San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Politics, faith and tragedy mark annual Costa Rica pilgrimage

CARTAGO – Wearing a black fleece pullover and hat low over his brow, Ivan Hernández took small steps and kept his head down as he exited the basilica at dusk on Monday. His shoulders trembled slightly and he put his left hand to his face to wipe tears from his reddened cheeks. He turned to face the large church and, still sobbing, raised his arms into the air and said, “Gracias. Gracias!” 

Hernández was one of some two million romeros, or pilgrims, who made the voyage from various parts of the country and Central America this week to pay homage to La Negrita, the sacred 376-year old statuette that is Costa Rica’s patron saint. La Negrita,  a 20-centimeter tall black stone in the shape of the Virgin Mary with a child in her arms, is located at the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (Our Lady of the Angels Basilica) in Cartago, the old colonial capital east of San José. Each year during the final week of July and first two days of August, some two million people make the annual Costa Rican pilgrimage, known as the romería, to honor La Negrita and thank her for the blessings and answered prayers she provided throughout the year.

When Hernández arrived at the basilica in the fading afternoon sun, he removed his hat and entered the church on his knees. Those who choose to approach the altar on their knees inch across the tile floor of the basilica towards the altar of La Negrita. It is the final sacrifice after a lengthy pilgrimage to thank La Negrita for her blessings.

“She is a promise to the country. She is faith,” Hernández said. “She is the promise that you can overcome things in your life and that you are blessed. She reminds you that there is always someone watching over you through good and bad times.”    

The romería of 2011, which ended Aug. 2, feast day of Our Lady of the Angels, will be remembered both for its highs and lows.

Romeria 1

Act of Faith: Pilgrims from the far reaches of the country kneel before Costa Rica’s patron saint Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (Our Lady of the Angels). On Aug. 2, 1635, Juana Pereira, an indigenous girl, found the dark-skinned statue of the Virgin Mary, affectionately known as La Negrita. Since then, La Negrita is venerated each year by millions of faithful Catholics.

Alberto Font

On Sunday morning, the beginning of the pilgrimage was tainted by tragedy. Despite a closed left lane to protect walkers on the highway that connects San José to Cartago, at 3:50 a.m. a 19-year old driver veered into the left lane in Curridabat, east of San José, and struck 12 people, killing 58-year-old Rosa María Arguedas, a math teacher who succumbed to her injuries the next day.  

On Sunday night, two other pilgrims were struck on Paseo Colón, in downtown San José. Eduardo Miranda, 33, was walking from Palmares, northwest of San José, when he was killed in the accident.

“We close the right lane of the highway every year beginning on August 1,” said Marcelo Morera, director of the Transit Police, as he stood by the highway on Monday. “But as you can see, people continue to drive at elevated speeds. We monitor the traffic and try to keep the speeds down, but ultimately it is the driver’s responsibility to drive more cautiously when there are thousands of people in the road.”

To safeguard against additional incidents and injuries, the Costa Rican Red Cross was on full alert throughout the country to attend to fatigued walkers (see story on Page 5). According to the Red Cross, 600 employees provided assistance to 3,904 people from Saturday through Tuesday, an average of 54 per hour.

Police also lined the streets of the romería. Throughout the 25-kilometer road from San José to Cartago, police monitored each major checkpoint, refreshment station and intersection. Usually in groups of two, officers were stationed every half-kilometer throughout the pilgrimage.

“It’s been very smooth, very calm,” policeman Roberto Solís said on Monday. “We are here for prevention, though there haven’t been any incidents of theft or problems thus far. Just a lot people walking really, nothing more.”

The streets were also kept impressively clean, thanks in large part to EcoRomería, a recycling and trash cleanup operation alongside the road throughout the walk. EcoRomería, which was sponsored by EARTH University and the Environment, Energy and Technology Ministry, had dozens of stations where walkers could dispose of waste and recyclable plastic and glass. Over 2.5 tons of recyclable goods were collected during the week.

On Monday afternoon, President Laura Chinchilla took part in the romería, walking from Tres Ríos, east of San José, to the basílica. On Tuesday morning, a national holiday, Chinchilla and Mexican Cardinal Francisco Robles Ortega, a representative sent by Pope Benedict XVI, delivered notably different speeches to the crowd sitting beneath umbrellas.

Romeria 3

Giovanna, from San Ramón de Tres Ríos, pulls her two daughters, María and Sofía, up the Ochomogo Hill.

Alberto Font

Despite the religious occasion, Chinchilla’s speech centered on improving national security and reducing violence.

 “To win this battle [against crime], we must work together, each and every one of us. We have a responsibility to do so,” she said. “In our homes we should cultivate respect and love so that our children grow up free from aggression and violence. In our communities, we should work shoulder to shoulder and under the control of our officials, so that our streets are safer.”

Robles’ speech touched upon the long-standing debate in Costa Rica over in vitro fertilization, which remains prohibited. Costa Rica is the only country in the Americas to ban the practice.

“We assert that a human life from birth receives the life of God, and only God decides your end,” Robles said. “Each new life conceived is unique and unrepeatable. Being a human is a sacred reality that cannot be altered.”

In a press conference following Robles’s speech, Chinchilla was flustered by repeated questions about in vitro and threatened to leave the conference, at one point excusing herself and standing up to leave. She  refused all questions pertaining to in vitro fertilization and the looming threats that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will pose sanctions on Costa Rica should they continue to disallow the practice (see story on Page 6).

Despite politically tailored speeches and the Our Lady of the Angels celebration on Tuesday, those who walked seemed more interested in the personal and positive significance of the visit to La Negrita.

“This year has been full of blessings for me, for my family and for this country,” Hernández said. “We do not have a perfect country, but nobody does. If you look around the world, we don’t have the problems, wars and conflicts that other countries have. La Negrita is the patron saint of Costa Rica. She has blessed this country.”

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