Partying with Cristo Negro

By Diana Pastor

Every month in Guatemala is a party, at least somewhere in the country. With over 300 municipalities, each with their own annual celebration, there is almost a party per day on average (and that’s not even including more widely celebrated patron saint days and national holidays). From this party-all-the-time ethos, there are a few celebrations that stand out every year for the devotion of their participants.

Kicking off the year, one of the most fanatical of these celebrations is the feast of Esquipulas on January 15.  This day honors the town’s Cristo Negro, or Black Christ, statue.  The statue is, not surprisingly, characterized by the dark hue of its skin. Legend says that this color is similar to the skin of the ancient inhabitants of the region and is the result of the smoke of the thousands of candles lit over the years by devout worshippers (serving as a cautionary tale for those planning to give up cigarettes for candles).
A very venerating bunch, before Esquipulans (as they may or may not be called) came to prominence for the Black Christ, they were famous for their veneration of the Mayan god Ek Chua. When the Spanish took over Guatemala, Mayan celebrations lost prominence (to say the least). One year, the villagers produced a bumper crop of cotton and in thanks they gave an image of Christ to the church (fortunately, it wasn’t made of cotton or it wouldn’t have lasted very long).
Over time the fame of the Black Christ has blossomed- becoming the focal point of the Esquipulanians’ (as they may or may be known) annual fiesta.  Held from January 10-15, celebrations fill the city’s streets with vendors selling goods and crafts (many of which you’ve probably seen before at various local junk markets). This celebration draws pilgrims–no, not the people with the funny square hats who lived in Massachusetts, just regular religious celebrants– from all across the region. Most people enter the church on foot, though some with extra stamina prefer to make the journey on their knees.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and replicas have popped up across Central America, including in Guanajuato Mexico; Juayúa, El Salvador; and Alajuelita, Costa Rica. Special celebrations are also held in Leon, Nicaragua and Merida, Venezuela. But since you’re already here, you might as well join the masses in visiting the original in Esquipulas. If not, at least go to Leon, Nicaragua since it’s nicer than Esquipulas anyway. Or if you’ve already made your way stateside, you don’t have to miss out- Guatemalan communities in Los Angeles and New York also hold celebrations.

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