A Silver Roll Grandmother and the Black Christ

A Diablo Rojo going to take many pilgrims to Portobelo. Image

As we approach the grand celebration of the Black Christ this Friday, October 21, I never fail to recall the words of my beloved grandmother who, as I’ve noted countless times, was the key person in my life to introduce me to the Black Christ of Portobelo in the Province of Colon.

During my childhood she would often become very animated as she would tell about this black Christ at a place called Portobelo. These were precious moments of my childhood when I was very attentive to her words when, for some unexplained reason, she would choose that subject to discuss with me. She was, at this point, one of the few people in my life as a child who would really talk to me and religion was the most little talked about subject on our elders’ list.

She was the only one who would talk about that gigantic figure of a Black Christ which I had never seen in any one of the churches of the capitol or in my treasured collection of religious stamps which I lovingly kept in my small personal locker as a memento of my “private catechism” classes.  I would often take them out to cherish them as reminders of my beloved nuns all dressed in black who often greeted us at the portal of the courtyard of Cristo Rey Church in Bella Vista, a short walk from our neighborhood in Calidonia.

In the beautifully elaborated cards that were often a reward for just showing up for catechism, the images were always of white saints and angels and of a European looking Christ with very delicate, stylized features usually surrounded by a golden filigreed halo.  As I listened to my grandmother closely, I could only imagine what the Black Christ looked like since there were no images, pictures or any other artistic renditions of this unique figure that adopted our country until the golden age of T.V. came along.  Even the newspapers rarely had a picture of this image of Christ.

It seemed to me that my grandmother had been very much impressed by El Santo, as they called him in Colon, although she often said that she was hoping to pay him a visit despite the fact that Portobelo was so difficult to get to.  She was also impressed by the absolute faith of His followers.  My Mamí would tell me about the alarming numbers of people who braved remote mountain paths and some would come by sea even losing their lives during their pilgrimage just to catch sight of El Santo.  Listening in rapt silence I, nevertheless, had to settle for our small neighborhood chapel of San Miguel Hill.  One thing was certain from that moment on I was determined to follow in the footsteps of the Black Christ of Portobelo.

Her narrative represented something very important to me as I had never heard this theme talked about by anyone else, not even in school, although I was born in the country of Panama. The fact that she was relating to me about a tradition in the Catholic Church, something quite foreign to her, was also very special to me since it was a time in our relationship that she would playfully refer to me as one of those strange Spanish Panamanian men, a Paña Man.  Over the years Portobelo would become a heritage site and one which I would treasure much later in life as a place that had become a part of my cultural education.

Yet our collective history would take time in revealing to me that cultural beauty when fate would distance me from my grandmother and my two aunts to go reconnect with my relatives in Colon.

In those chief encounters of life the valuable cultural lessons I learned from my grandmother about the beautiful Black Christ of Portobelo would prepare me to hold on to my cultural identity.  As Christ promised in the Gospels, “I am with you always,” He stayed with me throughout my spiritual journey.  This included when I found myself pursuing my secondary education in Colegio Abel Bravo of Colon, then my odyssey in Bocas del Toro in pursuit of honest work, finally reaching the greatest of my trials in my youth when I went to live in one of the many American ghettos all the while pining to return to my beloved Panama.

This story continues.

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