My grandmother, Fanny Reid, was the first person I ever heard mention the Black Christ of Portobelo. I never made a pilgrimage to that Atlantic coastal village with her (and I don’t think she ever did either) but, she often made mention of him and of how he was peculiar to Panama. From that moment on in my childhood I developed a longing to know about this figure that lately has given rise to much controversy and ever more devotion from many parts of the world.
History has it that on the 21st of October of 1658 the extraordinary image of a Black Christ arrived on the beach of the Panamanian community of Portobelo, and since then it has remained in the hearts of the Panamanian people as well as some notable foreign personalities. The Nazareno, as he is affectionately known, is not only the most important Santo in Panama, but is widely known in many sectors of Latin America, Europe and other parts of the world. Without a doubt, many Latin Americans have listened and sung the musical theme that “the Brujo of Borinquen” or “El Sonero Mayor,” Ismael Rivera, a popular Puerto Rican Salsa and Plena singer, dedicated to the Black Christ.
Popular legend relates that some 341 years ago the waves of the Atlantic Ocean delivered up to the glistening beach of San Pedro de La Escucha the heavy image of a Black Christ. Apparently not only was the hue of his skin dark, but his facial features, the color of his eyes, everything about him oddly pointed to a “Black” Christ, not the popular fair skinned, blue eyed versions of Jesus traditionally imported from Spain.
There are two versions as to how the image arrived at this unlikely place. The first story assures us that an Indian by the name of Kichimbanchi discovered the image floating out at sea and dragged it to shore. The second, and most well-known story, recounts how the Christ was being carried, by ship, to Colombia or Peru and, due to foul weather, the crew was forced to disembark in Portobelo. Mysteriously, the legend continues, whenever this ship tried to weigh anchor and continue its proposed course, a mighty storm would whip up to prevent it. After several attempts, the Spaniards in charge of the image decided to leave it in Portobelo, and since then he remains there a fixed and venerated figure.
In the history of this unique area we are told that at the same time that the Black Christ arrived in Portobelo a terrible smallpox epidemic broke out that decimated the population and motivated the town’s citizenry to implore the image (on their knees) to ward off the pestilence and protect them from contagion. Miraculously, the epidemic stopped on the following day, and from that day until today a multitudinous procession is carried out annually on the 21st of October to the small village of Portobelo.
The Pilgrims (Los Peregrinos) normally begin walking, “caminando,” four days before the 21st depending on where they are coming from. Some people walk much greater distances and suffer many more trials and discomforts in penance or in gratitude for some grace granted by their beloved “Naza.” Some travel (this is usually by foot) in small groups or with an equally ardent companion, some travel completely alone. What unites them when they converge on the small fishing village of Portobelo, however, is their devotion and sense of gratitude.
The procession is usually comprised of a wide variety of people from all walks of life and many of them dress in their traditional purple, royal blue or red vestments that they normally have made up for them by a seamstress or someone skilled with the needle in their family. Some pilgrims invest extraordinary sums in their robes every single year for the sake of their devotion. In fact, the splendid robes of the Nazareno, which are changed every year several times a year, are housed in a special museum adjacent to the Church in which his image is mounted at the altar. The vestments are, in and of themselves, a sight to see in their intricacy and varying styles and fabric. They are fabulously fashioned of costly and rare materials. Most of them are testimony, having been commissioned by grateful donors, to the absolute faith in the powers of the Cristo Negro to have answered very important and urgent petitions.
In my next post I will delve a bit into some of the legendary figures in the music world like Ismael Rivera who at one time became very popular with the devotees of this Santo and about the controversy that has grown around the figure of the Black Christ of Portobelo.
This story continues.