San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Town Celebrates Patron Saint in Wild Fashion

SAN JUAN DEL ORIENTE – There are a lot of different ways to celebrate the birth of a patron saint.

One way to do it is by drinking moonshine until you’re numb and then engaging in street fights in which you beat someone senseless with a dried-out bull penis fashioned into a saber while an entire town watches.

“You just cover your head and try to find their weak spot,” said San Juan del Oriente resident Michelangel Calero, still breathing heavily after taking several lashes from a chilillo, a whip fashioned from bull penises, that left lumpy lesions across his arms and head.

Every year, during the week of June 24, San Juan de Oriente, one of the colonial Pueblos Blancos near Masaya, celebrates the birth of John the Baptist in this traditional and bloody manner.

The celebration is an ongoing procession in which the town follows the statue of John the Baptist through the streets to the tune of a marching band and deafening fireworks. As part of the celebration, procession-goers hang fruits as an offering to the saint.

Riders gallop by on horseback and try to rip the heads off live ducks that have been greased and hung upside down. The tradition is thought to be an allusion to John the Baptist, who was beheaded for accusing the ruler of Galilee of adultery.

But perhaps the highlight of the celebration, which is thought be a synchronism of indigenous and Catholic traditions, are the dance-like battles with the chilillos. The one-on-one mock sword fights take place spontaneously as the procession marches in the street and are stopped when a referee, often dressed up as a horse, steps in and ends the game. There are no winners or losers, just bruises, sometimes blood and sometimes a lost eye.

San Juan de Oriente mayor Ernesto Poza said the chilillos tradition may be traced back to an indigenous or mestizo celebration that mocked Spanish colonizers with their swords and horses, much in the way that El Güegüense, the famous colonial Nicaraguan satirical drama, at once rejects Spanish colonialism while making fun of it.

“It’s like a mockery, and it’s very traditional in our town,” Poza said.


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