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The Black Christ of Portobelo

Shawn holding down the fort in
In the days when the Spanish ruled the Americas, the Caribbean town of Portobelo was a busy port and fortified military base. Since its decline as a shipping center, Portobelo has become most famous for the icon of the black Jesus and the annual celebration in His honor which attracts thousands from all over the country. My friend Eric and I arrived right in the middle of a celebration of the 402nd anniversary of the towns founded by Columbus. We weren't there more than five minutes when we ran into our friend Kavitha who has written more about this colorful celebration. (See her story from the last update, "Partying in Panama."

Most of the east coast of Central America is a melting pot of three cultures. Portobelo is no exception, and the festival we encountered was a celebration of the merging of these cultures. Here the African, Spanish and Indian people seem to have blended into their own society complete with unique music, food and a religious icon. The people here are fiery and expressive. As you walk through this sea-worn village you are just as likely to encounter people loudly arguing as lovers cuddling and watching the impressive Caribbean sunset.

The African people who live here were originally brought by the Spanish as slaves to work on the sugar plantations that were the primary source of wealth for the Spanish settlers. Disease and war destroyed the majority of the indigenous population. The scattered tribes that remained were enslaved by the Conquistadors and forced to coexist with the African slaves. Both groups were forced to convert to Christianity and were stripped of their traditional languages and religions. The people managed to cling to some of their ancient traditions by manipulating the new faith. The "Christo Negro" icon is a good example of how these people molded Christianity into something they could understand.

The Christo Negro is a staute of a black Christ. There are several versions of the story of how the Christo Negro statue arrived in Portobelo in 1658. One version of the tale says that a ship was attempting to leave during severe weather conditions and dumped the statue over the side. When it washed up in Portobelo, the people immediately brought it to the San Felipe Church. Another version says that the statue was originally ordered by the church on the neighboring island of Toboga and was mistakenly delivered to Portobelo. This controversy has led to a two hundred-year rivalry between the two towns. Whatever the case, el Christo Negro has become synonymous with Portobelo.It has helped the town to re-establish itself as a place of cultural importance in Panama. Every October 21, the statue is taken out and paraded through town on the backs of costumed worshippers. After the parade, there is a huge party that lasts into the next day.

Although the mighty fortresses built by the Spanish on this tranquil bay have all but disintegrated, much of the culture they brought remains. During the Spanish Empire, millions of people were converted to Christianity. Given the choice between conversion and death, most of the slave and indigenous population that encountered the Spanish ultimately turned to Christianity. However, many cultures secretly clung to their traditional religions by transplanting their deities onto the images of saints and Christian icons. Although the idea of a black Christ certainly did not appeal to the Spanish clergy, it was tolerated, and in this way, the people of the Portobelo community were able to transform the foreign religion into something they could own.


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