August 31st, 2009

The New Tropics

Costa Rica is—and always has been—in the tropics, but the popular conception of the tropics has changed, altering the country itself in the process. The new idea of the tropics—essentially, a geographically unspecific blend of disparate tropical images—has transformed the image tourists and locals have of Costa Rica.

About thirty years ago, the Costa Rican image of the tropics was largely self-created. Few tourists came to Costa Rica, and most knew very little about what they would find once they reached the country. There were no websites about the country, few books about it that would reach an international audience and still fewer images of Costa Rica circulating outside its borders. Everything Costa Ricans and their visitors knew about the Costa Rican tropics came from what they learned within the country itself. Local and international scientists studied and wrote about the country’s own tropical attributes, although their publications only reached a limited readership. Costa Ricans enjoyed the country’s bountiful tropical fruits and vegetables and visited its parks and beaches. However, without the perspective of the foreign observer, Costa Rica’s early conception of the tropics was straightforward and relatively untainted.

Recently, this conception has become blurred by a more global and commercial sense of the tropics. Visitors to the country have seen movies about the tropics or visited theme parks about this part of the world. All have their own conception of the rain forest, beaches and life in this particular latitude, and many have superimposed their tropical notions on the country.

In the mid-1990s, American surfers “discovered” Costa Rican beaches and brought with them their own sense of the tropics. Surfboards, Hawaiian shirts and an Endless Summer-style sensibility crept into Costa Rican beaches where soccer balls and ceviche were once the only attributes. A commercial Caribbean influence soon emerged, bringing with it Rastafarian imagery, Bob Marley music and the other aspects of a sort of pan-Caribbean vision. Most recently, the spa set has imposed its sense of the tropics on Costa Rica, bringing with it hibiscus-infused therapeutic baths and seaside massages.

These new tropical conceptions, imposed from the outside, have little to do with one another and still less to do with the “true” Costa Rica, which has no past of surfing, steel drumming or therapeutic yoga. The image some newcomers have created is a sort of hodge-podge of the tropics, a blend of everyone’s idea of what the tropics ought to be. In some places, Costa Rica has become a receptacle for everyone else’s idea of tropical life.

However, some of Costa Rica’s “true” tropical sense still remains, and the intrepid visitor can still find it. On some quiet beach, there is still an open-air cinder-block restaurant, where the radio plays maudlin ballads in Spanish, nobody sells imported t-shirts, swimmers and seagulls share the afternoon ocean, and water condenses quietly on the outside of a glass of cás.

[Read more about cás.]

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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August 12th, 2009

La Negrita and the Basilica of Cartago

In the long Catholic tradition of miraculous apparitions that change the course of Church history, statues of the Virgin often appear and show the faithful where to build a new church. True to that tradition, the Basilica of Cartago—the Basílica de Los Angeles—now stands on the spot where an image of the Virgin first appeared. In the 1600s, before the church existed, a Cartago woman wandering through the woods found a dark stone image of the Virgin Mary. The woman immediately took the statue home with her. In the morning, the statue had disappeared from the woman’s house and reappeared in the woods where she had first appeared. After trying futilely, several times, to keep the statue in her home, the woman finally resigned herself to the fact that the Virgin wanted a church erected on the site where he had found her. The Basilica of Cartago was built in the honor of this Virgin, la Virgen de los Angeles. The statue of the dark-skinned Virgin—known as “La Negrita”—stands on the church’s altar. In 1824, Costa Rica declared La Negrita the Patron Saint of Costa Rica.

Soon after the erection of the church, La Negrita’s faithful began to associate her with miraculous healings. The sick who prayed to the Virgin experienced dramatic recoveries, and the Basilica of Cartago became a significant pilgrimage site, with August 2 recognized as the official day of pilgrimage. For over 200 years, the Catholic faithful have made an annual trek to the church. Sick people travel to Cartago to pray to the Virgin for relief from their suffering. Those who have recovered go to the church to express their gratitude to the Virgin who healed them; the newly cured pilgrims have often made an earlier promise to the Virgin that they will visit her church if she grants them a recovery.

La Negrita’s devoted followers often acquire small metallic representations of their ailments—tiny golden legs, little silver eyes or ears, or small metal hearts. As reminders of their promises to make pilgrimages to Cartago in the event of a cure, La Negrita’s followers often wear these body parts on gold chains around their necks. Many of the healed leave these metallic reminders on La Negrita’s altar, which is now resplendent with the gold and silver representations of ailments cured.

La Negrita’s most faithful come to Cartago in cars and on buses from all across the country. Most walk the last fourteen miles from San José to the church. The most devoted make their way up the church steps and to La Negrita’s altar on their knees.

Read more about the healing powers of La Negrita.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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August 3rd, 2009

Pilgrimage, the Modern Way

For the past 227 years, thousands of Costa Ricans have made an annual pilgrimage to the Basilica of Cartago, where they visit the statue of the Virgin of the Angels (Virgen de los Angeles), popularly known as “La Negrita.” This image of the Virgin is said to heal the sick. Suppliants approach her for cures, and the healed visit her in gratitude. The pilgrimage takes place August 2, the feast day of the Virgin of the Angels, but this year marked a radical change in the pilgrimage to La Negrita.

On July 21 of this year, the Catholic Church and the Costa Rican Health Minister (Ministra de Salud), María Luisa Avila, cancelled the 2009 pilgrimage to Cartago because of fears about the H1N1 virus. During normal pilgrimage years, thousands of Costa Ricans spend several days in close proximity to one another—taking buses and other forms of collective transportation from outlying provinces to the Basilica in Cartago, jostling one another in the streets during the miles-long walk to the Basilica, crowding together in restaurants and cafés during rest stops, sharing food and drinks along the pilgrimage route, and packing into the Basilica and its courtyard during the religious ceremonies. The Church and Ms. Avila worried that the virus could easily spread among these thousands of pilgrims.

Thus, for the first time in over two centuries, the Catholic faithful would not be allowed to make their way to Cartago and to La Negrita. The pilgrimage is one of the most important religious rites among Costa Rican Catholics, and some have walked to Cartago for dozens of years in a row. Outraged by the cancellation, many vowed to do the pilgrimage on their own, even though the government said there would be no official traffic closures or police escorts to protect them along the way.

The faithful need not have worried. Over the first weekend in August 2009, the pilgrimage did, in fact, take place, although in altered form to accommodate modern health demands. La Negrita herself made the cross-country journey to visit her own worshippers. In a pick-up truck and a helicopter donated by Costa Rica’s Channel 7 (Teletica Canal 7), the Virgin flew to crowds of adoring Catholics who greeted her with applause, prayer and tears. La Negrita began her journey in a new white dress, after her annual dressing ceremony at the Cartago Basilica on Friday, August 1. The following day, church officials loaded the statue into the pick-up truck, in which she toured the Central Valley provinces of San José, Heredia and Alajuela. A motorcycle brigade accompanied the Virgin on her stops to various churches in the Central Valley. The Virgin then returned to Cartago for Sunday’s journey. Near dawn on Sunday, the Virgin left the Basilica in her pick-up truck, which transported her to a nearby field. From there, church officials put the statue into the Channel 7 helicopter, where she joined the Bishop of Cartago, the priest of the Cartago Basilica and a member of the Costa Rican air services (Fuerza de Vigilancia Aérea). On Sunday, the Virgin visited the provinces of Limón and Puntarenas.

During both Saturday and Sunday’s journeys, the Virgin stopped at various arenas and stadiums, all of which were filled to capacity. At each stadium, the faithful processed with the statue to and from a nearby church. Once back in the helicopter, the Virgin proceeded to the next stadium. At every stop, the faithful waved white handkerchiefs and held aloft objects to be blessed.

Because the Virgin’s land-and-air journey began at the Basilica in Cartago, some worshippers did, in fact, make the pilgrimage to Cartago. However, their numbers were smaller than usual, and those who made the pilgrimage were unable to see the Virgin in her usual place on the altar. The statue was being readied for the cross-country journey, so a replica stood on a temporary altar outside the Basilica. Traffic police, on hand despite earlier government threats to the contrary, had an easy job of controlling the minuscule crowds and reported no traffic problems.

Although the Virgin’s 2009 voyage was unusual, her official historian, Carlos Oreamuno, says that La Negrita has traveled across the country several times in the past. According to Oreamuno, the Virgin has traversed all parts of Costa Rica but Cocos Island (la Isla del Coco). However, the 2009 journey was surely the first in which a GPS signaled the Virgin’s exact location throughout her trip. The faithful followed La Negrita’s every move online at santuarionacional.org.

[Please read our upcoming post about the history of the basilica in Cartago.]

Read more about La Negrita’s Sunday journey.

Read more about the dressing of la Virgen de los Angeles.

Read more about the cancellation of the pilgrimage to the Basilica in Cartago.

Read more about the Virgen de los Angeles and the GPS.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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