10 December 2015
La Purísima - A Tradition of Identity, Solidarity and Resistance

Among many other decisive features of the far-reaching democratization of Nicaraguan society since 2006 has been the Sandinista government's promotion of Nicaragua's cultural identity in all its aspects. Outside Nicaragua, one of the most misunderstood areas of Nicaraguan culture is the people's deep devotion to the Virgin Mary, an enduring popular feature of the country's national religious life. In some ways, the celebration of the Immaculate Conception, known in Nicaragua as La Purísima, is a more popular feast than either Easter (Holy Week) or Christmas.

People enjoying the Purisima celebrations

Daniel Ortega's government has actively promoted and encouraged La Purísima as a symbol of Nicaragua's cultural identity and community. Wilmor Lopez, probaby the country's leading cultural historian, has followed Nicaragua's popular culture since the last years of the Somoza dictatorship to the present day. He acknowledges the significance of the government's promotion of popular culture, especially in relation to the Purisima. “Naturally, it is part of the country's democratization, part of our sensibility, part of what we now talk about as 'sharing solidarity.'”

But he also stresses that, “Celebrating the Purísima is eminently religious and popular with no political symbolism. In this Purísima full of faith, there is no party political symbol. Celebrating the Purísima, Mary's Immaculate Conception, is primarily cultural. It's the purest expression of the Nicaraguan people because they make offerings, often of gifts that they can barely afford to make. Some families save up all year to celebrate the Purísima, to be able to offer a drink of ‘chicha,’ a piece of sugar cane, a lemon or an orange. It's a culture of popular religion. This celebration is unique in the world, there is no other like it and really it deserves the widest recognition, including that of UNESCO as an intangible patrimony. It transcends frontiers. Wherever you find people from Nicaragua you'll find them celebrating the Purísima, so it's really a national festival with an international character.”

Wilmor Lopez recalls that the Sandinista government of the 1980s also celebrated the Purísima: “In the first revolutionary period, in Managua they encouraged altars in what is now the Bolivar to Chavez Avenue. It was very popular then and now too people take it as a blessing with great satisfaction. In that sense the government has been very responsible in respecting people's traditions, respecting their faith, respecting what people in Nicaragua have to say. Out in the barrios, people generally stay home, so the Purísimas are more heartfelt, with people creating their own altars, organizing their singing and music. People really take ownership of these Purísimas, full of real affection and generosity. I think it's a perfect way of celebrating, doing it the way they do in the barrios.”

Sandra Isabel Pantoja's family in a working-class district of Managua is typical in their devotion to the Virgin Mary. Sandra suffered a personal tragedy some years ago when her two teenage daughters died in a fire that destroyed the family home. She remarks, “Really the Purísima is something that is our own. We used to celebrate it with my daughters while they were alive, then the accident happened and now they are in heaven and for a while I stopped celebrating it. But Our Lady came looking for me in the form of a pilgrim seeking shelter in my house and we saw that Our Lady really wanted to be among us always. It's nine years now since the death of my daughters. Nine years too since she came to visit us and I'm glad now that I took up the tradition again since she came to find us.

In our barrio, the Virgin goes in pilgrimage from our local Mercy Church for nine days in nine different houses, visiting the whole barrio and so now on this last day of the novena there's great love, great devotion, great enthusiasm and she really does appear, especially if you make a toast to her. My partner and myself are very Christian, very devoted to Mary. We open our house for her, really without even knowing what we might offer to give people and now we have more than enough to give because the main thing is to love your family so they can see that Jesus is alive and his mother too.”

Sandra's faith and devotion are typical throughout Nicaragua where people celebrate this feast in honor of Mary's conception without original sin, thus enabling her to be the mother of Jesus. La Purísima means “the most pure.” One of its expressions is the so-called “Gritería” or shouting, which is particularly associated with Nicaragua's historic university city, León. The traditional cry among the noisy celebrations of the Purísima is “Who's causing so much rejoicing?” answered by “The Conception of Mary!” The Purísima consists of nine days of prayer and devotion typically in people's homes and the novena culminates in the celebration of the “Gritería” on December 7th, the final day of the Purísima's novena when families open their houses to their neighbors and share traditional simple sweets and food.

Not far from Sandra Pantojo's house in Barrio Larreynaga is the Mercy Church where the parish priest is Father Antonio Castro. For Fr. Castro, the Purísima is something more than a tradition, “It's something that has become a tradition and then transformed into a law, but a natural law, not a legal one, a moral, spiritual law that Nicaraguans celebrate every year in the days prior to the Immaculate Conception when they celebrate the ‘Gritería and the people shout, ‘Who causes such rejoicing?’”

This began around the year 1800 when Bishop Gordiano Carranza in León implored protection from the Virgin Mary for the town during an eruption of the Cerro Negro volcano. But she is cause for rejoicing because she is with God, chosen by God as the mother of his Son, so naturally in Nicaragua we love Mary for reasons of our culture and identity and that love for Mary reflects too our love and respect for the women of Nicaragua beyond the celebratory fireworks or refreshments or toasts in her honor, it reflects our respect for women in their rights to dignity and self-determination as women.

“So that is the cult we offer to the Virgin Mary, not as a celebration in churches or convents, but rather a celebration in the streets in peoples houses or in their gardens, also in many businesses and institutions, in prisons and hospitals, in every workplace, public or private, there you'll find veneration, singing and praise in honor of Mary and the commitment of seeing the figure of Mary in the women of Nicaragua.

“This faith, this religious feeling is part of our people's culture and goes beyond frontiers, to Costa Rica, to Venezuela, to México, for example, so really wherever there are people from Nicaragua you'll find them celebrating the Purísima. Often Nicaraguans overseas will send to Nicaragua for the typical sweets and drinks and gifts they give people as an offering, what we call the cap or ‘gorra’ full of oranges and lemons, sweets, squash cooked in syrup, drinks of corn ‘chicha.’ That is the Marian spirit or our people in Nicaragua.

“This is a festival that belongs to the community, to people with faith in God. Here in people's houses families open their doors so each house turns itself into a church where people pray in the harmony of rejoicing, the joy of family unity and love that itself promotes a spirit of fraternity and peace which is what we all seek after and we ask Mary to help us become builders of peace which means progress, well-being, personal growth, and economic and emotional stability for the family. That is the aspiration and the feeling behind this Marian festival.

“Who causes such rejoicing? And with everyone we say: the Conception of Mary! Mary is Nicaragua's and Nicaragua is Mary's. But also the other day I thought to myself, really Mary is not just of Nicaragua but of Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Chile. Mary is Latin American, for everyone and Latin America belongs to Mary, because all our countries have faith in her.”

In saying that Fr. Antonio makes implicit reference to the syncretic meaning of Mary in Latin America. It is commonplace to note that the Black Madonna is a powerful symbol of identity both in a national sense, in the historic sense of resistance against colonial oppression, and also in the contemporary sense of the evolving empowerment of women. The shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico is thought to be among the two or three most visited holy places in the world, after the Vatican and Mecca. Many people suggest that, in Mesoamerica, the Virgin Mary has been superimposed over the Nahualt female deity Tonantzin who occupies a similar place in the Nahualt cosmogony to that of Yemaya or Oshun in the Yoruba tradition, so powerful in the Caribbean and Brazil. Likewise, in Bolivia, the indigenous peoples have assimilated the Spanish colonial celebration of the Virgin Mary into their cosmogony in the figure of Pachamama, Mother Earth.

Whatever deeper cultural meaning may be specific to La Purísima in Nicaragua, there is no doubting its inspirational power as a popular celebration of life, revolutionary love of humanity and the redemptive power of solidarity. In that sense, the Purísima is a potent symbol of popular resistance juxtaposed against the banal commercialization of the Christmas feast and the sterile, tawdry egoism of consumer capitalism. That is also why, among many other reasons, the Purísima is held in such affection and respect by Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution.

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