24 Oct

A Reflection on the Feast Day of the Cristo Negro de Portobelo

Posted by Obiora Nnamdi Anekwe

On October 16th, I attended mass with my family at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York. After parking the car, I walked toward the church and noticed several men and women dressed in bright white shirts and dark pants standing outside. They had several wind instruments like trumpets in their hands. Upon entering the church, several people were dressed in purple. I felt a little odd because I was not dressed in the same colors as other congregants.  From that point on, I knew there had to be some kind of commemorative gathering or celebration occurring that I was unaware of that Sunday. Then after mass, the music began to play and the people from church lined up to celebrate what I learned was the Feast Day of the Cristo Negro de Portobelo (also known as the Black Christ Festival). I had never heard of this Catholic feast day, so I decided to research it and discovered something new about my faith.

But before I further describe this feast day, I want to briefly discuss the imagery of Jesus Christ. His depiction in appearance connects to the Feast Day of the Cristo Negro de Portobelo on many levels. The image of Christ has been portrayed in a multiplicity of visual representations. Throughout history, a people’s cultural heritage and background has dictated how the image of Christ is represented. The Book of Revelation in the Bible’s New Testament described Christ as a man of wooly hair and bronze skin. According to the New International Version, Revelation 1: 14 states: “The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.” In the Old Testament, the Book of Daniel in 10:6 describes the coming Christ in the following manner: “His body also was like beryl, his face had the appearance of lightning, his eyes were like flaming torches, his arms and feet like the gleam of polished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a tumult.” Although there has not been a generally agreed upon consensus by biblical scholars regarding Christ’s physical appearance, it is commonly agreed upon that He was a Hebrew man with the common physical characteristics of such men during his day. I think that it is significant to bring up the above points regarding Christ’s appearance due to the content of this article. It offers some insight into why some people of African descent may worship Christ the Messiah as a black man in Latin America.

The Feast Day of the Cristo Negro de Portobelo originated in Panama. It is celebrated in Panama and other Latin American countries. Many Catholic churches in North America that have large Panamanian populations such as St. Gregory’s Catholic Church in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights community also celebrate the feast day.

As the story is told, at the time the Cristo Negro arrived in Panama, there was a plague on the coast that was devastating the population. The people of Portobelo began to venerate the figure of the Black Christ. Miraculously, the plague ended. The plague avoided Portobelo, but continued in other areas. As rumor spread among the black slaves, freed blacks, mulattos, and criollos (a person from Spanish South or Central America, especially one of pure Spanish descent), people began arriving in Portobelo to venerate the Black Christ figure. Since then, each year for the last three centuries on or around the 21st of October, the Feast Day of the Cristo Negro de Portobelo is celebrated. As many as 60,000 devotees make a pilgrimage to visit the statue from surrounding villages, the United States, Europe, and other countries in Latin America. The Black Christ is regarded as the patron saint of criminals because among the visitors who make the pilgrimage are thousands of muggers, burglars, and drug dealers seeking forgiveness from the Black Christ for their crimes. These wrongdoers line-up at the San Felipe church to pay homage to the Black Christ statue in Portobelo, Panama.

There are several myths and tales as to how the statue of the Black Christ arrived in Portobelo, Panama. According to the website article entitled, “Black Christ Church, Portobelo” (http://www.coloncity.com/blackchrist.html): “One story says 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.”

In another myth, the figure of Jesus the Christ 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” (http://www.coloncity.com/blackchrist.html). Today, the effigy of the Black Christ remains at the Catholic church known as the Iglesia de San Felipe in Portobelo. The life-sixed statue of a Black Christ carrying the cross is known as the Nazareno of Portobelo or the Black Christ. No matter the myth, it is agreed that the statue was carved in Spain, arrived on a ship, and was eventually washed ashore at Portobelo.

As depicted in the street march of the Black Christ I witnessed after mass in Brooklyn, the Black Christ bearers take three steps forward, two back during the procession, in a similar manner to that of Spanish religious processions. But as I observed, unlike those of Spain, this procession has a special Latin American twist: a quick step to lively music accompanied by musical instruments. In Latin America, the bearers have freshly shaved heads, wear purple robes, and have bare feet. According to tradition in the Caribbean, the Saint is returned to the church at midnight.