The ladies’ sewing circle
Thousands of pilgrims flock to a town in Costa Rica each year for an unusual holy ritual
‘‘THEY only exhibit the Virgin without her clothing on the 1st of August.’’ Rosita is perched on a brown sofa in her living room. We are in Cartago, the colonial capital of Costa Rica, and home of La Virgen de los Angeles, patroness of the nation.
The air is moist but cool, as it so often is in Cartago. We are a few thousand metres higher than Limon, nestled among the volcanic peaks of the Central Valley.
‘‘In the past,’’ Rosita continues in quick, staccato Spanish, ‘‘it was only one woman named Mimata and another woman who was my aunt Carmencita . . . [they] were the only two people allowed to make clothing for the Virgin. And now all over the country people come with clothing for the Virgin. So, what the priest does, he puts all the dresses on the Virgin. He puts one on, he takes it off, over and over. And the dress that the people like the most, by applause, that is the one they leave on.’’
She is describing the Vesticion, a ritual carried out every year as part of the celebration of La Negrita, the colloquial title for La Virgen de los Angeles. La Negrita is both an apparition and an icon of the Virgin Mary. That is to say, similar to Our Lady of Guadalupe or Lourdes, the Virgin appeared to a young girl on the outskirts of Cartago in 1635.
But unlike those more widely known apparitions, she did not appear in bodily form, leaving behind some relic for devotion. She in fact appeared as a relic, an icon about 20cm high of volcanic stone carved in the image of Mary and child, wrapped in a cloak. The diminutive statue was taken home by the young girl, and after several mysterious reappearances in the forest where she was discovered, a shrine was built.
By 1821, when Costa Rica declared itself independent from Spain, she had become patroness of the new nation. In 1934, the year of the Limon strike, a pilgrimage to a new basilica built in her honour in Cartago was initiated and has been repeated every year since, bringing tens of thousands of pilgrims to the small highland city on and around her feast day, August 2.
But most pilgrims time their travels to arrive at the whitewashed cinderblock basilica on August 1 for there is a special mass dedicated to changing the tiny dress worn by the icon through the year. Called the Vesticion, it is the one time each year that the jewel-studded armature encasing the object is removed and the icon can be viewed unobstructed.
As Rosita describes, thousands of women (no man has so far admitted to participating) sew dresses to scale, hoping that theirs will be the one that is chosen. But even if it is not, any cloth that has actually touched the icon is considered blessed. Throughout Costa Rica, and certainly in Cartago, many homes will have a small shrine displaying a dress made by a member of the household that once graced the form of the Virgin, if only for a moment.
I soon found that to know Rosita was to know La Negrita, and that La Negrita held the key to a deeper history of racial politics in Costa Rica than I could have imagined.
As it happens, that young girl who first found the icon in 1635 was part of a freed slave population in and around Cartago. She was clearly identified as mulata in all of the earliest records of the event, and the community of followers that organised itself around the icon was also clearly identified as pardo, or African, at least until the 1780s.
It seems clear that La Negrita became shorthand for this particular icon not because the stone is a rather dark green (as many claim) but because for at least the first 150 years of her adoration she was the Virgin of the black residents of Cartago, a fact that has been conveniently forgotten in most accounts of her apparition.
The girl is now described as indigenous and, according to Rosita and most other devotees, the only African influence in Costa Rica came with labourers from the Caribbean 300 years later.
So it was that I began to investigate La Negrita and her connection to the larger story of race in Costa Rica. I spent hours in national archives poring over church documents, historical narratives and newspapers. I interviewed priests and laypeople. I even travelled to Mexico City and walked the grounds of the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in the pre-dawn calm, looking for points of connection that would extend my analysis of religion, race and nationalism.
But the most satisfying moments were spent in the basilica in Cartago with Rosita and her crew of middle-aged women who cared for the altar between services. We would change the altar cloths, including those just beneath the shrine holding La Negrita, with quiet laughter and the bantering gossip of the devoted.
Over the next two years, I became, in my annual visits, a kind of mascot to this sacred altar guild. It helped that I could reach higher than any of them when dusting around the shrine.
It was one of those first evenings, with the basilica shuttered, quiet and dark, as I moved about the altar along with the women, that I, without thinking, paused as I passed in front of the shrine, bowed my head to La Negrita and made the sign of the cross. It was a reflex, a muscle memory that brought myright hand to myforehead, navel and chest. Suddenly I was nine again, granted access to the holiest of holies with a familiarity that once more seemed both forbidden and blessed.
But I was also an anthropologist, a scholar in pursuit of ethnographic data, relying on the time-tested method of participant observation. I looked around at the women on the altar, busily sprucing up the space. They hadn’t noticed anything unusual. Whyshould they? If they were under the impression that my accidental Catholicism was something more . . . purposeful, then no need to explain myself. It would only complicate matters.
After all, I wasn’t lying per se. Maybe I didn’t really believe in the Virgin, and maybe I was allowing them to believe that I did to gain access to this inner circle for research, but I was technically Catholic. Any priest could tell you that. But I also knew I was not a Catholic. I was a Christian. And with the sign of the cross the chasm between the two, which had seemed so wide before, was suddenly more a line, and a thin one at that. This is an edited extract from Saints and Outcasts: La Negrita and the Accidental Catholic by Russell Leigh Sharman; excerpted from Being There: Learning to Live CrossCulturally, edited by Sarah H. Davies and Melbin Konner (Harvard University Press, 2011; $24.95.)