Homeland Security comes to Arcata, will repatriate statue
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Two special agents from U.S. Homeland Security arrived in Humboldt County last week, took possession of a 200-year-old statue of Baby Jesus and may soon reunite it with the church in Mexico where it originally came from.
At the meeting Friday, March 16 at Congressman Jared Huffman’s office in Eureka, Arcata resident Marie Escher gave the hand-carved, wooden Niño Dios, which has been in her family for more than 100 years, to Homeland Security Special Agents David Keller and Joe Hong. The agents, who drove up to Humboldt from their San Francisco office and returned the same day, work for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquities Program, which helps return looted or stolen artifacts and other cultural heritage items to their countries of origin.
Handing over the statue was a happy and emotional moment, said Escher, who is 87 years old and has been on a quest to repatriate Baby Jesus to the Mexican city of Guanajuato for about a decade.
“I feel exhausted and relieved and delighted,” Escher said. “Everything is splendid. Baby Jesus is on his way.”
So how did a 200-year-old Baby Jesus from Guanajuato in Central Mexico end up more than 2,200 miles away in Arcata?
The story begins in the late 1800s, when Escher’s grandparents, Methodist missionaries Levi and Sara Salmans, moved to Guanajuato. Their daughters Edith and Clara, according to Escher, became good friends with Chucha Arizmendi, a child who was part of the aristocratic Arizmendi Family in Guanajuato.
A member of that family, decades earlier during the Mexican War of Independence, was grievously wounded in the Battle of Guanajuato. He vowed that if his health was restored, he would commission a carving of “El Niño de Atocha” which would sit on the hand of the Virgin Mary at the local parish. The man’s health did improve, and the statue was carved and placed in the church in about 1817.
Some time after the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, Escher’s aunt Edith was approached by Chucha Arizmendi and asked to take the Baby Jesus statue and keep it safe.
According to a version of the story written by Escher in 2001, Chucha Arizmendi told her aunt “Edith, I know things are getting very bad here. All the foreigners are leaving. One day you will be leaving... I want to give you our Niño Dios to take with you to the States when you go, as He will be safe there.”
In Escher’s telling of the story, her aunt exclaimed “Why, Chucha, I could not possibly accept such a gift.” But Chucha replied “You must, as He is not safe here. They are looting and pillaging the churches. And, what is more, I have already done the penance for giving him to you. The only stipulation is that He must always be referred to as the Niño Dios or the Niño de Atocha, and never be treated with lack of respect.”
Edith fled Mexico in 1916 and brought the Niño Dios with her. Before she died in 1971, she gave the statue to Escher, her niece.
Escher, who moved to Arcata 15 years ago, said the statue was stored in a box and kept in a closet most of the time, but was taken out during Christmastime when she lived in Hillsborough, an upscale neighborhood in San Mateo County.
“Every year at Christmastime we got him out and arranged him atop the grand piano with a lovely arrangement of boughs and candles around him for the season,” Escher said. There was always a party and the story of Niño Dios was told.
“Everybody always looked forward to our Baby Jesus party around Epiphany,” she said.
Although the statue has been in her family for more than 100 years, Escher said she wanted it to be returned to its original church.
“I’m 87 years old now and I won’t be here forever, and my son really doesn’t want to take over the responsibility of the Baby Jesus,” Escher said.
With the help of her friend Dr. Diane Johnson, Escher explored several options for returning the statue. One idea was for Johnson to travel to Mexico, find the church and hand over the Niño Dios.
However, Escher said she was concerned about the statue being seized by customs agents, who might grab the statue and sell it to an antique dealer. Escher said she wanted to be cautious and make sure the Baby Jesus actually got to its church.
Escher and Johnson wrote letters to Pope Francis and Archdiocese of León in Mexico. They did not receive a response.
“Diane and I felt that as long as we kept exploring every possible avenue and kissing our frogs as we went along, that eventually one of our frogs would turn into a prince,” she said.
Eventually, they contacted Congressman Jared Huffman’s office in Eureka, where a staff member researched the issue and helped set up Friday’s meeting with the Homeland Security agents.
Special Agent Keller said that for legal purposes, his agency classified the Baby Jesus as stolen property. The reason for doing this is not to prosecute anyone, but to give his agency the legal jurisdiction to take the item and return it to its owner.
Finding the rightful owner will take some research, which is already underway, Keller said. There are several churches in the neighborhood where the Arizmendi Family lived. Escher said she doesn’t know which church it came from.
There’s also a question of whether the Baby Jesus is the property of a church, or the Arizmendi Family, if they’re still around.
Keller said he is hopeful that the research can be completed and the rightful owner determined within a few weeks. Then his agency will have to determine the best way to hand over the statue.