The Black Christ of Esquipulas: Religion and Identity in Guatemala

The Black Christ of Esquipulas: Religion and Identity in Guatemala

The Black Christ of Esquipulas: Religion and Identity in Guatemala

The Black Christ of Esquipulas: Religion and Identity in Guatemala

Synopsis

On the eastern border of Guatemala and Honduras, pilgrims and travelers flock to the Black Christ of Esquipulas, a large statue carved from wood depicting Christ on the cross. The Catholic shrine, built in the late sixteenth century, has become the focal point of admiration and adoration from New Mexico to Panama. Beyond being a site of popular devotion, however, the Black Christ of Esquipulas was also the scene of important debates about citizenship and identity in the Guatemalan nation throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In The Black Christ of Esquipulas, Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez explores the multifaceted appeal of this famous shrine, its mysterious changes in color over the centuries, and its deeper significance in the spiritual and political lives of Guatemalans. Reconstructed from letters buried within the restricted Catholic Church archive in Guatemala City, the debates surrounding the shrine reflect the shifting categories of race and ethnicity throughout the course of the country's political trajectory. This "biography" of the Black Christ of Esquipulas serves as an alternative history of Guatemala and sheds light on some of the most salient themes in Guatemala's social and political history: state formation, interethnic dynamics, and church-state tensions. Sullivan-Gonzalez's study provides a holistic understanding of the relevance of faith and ritual to the social and political history of this influential region.

Excerpt

In January 2001, I traveled to the region of Esquipulas with my good friend Carlos Roca to enjoy the January 15 festivities surrounding the Christ of Esquipulas, now popularly known as the Black Christ. As we crested the Sierras and descended into the valley containing Esquipulas, we could see the enormous whitewashed bell towers of the basilica serving as a kind of a lighthouse for travelers. We mingled with pilgrims from Oaxaca to Costa Rica, from El Salvador to Guatemala’s Atlantic Coast. Throngs crowded into the streets, now barely passable as cars and buses merged with pedestrians. a verdant array of trees and shrubs surrounded the sanctuary. Sellers and traders abounded in the throng, and mouthwatering aromas mixed with more pungent smells in the streets. a shuttle with a Mickey Mouse face on the hood blared away with its horn, and mopeds and bicycles dodged the pedestrians. It was a sight to behold: in the shade of the church’s colonial towers, inventions of the twentieth century taunted the baroque testimony of yesteryear.

We made our way to the church proper through scores of indigenous peoples who had set up camp with plastic tarps suspended by ropes tied to trees and fence posts. Food vendors lined the walkway, and an army of orphans and the infirm greeted us, the pilgrims. Men with no arms or legs, others suffering from mountain leprosy and elephantiasis, and women with sickly or diseased children overpowered visitors with their pleas. Even the most hard-hearted could not discount the wave of pain that greeted those who desired to experience the interior of the sanctuary. To the left of the basilica, visitors could see the serpentine line of the faithful who had ridden a bus or walked for miles to see the historic, miracle-making Christ of Esquipulas.

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