Nobody knows exactly how or when the Black Christ (El Cristo Negro) arrived in the tiny community of Portobelo on Panama’s Caribbean coast. Some put the date at around 1658. But the stories of miracles surrounding the eight-foot wooden statue of the Black Christ are enough to overwhelm the village with tens of thousands of pilgrims every October 21.
Some walk the 53 miles from Panama City, thousands walk the last 22 miles from Sabanitas, and many crawl the last mile on hands and knees to worship before El Nazareno, one of the names given to the Black Christ by locals. Many wear ornate purple robes that are discarded at midnight on the steps of the church in which the statue is now housed, Iglesia San Felipe. The robes announce that the wearer is responding to a divine command, doing penance for wrongdoing, or simply making an expression of faith.
Many stories surround the Black Christ statue’s arrival in this unlikely place. All agree that it was carved in Spain, arrived on a ship and was washed ashore at Portobelo. The rest is shrouded in the mists of time and myth.
One story holds that the ship carrying the heavy statue in a wooden crate met a terrible storm that drove it back into the harbor. The ship attempted to leave five times, but every time a sudden and unexpected storm endangered the ship and everyone aboard. On the final attempt, the crew jettisoned the crated Black Christ to lessen the weight and save their lives.
Fishermen, amazed by the lack of respect shown by the sailors, carried the Black Christ to their church and gave it a place of honor.
Another myth is that the figure Jesus of Nazareth was destined for the island of Taboga, off the Panamanian coast, but the Spanish shipper incorrectly labeled the shipment. Many attempts were made to send the statue to Taboga, but all attempts to remove it from Portobelo failed. The people of Portobelo, who suspected the figure had magical powers, said it wished to remain with them.
The sick, the troubled and the needy pray before the ornately robed statue of the Black Christ for the miracles they hope to receive, but it is said that if a promise is made and not kept there will be severe retribution. One story is of a man who prayed he would win the country’s top weekly lottery prize ($2,000) and promised that if he did he would paint the outside of the church.
Sure enough, he won the lottery, but he did not paint the church. He even told friends he did not intend to carry out his promise. Unable to resist what he saw as a good thing, he was back to visit the Black Christ the next year with the same request and promise. Lottery tickets are sold everywhere in Panama where people are, and many sellers are outside the church. He bought his ticket before setting off for home. On the way, he was killed in a traffic accident. In his pocket was the winning ticket.
The foot weary take a break after walk for Black Christ.
“¡El Cristo Negro cobra!” believers warn. The Black Christ calls in the markers!
The popular name, The Black Christ, is attributed to U.S. servicemen shortly after the Second World War. Some 500 arrived in a ship to celebrate the October festival. One witness of that particular day says that many of the U.S. visitors were so caught up in the emotional fervor that they began to shout “viva El Cristo Negro!” The name stuck everywhere except in Portobelo. A more familiar name is simply The Saint.
Mass is called at 6 p.m. on October 21. (Be there before 4 p.m. if you hope to get inside the church.) At exactly 8 p.m., 80 able-bodied men carry the statue from the church to begin a four-hour parade around the community. There is a carnival atmosphere.
The bearers take three steps forward, two back, in a similar manner to that of Spanish religious processions. But, unlike those of Spain, this procession has a special Latin American twist: a quick step to lively music. The bearers have freshly shaved heads, wear purple robes and have bare feet. It is a distinct honor to be chosen to bear the Black Christ, an honor paid for by sore shoulders and aching muscles the next day.
At exactly midnight, The Saint is returned to the church. One story holds that it is impossible to return the Black Crist before midnight. “It just gets too heavy to move.”