Carlin, Dan. “Little Shop of ‘Miracles.’” The Arizona Republic. 27 Aug. 2004: E1, E2.
Little shop of ‘miracles’
Milagro buyers, store owner find good fortune in Latino charms
By Dan Carlin
Robert Bitto runs an unusual store for an extraordinary clientele.
Many of his customers hug him when they enter his shop, buy him presents on his birthday and invite him out for dinner throughout the week.
They do so because Bitto is a friend, but also because he and his central Phoenix shop, Sueños Latin American Imports, have altered their lives in profound ways.
“I meet the most interesting people here,” says Bitto, 36.
“This stuff really opens people,” he says, gesturing to the kaleidoscopic collection of arts, crafts and religious tokens that fills the walls and covers the floor of his store. “I hear a lot of stories about what’s happened in connection with the things I sell here. You have to wonder what’s going on.”
Bitto sells milagros (Spanish for “miracles”), rustic, metal charms shaped like body parts, animals and various allegorical subjects that are said to possess supernatural powers.
Sometimes he sells them in bulk over the Internet, but mostly he delivers them one by one over the counter at Sueños, his bright yellow store on Seventh Avenue. The business has connected him to the curious culture of milagros, drawing him into the lives of the characters who shop there.
On a recent afternoon, Cecelia Larson, a grave-looking woman with a tousle of dark hair, comes into the store with an ordinary request.
“My sister is having eye surgery tomorrow,” she says. “I want to put a candle and a milagro by her bedside to help protect her during the procedure.”
Bitto nods and sifts through a wicker basket on his counter filled with different milagros – pistols, horses, livers, lungs. After a few moments, he finds what he’s looking for and extracts a glittering metal eye form the pile.
He presents it to Larson for her approval, then slips the object into a small, yellow envelope and places it on the counter. Larson covers it with a protective and smiles slightly, as if suddenly reassured.
Many of Bitto’s clients are middle-aged Mexican-American women, but they are also young mothers, U.S. Marines, pagans, devout Catholics, elderly Anglo-Americans and teens, all joined by a belief in the power of milagros.
Bitto often hears how his milagros helped a couple to conceive or saved a customer from a debilitating illness or protected a loved one in danger.
Customers at Sueños speak freely about divorces and family problems, illnesses and tragedies. Many of them stop by the store simply because a visit makes them feel better.
“You just feel comfortable here,” says Jeanette Sinohui, a Sueños customer since 1999. “You can just come in a say hello, then turn around and leave without buying anything.”
Something to believe in
Walking into the brightly colored interior of the store is a calming experience. Water trickles from a fountain in the center of the store while tiny mariachi or norteño music pipes in softly over the stereo.
The orange wall of Sueños’ interior glow with the colors of the art and crafts Bitto has collected from all over Latin America – shiny ceramic chickens from Mexico, checkered quilts from Peru, delicate paper roses from Chile.
One corner is covered with dozens of crosses of all sizes, made from Brazilian driftwood, Mexican bottle caps, plastic, silver and everything else imaginable.
Sinohui says she comes in to see Bitto at least twice a month because it “lightens my day.”
And she buys milagros for herself and her friends because of what they’ve done for her in the past.
“As you go through life and medical things happen, (milagros) give you something you can believe in, that you can hold in your hand,” she explains.
Bitto isn’t sure what to think when he hears stories of the milagros’ power. A self-declared fallen Catholic, he grew up without the cultural experiences of most of his customers (his father is an Italian immigrant, his mother is descended form 17th century Dutch and French settlers.)
“I’m not a believer and I’m not a non-believer,” he says. “If the supernatural rears its head, I’ll look at it.”
Plenty of Sueños customers cast a similarly skeptical eye on the more esoteric products sold in the shop.
Karen Perry, a former lawyer, shops at Sueños to furnish her Scottsdale home and her condo in Rocky Point.
When asked about milagros and the religious items in the store, Perry lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “There are a few things that are a little scary to me.”
Bad times, good times
Bitto says he started Sueños to fill a niche for unique goods. After five years of working as an international accountant for American Express, Bitto considered getting a doctorate in anthropology.
Plan B was to open a Latin American imports store with the contacts he’d built over the years. Through six months of studying in Mexico and years of traveling around Southern America, Bitto had gathered the names of artisans throughout Latin America, thinking they might be useful some day.
He quit his job in 1997 and opened Sueños in a storefront at Camelback Road and Central Avenue. Two years later business outgrew the space, and he moved to Seventh Avenue.
In a business as emotional as Bitto’s, store traffic tends to fluctuate on the mood of the country. When things are bad, business is good, and he says there has been a revival in milagros in the last few years.
Marion Oettinger Jr., curator of Latin American art and interim director of the San Antonia Museum, says milagros have always reflected the concerns of the Southwestern Hispanic society.
“They’re more than just objects,” Oettinger says. “They’re also a part of a cultural complex, and they can tell us a lot about the people who use them.”
A few other stores in Arizona and around the West cater to the rising interest, selling milagros and crosses, but he familial atmosphere at Sueños draws customers from all over the state, and Bitto has even made friends around the world through Internet sales.
And while stores like Casa del Corazon in Encinitas, Calif., or Milagros Gallery in Sonoma, Calif., stock milagros for collectors, Bitto attracts a working-class Mexican-American clientele. Most of the milagros at Sueños cost 95 cents each, or $28.95 for a bog of 100.
Sometimes Bitto wonders if Sueños is worth the trouble. Prostitutes stroll the street on cooler days, and some mornings he has to kick drunks off the stoop of his shop.
In January he was robbed, tied up in a backroom until a neighbor discovered him.
“At that point, sales weren’t very good, and the robbery just made things worse,” Bitto says. “I came in one day and just yelled at the top of my lungs, ‘I hate this place!’”
After word spread of the robbery, one customer offered Bitto two counseling sessions with a therapist.
Bitto declined, but the kindness of the gesture made him realize that Sueños was much more than a store.
“Whenever I think of closing this place down, I think of the impact on peoples’ lives, in the countries where I buy the stuff and here, and I can’t do it.”