This traditional form of South American art started in churches, where multi-paneled stacks of ornately decorated and painted figures depicted scenes from the Bible and religious ceremonies. Today, contemporary retablos are sold in markets and more recently online. The originals included precious stones and metals, but modern contemporary versions use available materials like clay, cardboard boxes and paper pulp mixed with glue. They retain a spiritual motif, and often depict rumored local miracles. Many give thanks to saints for healing mundane sicknesses or injuries. One thanks a patron saint for sparing a clumsy adult relative from severe injuries after toppling down basement stairs. Another thanks their saint for healing injuries quickly after a coca-cola truck collides with them one morning.
Some retablos depict desperation and struggle, contrasting experiences between groups of people. A two-paneled folding retablo compares immigration experiences between rich, middle and lower class Mexicans as they cross the border. On the left, clay figures depict citizens passing through immigration and customs peacefully while officials verify documents. They place luggage into security scanners, and wait in line for security guards to pass them through metal detectors. On the right, a group of illegal immigrants burrow under a barbed-wire fence and run onwards to a darkened desert. Each of them carries a backpack or blanket holding supplies for their treacherous journey.
Others indulge in the fantastic, ridiculous and paranormal. One depicts a mother thanking her patron saint for her brave son attacking a hidden spider with insecticide. Another asks for guidance when a mother hears stories of a teacher sleeping during class instead of instructing students. One retablo depicts an alien abduction of a farmer's cow, and simultaneously thanks them for sparing their life but begs them to have the hefted heiffer returned safely.