Day of the Black Christ of Esquipulas

Black Christ of Esquipulas, Day of the

January 15
For many people in Central and South America, the pilgrimage to the Black Christ of Esquipulas begins well in advance of the January 15 festival. Quite a number of Indians make the journey to Esquipulas—located in southeastern Guatemala along the borders with El Salvador and Honduras—entirely on foot, and look down upon those pilgrims who travel by horseback or in cars. Many don wide-brimmed straw hats, to which they attach gray Spanish moss and chiches (breasts), a yellow fruit that resembles a gourd. Indians making the journey from Quezaltenango blacken their hands with the juice from a special fruit. Folk belief teaches that this act aids Christ in enduring his pain.
Prior to the Spanish Conquest, Indians came to site of modern-day Esquipulas for religious rituals and trade. Once the Spaniards arrived the chief of the local tribes, whose name was Esquipulas, comprehended that it would be useless to resist the Europeans and decided instead to cooperate with them. The Spaniards honored him by founding a town which bore his name. They also built a Roman Catholic church and hired a well-known artist to sculpt a statue of Jesus. Since the local Indians thought that all Europeans were wicked, the priests requested that the artist carve the statue from balsam wood, a wood whose color was close to that of the natives' skin. Over the 400 years that have elapsed since then, the statue has darkened to black due to constant exposure to candle smoke and incense. Many legends involving answered prayers and miraculous cures have enhanced the Black Christ's reputation.
Ceremonial sites resembling altars, built from rocks brought by pilgrims, are scattered through the hills surrounding Esquipulas. The pilgrims stop to pray at these sites in their journeys to and from Esquipulas.
Only QuichÉ Indians from western Guatemala—believed to be the only Indians in the country who have not intermarried with whites—can perform some of the sacred rituals associated with this pilgrimage, such as dressing the image of the Black Christ. The pilgrimage is a good example of a Christian ritual that is closely tied to the practices of an indigenous population.
Guatemala Tourist Commission
7th Ave. 1-17 Zone 4, Civic Ctr.
Guatemala City, Guatemala
502-331-3333; fax: 502-331-8893
FiestaTime-1965, p. 10