Castaway, sometimes also called “the Wishing Shrine.”

El Tiradito has attracted attention since the 1870s. The grotto-like area is full of devotional candles, photographs, messages and mementos.

El Tiradito Brad Nixon 5867 680

Who Was the Castaway?

In about 1870, 18 year-old Juan Oliveras married the daughter of a Tucson area sheep rancher. But Juan also fell in love with his reportedly attractive and passionate mother-in-law, and they began an affair.

According to contemporary accounts, Juan’s father-in-law discovered the couple in flagrante delicto, in the house in town whose ruined walls now form the enclosure of the shrine. He pursued the fleeing Juan with an axe, caught up with him in the street and brutally killed him in front of the spot that is now El Tiradito.

As a proven sinner, Oliveras could not be buried in the church, and his grave is there, where he died, at El Tiridito.

To Quote Shakespeare’s Prince, “All Are Punishéd”

No one else in this story fared any better than Juan.

The father-in-law, knowing he’d be arrested for murder, fled to Mexico, 60 miles away.

The mother-in-law, despairing of her plight between a husband and a murdered lover, hanged herself that night.

The father-in-law attempted to sneak back up to his ranch north of Tucson in order to drive his herd of sheep to Mexico. In the desert, he was waylaid by a band of Apache natives. The Apache weren’t at all reconciled to the growing encroachment of their lands by European settlers. They scalped, stabbed and shot the interloper, then tied him to a tall Saguaro cactus and left him to die in the desert sun.

Soon after this, back at the ranch — as they say — Juan’s betrayed and now-widowed wife, also suddenly an orphan, was pregnant with the couple’s first child. She tied the bucket rope of the ranch house well around her neck and jumped in, ending her life.

That, at least, is how we have the story: lust, passion, revenge, remorse, grief … one can only hope the story is true.

A Shrine to Love and Loss

Juan’s grave began to attract attention from members of the community who hoped that fervent prayers would overcome Oliveras’ excommunication and allow him to proceed out of Purgatory. He became a figure who represented thwarted love and its inevitable loss.

In the 140 years since those memorable events, in the imponderable ways humans have, the site has become a sort of pilgrimage site for people mourning lost love, departed loved ones — perhaps some folk version of the cult of St. Jude, patron of lost causes (although my hagiographic knowledge is poor). 

The community — not only Catholics — campaigned to preserve the site. El Tiradito was added to the the National Register of Historic Places, protecting it, forestalling a plan to demolish it for a planned freeway.

There’s a historical marker at the site, placed by Tucson and Arizona historical societies.

I’ve condensed this story from an account on the website of the Tucson Museum, at

El Tiradito Brad Nixon 5868 680

El Tiradito is at 420 South Main Ave., Tucson Arizona

© Brad Nixon. Appreciation to the Tucson Museum


  1. As they’d say on the Texas front porches where stories are told, “Don’t that beat all?” It’s a perfect story. If any one of the principals had survived, it wouldn’t be nearly so compelling. Mexican cemeteries always are interesting, but I’d travel to Tucson just to visit this place, and spend some time cataloguing the tokens and gifts that have been left. There probably are some hidden stories there, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think they all have stories.


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