This blog is about persons or events which have contributed to the slow evolution into who I am now. Although I worked in Peru for only a short 8 years, these were formative years of great significance. My mentors urged a respect for “la religiosidad popular” – meeting the people where they were at. This is about this encounter between north and south, dominance and dominated, clergy and people.
The month of October in Peru is the month of “Señor de los Milagros” or ¨Lord of the Miracles”. I had been in Peru for only half a year and was attending an orientation program for new missionaries. The program was given in an old convent in the center of Lima. There are two vivid memories from this session. The first was my first taste of what some considered a delicacy – mondongo, which is tripe cooked in a green sauce with some added vegetables. The meat was something like a thick rubber band in consistency which required exaggerated chewing after which I just decided to swallow it to get it down. After eight years in Peru this was the one and only typical dish to which I could not develop a fondness.
The second memory came from one of the lectures dealing with the religiosity of the people. Those attending the seminar were urged to experience the procession of the image of Señor de los Milagros which passed through different routes around the center of old Lima. Shopkeepers and homeowners on the route would pay the “hermandad” (“brotherhood”) that controlled the image and the procession to stop in front of their building to bless those within. I went out to the avenue called Abancay only a few blocks away from the Plaza de Armas of old Lima where the presidential palace and the cathedral are located. Abancay is a wide street with about 8 lanes for vehicle traffic.
I was told that on that day about a million people would be in the street accompanying the image of Señor de los Milagros. I positioned myself behind a lamp post thinking that this vantage would provide some stability to enable me to view this massive movement of people moving towards me. All eight lanes of the street were packed and moving in one direction.
The image is carried on a huge wooden platform called an “anda” – something that is walked by members of the hermandad in a rocking motion accompanied by music. The anda weights around 1850 kg. of which 450 kg. of pure silver is found adorning parts of the image with angels and other symbols. The 5000 member hermandad is divided into 20 “squads” and it is considered to be an great honor to be chosen to carry the anda with the sacred image. Women accompany the anda burning incense and chanting, but traditionally do not carry the anda. The crowd follows the procession and many wear
purple capes or dresses. October in Peru is like lent to the rest of the church. Those who wear the purple of Señor de los Milagros are expected to do penance, go to confession and mass, and are expected to practice celibacy (just for the month). If a woman wears the purple dress for the month, her hubby dare not offend the Lord by insisting on marital rights.
The anda with the procession slowly advanced towards me, with the smell of incense filling the air and the sounds of the processional music accompanied by wind instruments playing a hymn with a distinctly Andean character. I could not maintain my position behind the lamp stand, as much as I tried to keep my vantage point. The procession was so tightly packed that it somehow seemed to pass through solid objects and moved like an organic whole down Abancay. The crowd simply picked me up and I found myself
moving along with the procession, not sure if my feet were actually moving. Somehow I became a part of this huge mass of humanity moving along with the image. Eventually I was able to escape to a far side of the street and to stand against a building while the procession passed by me.
Now here I was a gringo missionary coming from a culture where these manifestations of religious piety were mostly confined to the interior of our churches. My childhood was perhaps more catholic than average in that our family went to church twice on Sundays – in the morning for mass and in the evening for rosary and benediction – and most often I would be next to the priest in my role as altar server. (Most normal kids stayed home on Sunday evening to watch Disneyland – we went back to church.) I aspired to be promoted to the server who helped mix the incense – definitely a position that
required greater dedication and approval by the parish priest. We never went out into the streets to make public demonstrations of our religion. Ours was an “interior” religion and such piety was reserved and private.
This experience in Peru caused me to question my own religiosity as challenged by the depth of this very public and demonstrative outpouring of faith with a million people walking along with a replica image of the crucified Christ. Along with this procession went all the horrors that can accompany such a public gathering. This was the perfect place for pickpockets, the merchants of religious paraphernalia, the mafia like organization of the hermandad which extracted huge donations for almost every gesture with the image. Parents would
hold up their babies with a fistful of paper money, someone would grab the money and others would take the infants or children and hold them up to the image on the anda, somehow managing to pass the children down to their parents somewhere along the procession. When the sacred image passed through the main square called the Plaza de Armas, the procession would stop in front of the presidential palace and the President of the country would be obliged to come out and pay his respects to show that he was a believer. Then the anda would be carried to
the front of the Archbishop´s palace and the Cardinal Archbishop would then in turn emerge to pay homage to the sacred image, demonstrating that he too (and the church) still were devotees of the sacred image.
This was a religious ceremony which the official church did not control. The hermandad controlled the technical details of the processions, and reaped huge profits for which they were not accountable, but for the millions of the
faithful these were not considerations. Fundamentally this was the religious event of the year, certainly for Lima and in large part for the rest of the country. Every city, town and hacienda would have its own replica image and corresponding anda, with a hermandad organized into squads. There was a fervour and public devotion that perhaps could not be equaled elsewhere in the church. Even the processions in Lourdes would be miniscule in comparison, but similar in intensity.
Before the Spaniards and even before the Incan empire, there was an ancient devotion (fear) to a god called Pacha Kamaq, who was an earth deity who had the power to make the earth fertile but was also known as “earth shaker”. This god controlled tremors and earthquakes. The Incan deity was Inti – a sun god and his sister was the moon. Pachacamac was absorbed into the Incan pantheon. When the Spaniards established the city of Lima, an area on the outskirts was called Pachacamilla where natives continued to worship their god Pachacamac but hidden inside Spanish designs. There were other examples of how pre-Christian cults were cleverly disguised in Christian icons. Later slaves came to live in this area. Did this cult to the “earth shaker” Pacha Kamaq influence the development of the “Lord of Pachacamilla” who evolved into the “Lord of the Tremors”and then into “Lord of the Miracles”? The cult of Señor de los Milagros might have a far more subversive origin than is acknowledged, where the earth god is waiting for his turn to defeat the Spanish god of the sky.
In the present configuration, the strength of this devotion was that the celebration of Señor de los Milagros was not controlled by the church. It was something demanded by the people, and as such was a grass-roots expression of their religiosity with a power that the official church could only envy. By the mid 1600´s the city of Pizarro, the conquistador, had grown to over
30,000 inhabitants of whom a third were slaves brought from different areas of Africa, passing through Panama. Saint Martin de Porres (1579-1639) was the son of a Spanish military official and a liberated black slave. He was a contemporary of St. Rose of Lima (1586-1617), but his elevation to sainthood (1962) was delayed by his “blackness” whereas Rose was rapidly declared a saint (1671) in part because of her weird but typical piety which included a dreadful body self-image (anorexic) but also because she was lily white. This was after all an extension of the Spanish church in the new land which had accommodated itself to the institution of slavery and played an essential ideological role in the domination of the “indios” and the slaves.
The African slaves were identifiable by their place of origin and language, and often were naturally found
working with their own ethnic groups on the haciendas for which they were purchased. The slave owners, being all devout Catholics under the reign of the Catholic Spanish kings, often had their slaves baptised to bring them into the realm of salvation (even if it was for the next world) but also as a method of preventing them from practicing their own tribal religious traditions. Sometimes these slave groups were allowed to form fraternities that promoted Christian cultic traditions.
In an area that was on the outskirts of Lima, there was an Angolan slave population in the area of Pachacamilla with its own fraternity. Jesuit missionaries had brought translations of hymns and liturgy in the native dialects of western Africa including Angola which allowed the slave population to use their traditional language in singing. The fraternity organized funerals for slaves when permitted and sought to provide care for the ill. The fraternity of Pachacamilla had an image of the Crucified Christ painted on a crude adobe wall by one of their own – a slave named Benito of Angola. This image was on a wall near an irrigation ditch which the slaves could view briefly as they were herded out for their day of labour in the fields.
In 1655 the city of Lima experienced a massive earthquake that tumbled many buildings and left adobe walls damaged or destroyed. The crudely constructed wall on which the image of the Crucified Christ of Pachacamilla was painted did not collapse. Clearly it was a miraculous image – there could be no other explanation. Soon devotion to this image spread beyond the area and a chapel was built to shelter the image. As the popularity of this miraculous image grew, the official church and local authorities became concerned that it was getting out of control – as it was a slave thing and not something promoted by the official church. It provided a place of gathering where slaves would gather and conduct their own religious ceremonies without control by the official church. There was talk of other miracles and cures, so the Archbishop along with civil authorities ordered the destruction of the sacred image. Three attempts to paint over the image failed as those charged with the task felt strange vibrations when they approached the image. This of course only heightened the power of the image, demonstrating the weakness of the official authorities and the power of the piety of the people.
The church and civil authorities on realizing that they could not oppose the power of this popular devotion decided to incorporate it into the official church and in September
1671 a public mass was held in front of the image with religious and civil authorities in attendance. With this official approbation, a hermitage was built to shelter the image. In October 1687, the city of Lima was again shaken by a violent earthquake that rocked the city for 15 minutes. Again there was great property destruction throughout the zone, including the hermitage built around the adobe wall with the image of the Crucified Christ of Pachacamilla. But the frail wall with the image did not fall. October for whatever reason is a season when there seem to be more tremors and earthquakes, so sometimes the image was referred to as Señor de los Temblores. As more people flocked to view and adore this image, more miracles were declared and the image came to be known as “Lord of the Miracles”. In 1746 one of the strongest earthquakes to be recorded again devastated the city of Lima and the port city of Callao was inundated by a massive tsunami. Again the image of Pachacamilla survived.
Today the Church of the Nazarene surrounds the image of Señor de los Milagros which is protected by its army of the hermandad, and related “cuadrillas” of the brotherhood in every parish throughout the country. Still today the President of the country and the Cardinal Archbishop come out of their respective palaces when summoned to pay homage to Señor de los Milagros and to demonstrate to the people that they too are still devotees of this sacred image.
Of course there are other motives involved, as both civil and religious leaders want to capitalize on this power of the people to enhance their own prestige and power. Of course the mafia like brotherhood, which is beyond scrutiny and for which transparency is not a requirement, cannot account for the millions it pulls in throughout the year in donations. Some of it provides for the upkeep of the Church of the Nazarene and some does go into charity. As with much church money, it is simply absorbed into the official (and unofficial) business of the masters of the cult.
The cult of Señor de los Milagros is something beyond control – but not manipulation. Throughout the Americas there is a consistent subversive dimension to popular devotions, perhaps found even in the European devotions to Fatima and Lourdes. These devotions spring out of the poor, perhaps of their pain and desperation. Often there is
an attempt by the official church to suppress this devotion (definitely a part of the mythology of Señor de los Milagros,
Guadalupe in Mexico, Caacupé in Paraguay, Fatima in Portugal ?) but eventually the church gives in and bows to the supernatural power of the devotion (or at least its economical potential). What happens to the money is always the biggest mystery.
For the people Señor de los Milagros is their god, perhaps identified with Jesus the Crucified, but more so identified with the continuing crucifixion that the poor suffer and have suffered from the time of the conquest and the importation of slaves. Señor de los Milagros is a ¨Black Christ” – one of them, to whom they can cry out on their morning trek to the fields of the plantation or the factories, and one who suffers with them all day long until they pass by on their way to eat and sleep once more with barely a hope of relief and liberation. Only a miracle can save them – from the rich landowners or factory owners, from the corrupt and brutal military and the police, from the oppressive church that claims not only their pennies but also their souls, and from the very shaking of the earth on which they stand.
The song “Ya no lloraré¨ (I will no longer cry) sung by Susana Baca contains this verse:
The black Christ is holy Generous and holy
The black Christ is mild
Mild and holy
The black Christ is miraculous
Miraculous and holy
The black Christ is holy
He’s black, black and holy
This devotion has all the elements that would make any good Protestant cringe. At the
same time it cannot be easily dismissed for it contains religious and cultural elements with great potential in building consciousness among the exploited and vulnerable. In four centuries it has given comfort to the poor, and it is a religious icon that is not only meaningful but is theirs. It is not my devotion, and couldn’t be. My head is not there, and my body is not beaten and exploited to the point that my daily prayer is despair.
p.s. A you tube video featuring popular singer Susana Baca singing the hymn to SLM, with a good visual of the Lima procession can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNtRjLOXYp4&p=AC593415DA34DE23&playnext=1&index=20