Life

Jesus on a Tortilla

In 1977, Maria Rubio saw a burn mark in the shape of a face and became a national sensation. She and her family were never the same.

A woman holds up a frame.
Maria Rubio and the tortilla in 1977. Bettmann/Getty Images

One October morning in 1977, Maria Rubio was in her small green stucco house in southeastern New Mexico, preparing her husband’s lunch. It was 6 a.m., and she was making burritos—cooking beans, scrambling eggs, and preparing tortillas from scratch. And then she saw it, as she was putting together the second burrito: a burn mark on one of the tortillas, in the shape of a little face. Maria felt chills, and she could sense her body moving, though she wasn’t sure if it was out of joy or fear.

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Maria shouted at her 17-year-old daughter, Rosy, to come into the kitchen. She asked Rosy what the burn mark looked like to her. “Oh, my God,” Rosy recalls thinking. “That looks like the face of Jesus.” Maria agreed. She hadn’t wanted to say it out loud, because she didn’t want Rosy to think she was crazy.

Maria’s husband, Eduardo Rubio, had slept through all of this. Now, Maria told him to get up. There was something he needed to look at. At first, when Eduardo’s wife and daughter explained what they’d seen, he scoffed. But when he inspected the tortilla, he saw it, too.

That image was about an inch tall and an inch wide. If you look at photos from back then, the likeness is unmistakable: It’s Jesus Christ in profile, complete with a beard and a crown of thorns. Maria and Rosy were overwhelmed with excitement. But Eduardo felt warier. He worried the tortilla might be a bad omen.

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When Rosy left for school that morning, the Jesus tortilla, and the debate over what it meant, was a private matter. When she got back home that afternoon, everything had changed. There were people swarming outside her parents’ house. And inside, visitors crowded around the tortilla—scrutinizing it, marveling over it, and questioning where it came from.

That was only the beginning. In the years that followed, Maria Rubio would be besieged by believers and gawkers and the national press. She’d be called a visionary, and a fool. But for the Rubios, the tortilla wasn’t just a public spectacle. It was the miracle that changed their family. And 44 years later, they’re still reckoning with the way it upended their lives.

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This story is adapted from an episode of Slate’s One Year podcast. The new season of One Year launches Thursday and takes on the most interesting stories of 1995—the ones you’ve forgotten and the ones you’ve never heard of. Follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts to hear a new episode each week. 

Maria Rubio was born in the Mexican town of Ojinaga in 1940. Her family moved across the border when she was 14 years old. Maria says that back then, the schools in New Mexico did a poor job teaching English to immigrants. To this day, she’s a monolingual Spanish speaker. (I interviewed her and her husband, Eduardo, with the help of an interpreter.) “We arrived here with only one suitcase, very little clothes, a couple of pillows, a couple of blankets, and a pan for food,” she says. “We didn’t have a car. We didn’t have a house or anything like that. We had a lot of problems.”

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She met Eduardo in New Mexico, on a ranch where they’d both found work cleaning cotton. They got married when she was 17, and she gave birth to four children within five years.

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It was a hard life. The Rubios were very poor, often living in the houses of farmers who employed Eduardo. Maria struggled with depression and anxiety. “My mother was a very timid, submissive person,” remembers Rosy, the second oldest of Maria’s children. “Her depression pretty much dictated her life.”

“I understood what she was going through,” says Rosy’s younger sister Corina, “but there was nothing really you could do at 8 years of age. I just knew that I never wanted to be like that.”

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In those days, Maria’s relationship with Eduardo was on very shaky ground. “I remember always being a little nervous during the weekends because I knew that that’s when my dad was going to drink. And he was a mean drunk,” Rosy says. “That was just the way things were. I just figured, This is a normal life.”

By the fall of 1977, the Rubios had their own home in Lake Arthur, New Mexico, a remote desert town with one store and about 300 people. Maria was 37 years old. She was struggling, and she was looking for solace. And so, she prayed, and she made tortillas—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day.

Maria says she didn’t have a specific recipe—she’d just use flour and salt and powder and lard. “You just have to have the right mixture so that it’s not too hard or too sticky,” Rosy says. “And my mom was perfect in making the dough to perfection.”

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Maria prepared her tortillas in a traditional Mexican style, on a flat, cast-iron griddle—a comal. She laid the first side down on the comal and flipped it over as quickly as possible, then let the second side burn a little before flipping it again. Once that initial side was burned a bit too, the tortilla was done.

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The burn mark Maria saw on that Wednesday morning in 1977 had stayed dry when other parts of the tortilla got soaked with green chile. After Maria showed the tortilla to her husband, and after Rosy went to school, the Rubios carefully snipped out the face of Jesus, wrapped it in a napkin, and went to see their priest.

Joyce Finnigan was skeptical. “He blessed it for them,” says Rosy, but he also told them it wasn’t a big deal—that they shouldn’t read too much into it. Maria respected Finnigan, who had been their priest at the church in Lake Arthur for many years. She thought that what he was saying must be true. But there were other people at the church, and when they saw what Maria was holding, they thought it was a big deal. “The news just spread like wildfire,” Rosy says. By that evening, between 75 and 100 people had converged on their small green home.

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Six days later, a local reporter found cars lined up and down the Rubios’ block. When Rosy and her brother and sisters wanted to get inside, people pushed them back, telling them to get in line. The Rubio siblings figured out a way to bypass the crowds entirely, avoiding the front door by squirming in through a window.

Maria didn’t think it was her place to turn people away. If someone came to see the tortilla, she felt it was her duty to share it with them.

All those visitors strengthened Maria’s faith. She treated the tortilla with reverence and care, displaying it in a glass and metal case atop a bunch of cotton balls—like it was floating on a cloud. That case sat on the Rubios’ dining room table, surrounded by flowers.

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By the end of 1977, more than 6,000 visitors had signed Maria’s guest books. People streamed in from all over New Mexico, many of them Latino, drawn by word of mouth and local news stories. “We related a lot more to the Mexican Catholic people,” Rosy says. “Those were the people I remember just coming in with a lot of faith, with a lot of intention.” The visitors prayed for sick relatives and lit votive candles. One woman said that she was “looked down upon because she [was] poor and Mexican American.” She believed that Jesus had appeared “in a poor person’s house to show … people are all the same.”

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Finnigan didn’t appreciate all this hubbub. He worried that his flock was being led astray. “The priest said to me, there are more people coming to your house than to church,” Eduardo recalls. “I said, ‘And what can I do?’ And he said, ‘Well, tell them not to, to come to church, that this is where God is.’ And I said, ‘You know what, I can’t. I can’t kick out anyone from my home because they believe in that little piece of tortilla.’ ”

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Eduardo and Maria kept their front door unlocked. People showed up at 6 a.m., and after midnight. Maria answered all their questions and prayed when they asked her to pray. And when reporters quizzed her on what the apparition meant, she spoke with the confidence of a true believer.

Maria told the press that the burn mark was a message from God that all human beings should “get together … and stop fighting among themselves.” She volunteered that she’d been planning to separate from Eduardo, but the tortilla had brought them back together. Maria said that seeing Jesus on a tortilla had changed her—that she’d been impatient but now was filled with serenity and love.

A woman leans over a Bible.
Maria Rubio reading her Bible. Courtesy of the Rubio family
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That’s what Maria Rubio was saying publicly. The truth, she says now, was a lot more complicated. Some part of her did believe that the tortilla was a godsend. But that burn mark in the shape of Jesus—it had also made her life excruciating.

“People wouldn’t stop asking me things,” Maria says. “And as soon as someone would come in, someone else would be there and another one and everybody wanted me to tell them what had happened.”

Visitors would ask her to heal them, and she would tell them that she didn’t know how to heal. She struggled to eat and sleep. She didn’t want to profit off the tortilla, so she agonized about how to give away the donations she’d been getting. Some people even accused her of faking the whole thing—of painting the image, or burning it into the tortilla herself. She started to wonder if the tortilla might be cursed, or a tool of the devil. Sometimes, she would speak directly to the tortilla, asking it if it was a good thing or a bad thing. It never answered her.

“She became scared of it,” says Rosy. “She would tell me that it was kind of taking a life of its own.”

Maria felt like she was going crazy. She stopped going to church or to the grocery store by herself, and she sometimes wished that the tortilla had happened to someone else.

But despite the pain the tortilla caused, Maria wasn’t about to get rid of it. She believed that Jesus had appeared before her, and she couldn’t just reject him. Maria continued to welcome visitors into her home in Lake Arthur. And as 1977 turned into 1978, those people started coming from further and further away. The Rubios were no longer just dealing with a local sensation. The Jesus-on-a-tortilla story had gone national.

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In the summer of 1978, Cindy Tate Badger rode 500 miles from Oklahoma City to Lake Arthur, New Mexico, on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle. Badger, a 26-year-old single mother, had read about Maria Rubio’s tortilla in a syndicated newspaper column, and she wanted to know if it was real.

When Badger and her boyfriend got to Lake Arthur, no one answered the door at the Rubios’ house. But there was a sign out front. Badger remembers it saying: “Come on in, the tortilla’s on the right.”

Badger walked down a hallway, and there it was, sitting on a pedestal. She stared in amazement. “It really does look like the face of Jesus that you see in Sunday school books and Bibles and such,” she says. “It truly does.”

After a few minutes, Maria Rubio walked into the room. She was “just the most wonderful lady,” Badger says. “She would have talked to me a long time, but it’s all in Spanish and I could not follow her conversation worth a darn. And I regret that I didn’t have a translator there to hear her firsthand story.”

I asked Badger how often she’s thought about the tortilla since she took that trip. “From time to time,” she says. “I don’t talk about it very much … for this reason: I will not listen to somebody scoff and make fun of it. They weren’t there. They didn’t see it. They know nothing about it.”

A good number of people did see the Jesus tortilla in the 1970s and ’80s. Some came from the East Coast. Others came from Europe. The first round of media coverage spawned a second round, and a third. The AP and UPI wire services both sent reporters to Lake Arthur. There were also pieces in the National Catholic Reporter, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek.

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As the tortilla story spread around the nation, so did a new wave of skepticism. One reporter said the burn mark looked less like Christ than like the boxer Leon Spinks. Magician Ricky Jay developed a trick in which he talked about Maria Rubio’s discovery, then conjured up a gift for someone in the crowd: a tortilla seared with a happy face. A television segment that aired on Showtime played up the strangeness of the Rubios’ tale and the oddity of their cuisine.

“It was a perfect story for that era’s America,” says Gustavo Arellano, who wrote about the Jesus tortilla in his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. “Mexican food is not as ubiquitous across the United States as it is today. You still have to explain to people what a tortilla is. I mean, if they know about tortillas, it’s in a can.”

From the point of view of the white news media and white consumers, the Jesus tortilla was weird news. Here’s how Arellano glosses that mainstream perspective on Maria Rubio’s story: “Dumb Mexican woman, Catholic no less, says that she saw Jesus on a flour tortilla in New Mexico, which is a weird state as it is. Oh my God. Let’s laugh at her and let’s put her into this carnival of freaks.”

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Arellano never saw it that way. Visions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary are a hallowed part of Christian tradition. And the founding myth of modern-day Mexico is one such vision: the Virgin of Guadalupe, who appeared before the Aztec Juan Diego in 1531. When he told the Catholic authorities, they didn’t believe him. The archbishop was only swayed when the virgin’s image appeared a second time, on the inside of Juan Diego’s cloak.

Religious leaders in the 20th century didn’t think Maria Rubio’s vision was a miracle on that order—or, really, a miracle at all. “This image here in Lake Arthur, it’s—it’s just a little image,” said a local Franciscan priest.

But for Arellano, tortillas are holy objects—a “humble, simple food made by one of the most fucked-over countries in the world, and that’s saying something—Mexico.”

“Of course Jesus is going to appear on a tortilla,” Arellano says. “He’s not going to appear on fucking caviar.”

In Angelica Rubio’s very first memory, she’s watching an episode of Three’s Company and eating a bowl of ramen noodles when someone knocks at the door.

“They would always just say, ‘We’re here to see the Jesus tortilla.’ And I was like, ‘OK.’ … I always saw it like I was some tour guide. And it was just sort of ruining my life, in the sense of it was just interfering with my TV time.”

Black and white photo of a young girl.
Angelica Rubio, age 4. Courtesy of the Rubio family
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Angelica is the youngest of Maria and Eduardo Rubio’s six children. She was born in 1979, two years after the tortilla joined the Rubio household. Her mother believed those two events were connected. Before Angelica, Maria had been told she could never have another child. But the tortilla arrived and then came one more daughter. That made Angelica feel special. “But I also know,” she says, “that so many of my own emotional issues have a lot to do with this huge idea of what the tortilla was.”

Growing up, Angelica couldn’t escape the tortilla, or her connection to it. “This one boy that I had the biggest crush on started calling me ‘the tortilla kid,’ ” she says. “I just remember going home and just crying, because that was the most disappointing day of my life.”

The tortilla loomed just as large for Angelica’s older sister Rosy. But for her, the tortilla’s continued presence wasn’t an annoyance. It was a sign. “If you know anything about tortillas, if you don’t eat them after three, four, five days, they start molding. And this never happened,” Rosy says. “To me, that was a very clear indication that this was something big and something special.”

Rosy was always close with her mother. She wanted to protect Maria but also help her share her story. Since her mother spoke only Spanish, Rosy became the family’s media spokesperson.

Maria and Rosy did a lot of interviews. But the one they taped in 1994 was their biggest yet. The Phil Donahue Show was recorded in front of a live studio audience in New York City. That trip was the first time that Maria had ever been on a plane. As they took off, Maria said, “I think I’m going to die now.” For Rosy, it was thrilling to be in New York, but Maria was overwhelmed. When they went to a nice dinner downtown, Maria was too nervous to eat her apple pie.

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Filming the show itself wasn’t any easier. The studio audience started laughing less than 30 seconds in, when Donahue uttered the phrase “Jesus in a tortilla.”

During the segment, Maria barely spoke at all. All she said was that Jesus had appeared before her to send a message. The whole time Maria was onstage, she never let go of her daughter’s hand.

On The Phil Donahue Show, Maria and Rosy got presented as potential scammers. “If you give up your caution and your common sense,” one guest, a well-known debunker of phony religious miracles, said, “any charlatan with a pocketful of magic tricks can come in and take your money and sometimes your life.” Later in the episode, an audience member told Donahue, “Although I’m not much for tortillas, I am going to keep a close eye on my potato chips.”

On the outside, Rosy managed to keep her composure. But on the inside, she says, “I remember just seething.” What she wanted to do most of all was give that potato chip woman the finger.

After that experience in New York, Maria told Rosy that she was done with TV interviews. The next year, when The Oprah Winfrey Show called, Rosy went to Chicago without her mother. But her second big television appearance didn’t go much better than the first. “I just don’t know why Jesus would want to be on a tortilla,” Oprah said. And the crowd roared with laughter.

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For Angelica Rubio, it was painful to watch her family get laughed at. It made her feel angry, and a little bit guilty. “I’ve sort of always known that people exploited my mom’s story,” she says. “And yet I did very little. I feel like I was sort of an accomplice—just not really defending her. I think it was mostly being ashamed. I mean, think about it, just saying my mom was famous for making a tortilla with the face of Jesus on it.”

By the 1990s, Jesus on a tortilla had become a kind of small-scale meme. Kurt Cobain wrote in his journal, “I saw Jesus on a tortilla shell.” The Simpsons referenced it. (“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to appear on a tortilla in Mexico,” God tells Homer.) There’s even a feature film, Tortilla Heaven, about Jesus’ image miraculously appearing on a tortilla in New Mexico. The Rubios weren’t consulted for that movie, which critic Justin Chang called “as flat as a tortilla and considerably less nourishing.”

In Tortilla Heaven, everyone tries to make a buck off the holy image, charging admission fees to see it and selling tortilla merchandise. That was the popular conception—that anyone who saw Jesus on a tortilla surely had impure motives. But for Maria, the tortilla was always a duty. Something she’d been asked to share, for reasons she didn’t understand. In 1977, she opened her home to the entire world. But over many years, very gradually, that sense of obligation to the public started to go away.

The first step was reclaiming the inside of her home by moving the tortilla outside. In the mid-1980s, Maria and her sister built a small chapel for the tortilla: a capilla, with glass doors, an altar, and a candle that always stayed lit. Hanging on the wall were strings adorned with small metal figurines, tiny icons left behind by visitors. Many were shaped like body parts—hands and feet in need of healing.

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That capilla stood on the Rubios’ front porch for about 10 years. In the ’90s, after The Phil Donahue Show, they moved it to the back of the house. And eventually, they took the capilla down entirely.

The tortilla broke sometime around 2005. “My mom says she lent it out to one of my nieces,” Angelica says. But she thinks nobody wants to tell the real story. “They’re afraid of what might happen,” she says, “which is nothing. Like, the tortilla’s a tortilla, it was bound to break at some point.” The tortilla now sits in pieces, and the part with the actual burn mark has gone missing.

A younger woman with dark hair and black glasses holds an older woman with white hair close.
A recent photo of Angelica and Maria Rubio. Courtesy of the Rubio family

Angelica Rubio is a politician now, a member of the New Mexico House of Representatives. In the past few years, she’s been thinking a lot about the tortilla and what it’s meant for all of them. “There was already suffering in our family,” she says. But the tortilla is what it took to help her family to “believe that things could be better.”

“My mom back then was weak, she was sick,” Angelica’s sister Edubina recalls. “There was times when my dad would be drinking that she, I think at times, just wanted to be done with life. And I think she would have given up hope completely.”

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Rosy feels similarly. “At some point we believe that Jesus, God, the higher power, had to make an intervention,” she says. “And that was the intervention for us. That it was like, Come on, people, maybe you don’t have a great life, but you have life.”

An older man and older woman stand in front of a corn field.
Eduardo and Maria Rubio. Courtesy of the Rubio family

Back in the 1970s, Maria had told reporters that her husband, Eduardo, stopped drinking when Jesus showed his face in their home. But that didn’t last. “The problem was quite advanced and I couldn’t just quit all at once,” Eduardo says. “Because how I was living, I was not happy. I thought I was, but I wasn’t.”

It was only after Maria—with support from their children—seriously threatened to leave him that he committed to stopping. He asked Jesus for help. “If I leave this,” he remembers praying, “show me something that I can fill that emptiness with.” He remembers Jesus telling him: “You’re going to join a church choir and you’re going to sing there every Sunday and you don’t need to drink to sing.” During our interview, I asked him to sing something that he’d perform with the choir. He chose a song of love for the Virgin Mary.

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Eduardo Rubio hasn’t had a drink in more than 30 years. He and Maria have been married for 64 years. She can no longer make tortillas, because of arthritis in her hands. What makes Maria so special, Eduardo says, is that she has “un buen corazón”—a good heart.

Maria’s children say their mother has overcome a huge number of challenges in her life. “But she sometimes—she just really has a hard time,” Edubina says. “I think she just has a lot of anger towards … having had to put up with so much for so long.”

Angelica says Maria has never sought out the mental health support that she, as Maria’s daughter, believes her mother deserves. Maria’s strength, Angelica says, comes from “trusting in the unseen.”

There are moments, Maria says, where she’s happy she saw Jesus on the tortilla. And then there are moments when she wonders why it happened, or whether it was true at all. “One always has doubts,” she says. But she wants very much to think that it was a good thing. “I do believe in miracles,” she says. “Every day is a miracle because every day I wake up alive. And every day, I’m fine.”

Season 2 of One Year launches on Thursday. Listen to the trailer below and follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts for a new episode each week.