The ladies’ sewing cir­cle

Thou­sands of pil­grims flock to a town in Costa Rica each year for an un­usual holy rit­ual

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - RUS­SELL LEIGH SHARMAN

‘‘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.)

STURT KRYGSMAN

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