Pilgrim Networks of the Holy Shrine of Esquipulas, Guatemala
Thomas, Robert N., Horst, Oscar H., Hunter, John M., Journal of Cultural Geography
ABSTRACT. The Shrine of the Black Christ of Esquipulas, Guatemala, attracts over one million pilgrims annually. This research reveals major pilgrim source areas and identifies key variables associated with pilgrim movement to the shrine. Four data sets were obtained by interviewing pilgrims at the shrine. In major pilgrim source areas, religious leaders and transportation agents were visited throughout Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Over 60% of the pilgrims originate in Guatemala. An additional 20% travel from Honduras and 10% come from El Salvador. Smaller numbers journey from Mexico and the United States of America. Within Guatemala distance decay plays a role in accounting for variations in source areas especially when standardizing pilgrim numbers by total population. Other Black Christ shrines throughout Central America and Mexico have developed their own areas of influence and attract individuals who might otherwise travel to Esquipulas. As distance increases these secondary shrines gain in importance and compete with the original image. Central America's agricultural cycle affects pilgrim travel. Greater numbers of rural inhabitants visit Esquipulas during the dry season when farming activities are at low ebb. Relatively few U.S. citizens travel to Esquipulas since most tour companies which book visitors to Guatemala focus on the highland, Indian areas.
In 1595 an image of a crucified Black Christ was taken to a hermitage located in Esquipulas, a small village in eastern Guatemala (Fig. 1). Within several years a large parochial church was constructed to house the statue and its growing number of worshipers. In 1759 the image again was transferred, this time into an imposing basilica where it reposes today. Within eight years after the image's arrival in Esquipulas, a Mexican pilgrim reportedly experienced a miraculous cure at the shrine (Paz 1861). Throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century, countless cures were recorded by other pilgrims journeying to Esquipulas from throughout Central America and southern Mexico.
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Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries a succession of travelers provided accounts of their visits to Esquipulas. In 1632 Thomas Gage visited the Shrine of the Black Christ and wrote of its growing fame (Gage 1958). In 1769, Padre Cortes y Larraz reported that 20,000 pilgrims were attracted to the shrine in mid-January and another 10,000 over Easter holy days (Cortes y Larraz 1958). In 1827 Padre Munoz noted that pilgrims came from countries throughout Central America, Mexico, and Peru, adding that they were mostly women with no whites (i.e., Spanish) in attendance (Munoz 1889). Stephens told of 80,000 pilgrims, again mostly women, visiting the basilica in mid-January 1839 (Stephens 1841). He also recorded that Central America, Mexico, and Peru were principal pilgrim source areas. Other authors provide accounts of their visits to Esquipulas, the thousands of pilgrims in attendance in mid-January, and of the dominance of Indian women (Laferrire 1877; Brigham 1887; Maudslay 1899).
Over the nearly four centuries since its founding, the Shrine of the Black Christ of Esquipulas has grown in fame, attracting ever-increasing numbers, primarily from Guatemala and its bordering nations. Currently, over one million pilgrims visit the shrine each year.
Pilgrimages involve a complex pattern of human behavior that crosses the thresholds of numerous disciplines. Crumrine and Morinis (1991) cite this as a cause for the previous general neglect of pilgrimage research by scholars. Few geographers have contributed to the general theme of religious pilgrimages. Sopher focused upon pilgrimage in India and produced a comprehensive work on religious systems. In his benchmark study "Pilgrim Circulation in Gujarat (India)," he provides a spatial analysis of pilgrim traffic to the holy shrine at Gujarat by identifying variations in the effective attraction of holy places (Sopher 1968). …