The Black Christ of Portobelo Part II

The Black Christ of Portobelo. Image thanks to monumentoshistóricos.com

Ismael Rivera, El Sonero Mayor. Image thanks to grandesestrellas.com

The Church of San Felipe de Portobelo. Image thanks to tripadvisor.com

Through the years, many important miracles have been attributed to the Black Christ. The most well known miracle, however, is probably the one connected to the popular Puerto Rican singer, Ismael Rivera. In 1975, “the Brujo of Borinquen” (The Wizard of Borinquen) was about to give up his successful musical career due to his chronic addiction to drugs.

In one of his many visits to Panama, the country that he considered his second home, “Maelo,” as he was affectionately known to many, spoke with his “hermano,” his close friend Pedro “Sorolo” Rodriguez and the latter recommended to him that he entrust his life to the Santo who in Panama had made incredible miracles.

Rivera, not very convinced, accepted the invitation and both he and Sorolo traveled to the Church of San Felipe de Portobelo, located in the coastal community on the Panamanian Atlantic side. He petitioned the Miraculous One to enable him to leave his drug addiction and continue singing. Now, before traveling to Panama, Rivera’s doctors had warned him that his addiction was serious and that if he did not manage to bring it under control he could soon kiss his musical career goodbye.  Today, of course, there is a greater array of choices open to those struggling with drug addiction in choosing a drug rehab center.

At the time the singer had almost totally retired from the stage and his musical career was in a shambles, but once he entrusted himself to the Nazareno, his situation began to change remarkably. The influence of The Santo in the life of the singer motivated him to leave drugs and to resume his profession. Once recovered and in fulfilment of his promise, “Maelo” returned to Portobelo every 21 of October, from 1975 to 1985, two years before a case of throat cancer ended his life on 13 of May of 1987, at the age of 56 years.

Luis Gooding, another one of his close friends relates how “Maelo” “was steeped in the “vice” and that upon his arrival in Panama he offered seven years of penance to the Santo in exchange for his assistance. The penance consisted of walking from the popular district of Chorrillo, in the city of Panama, to Portobelo, a trek that took at least three days on foot, exposing himself to the intense sun and rain and sleeping along the way where ever nightfall would catch him.

Rivera’s yearly pilgrimages through the streets of Panama towards Portobelo became more and more famous to the point that a crowd traditionally waited for him along the way to accompany him in song, the songs he had made so famous throughout the world, until he would arrive at the Church. The processions of the Nazareno were then a true popular and religious celebration.

The miracles of the Black Christ not only captivated Ismael Rivera. It was also not uncommon to see in the processions of this Santo great Soneros like Celia Cruz, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, Cheo Feliciano and Gilberto Santa Rosa, among others. The Black Christ, in fact, has been considered the Saint of the Soneros.

Upon returning to music Rivera wrote several songs that became great hits, among them, the one dedicated to the Black Christ entitled “The Nazareno.” It has been 21 years since the death of Ismael Rivera, and yet he continues to pay his vows to the Black Christ through the song he composed to Him which is played incessantly on Panamanian radio especially as the Saint’s celebration approaches in the month of October.

The presence of “the Wizard of Borinquen” in Portobelo has made itself felt more intensely each year, but in the year 2000 the Black Christ’s followers and fans of Rivera decided to have a bust of Rivera made and placed at the entrance of the Church of San Felipe de Portobelo. The gleaming sculpture of “Maelo” wears an enormous wooden crucifix around the neck with the image of the Santo. The sculpture measures a little over a meter high and is mounted on a base of concrete 24 inches high. Its construction took Panamanian artists 53 days to produce. Today, the people who pilgrimage to Portobelo year after year can pay homage to their beloved Black Christ and to “Maelo,” Ismael Rivera, the man and artist who shared their love for the Cristo Negro of Portobelo with all his heart.

The Controversy
The Black Christ of Portobelo celebrations are not only famous because of the personalities that arrive for the yearly processions. They have become the focus of controversy on the part of the Catholic Church and human rights organizations that consider the severe penances or “offerings” that are offered to The Santo to be extremely painful and reprehensible in as much as they are self-inflicted.

During the October celebrations Panamanian television is replete with scenes of devotees of the Black Christ marching over miles of road on their knees with their extremities badly damaged by the rough surface of the road while others make the trek carrying on their backs some relative who has already been benefited by the Saint. There are also images of the ardent penitents who have a companion drip burning wax over there backs from candles offered to the Black Christ, or have themselves whipped all over their bodies as a sign of devotion.

The painful scenes that are transmitted all over the country have produced some negative feedback from the Panamanian Catholic Church and human rights groups that consider these penances reproachable. The number of devotees who have had to be rushed into the emergency ward of local hospitals and clinics by the Red Cross people and other first aid groups along the road to Portobelo has been considerable.

The upper hierarchy of the Church, in fact, makes urgent pleas to its faithful to restrain their acts of penance to The Santo, but nothing has been able to diminish their faith in the Black Christ. The Church’s energetic reprimands have not convinced the faithful followers to abandon these painful practices. I f anything, it has done the opposite- heighten the Cristo Negro’s popularity.

There are also the negative images and labels that have been generated by the press and by groups critical of these, as they view them, “barbaric practices.” Many have even come to consider The Nazareno as the patron of “maleantes” or thieves and criminals and the celebration as a form of idolatry. This is especially true amongst the protestant groups.

Meanwhile, the religious celebrations of the Black Christ of Portobelo continue to be the most popular in Panama, and although Ismael Rivera has long ceased to be physically present, there are still many people who continue to sing with bell, drum and maracas in hand, the song of El Nazareno.

This story continues.

One response to “The Black Christ of Portobelo Part II

  1. The Black Christ, known for his great miracles, the followers of the Black Christ arrive to ask for all kinds of miracles from health to a new home or car. Another tradition that the pilgrims have is to purchase 50 centimeters of ribbon at the temple for 100 colones, which they pass in front of the image of the Black Christ while in prayer, and then guard as a keepsake to feel close to him.
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