Last Tuesday was the annual celebration of the Black Christ in Esquipulas, one of the main pilgrimage sites in Central America. Minga and I went by bus with lots of other celebrants to take in the sights of this huge Catholic celebration. Surrounding the cathedral were hundreds of plastic tarps, housing families who had come for the two-week celebration. Beans were cooking on the sidewalk over wood fires, and children played among the tents and around the visitors strolling in the park. The diversity of visitors was broad: wealthy urban couples from Mexico City with Gucci handbags and shoes, side by side with Mayan women wearing their traditional brightly-colored woven skirts and blouses. Buses were parked on the side streets announcing their purpose and origin: Pilgrimage to the Christ of Esquipulas from Veracruz, Mexico, read one sign.
Many mementos are on offer: postcards, amulets, and local items including cowboy hats with multi-colored pompoms. Mayan girls get their photographic portraits taken in front of the cathedral.
Unlike in other parts of Guatemala, restaurants abound, offering meals to the travelers. Around the cathedral were several lines of people waiting. One led to the nave, where for a fee and a long wait one can visit the main attraction, a statue of Christ made out of dark wood in the eighteenth century. On the way there, one can place a votive candle in the anteroom where there is a replica of the same statue. Worshipers prayed all around the replica, rubbing their hands and important documents on it. The anteroom was unbearably hot, with thousands of candles, and wax dripping all over the floor. Inadvertently, we found ourselves on another line, and soon received the blessing of a priest who sprinkled us with holy water.
The “main stage” in the park hosted curious events, including a dance by people wearing huge animal costumes. They minced around rather sedately on their sneakers, bobbing their oversized heads to the music. It was an endurance contest given the heat. On a signal, they all took off their costume heads and received water and towels from their families.
We never did experience the mass, but it was enough to visit the sanctuary and pay our respects. After a few hours in Esquipulas, I was ready to retire from the crowds and heat, wishing someone would towel off my brow and give me a cool drink. Instead, we joined the crowded bus and made our way back “home” to Chiquimulas, with a sigh of relief.