San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Scandals and scoundrels

Judas Iscariot, Christ’s betrayer in the garden of Gethsemane, is considered to be the world’s greatest scoundrel. His name has come to mean traitor, and in the Spanish speaking world, Judas Night, the night before Easter, was the night to expose and shame those who misbehaved by constructing and burning a “Judas,” or effigy, and naming it after the guilty party. This laudable custom gave out with the 19th century.

But one example is still remembered 150 years later. In 1870 an outspoken Catholic priest in San Ramón, Father Joaquin Garcia Carrillo, made history by composing a 5,500 word scathing critique of his parishoners and reading it in the central plaza on Judas Night. Handwritten and all in verse, he called it the Testamento de Judas. The good father had plenty to bitch about.

During his time as pastor, from 1868 to 1870, San Ramón and Palmares were united, neither town counting enough souls to support a separate church and Father Joaquin, seeing the need for a new church, expected the two communities to build one in brotherhood (sisters didn’t count back then). But alas, the two towns could not agree on the construction.

The San Ramonenses wanted a church of wood like the old church, while the Palmareños fought for the newer type of constuction which was now required by the government for public buildings. Moreover, the Palmareños got to work, the Ramonenses took their time. It irked the Palmareños to no end that their rivals showed up to get paid but not to work. When they finally had it, the Palmareños separated, founding their own parish, saying, in effect, “to hell with San Ramón.”

But there was more. The church in San Ramón languished for lack of support. Although tithing, or el diezmo was abolished during the presidency of Fr. Joaquin’s uncle, Braulio Carrillo, the faithful were fully expected to contribute to the church. They balked.

Father was determined to straighten them out. He believed in working for the common good and one of his projects was the Calle de los Penitentes, a road between San Ramón and San Mateo.   His penance in the confessional, instead of Hail Marys and Our Fathers,was  road building, the number of days depending on each one’s “bag of sins.”

Father Joaquin knew his people, and their sins. The Testamento de Judas is the story of the parish of San Ramón with parishioners thinly disguised. Today we cannot guess who they are but in 1870, their identities were not so well hidden.

Father Joaquin, fed up with his parish and its squabbling, asked to be relived and was sent back to his old parish in San Antonio de Belen, where he died in 1886. He is buried in the cemetery there, the burial grounds that he himself established for the community after the battles and cholera epidemic of 1856. 

The Testamento de Judas was written sometime before 1870, but that is the year that Father Joaquin read it publicly on Judas Night. Although it was published in Alajuela that year and some copies of the manuscript were distributed among friends in San Ramón, it landed in obscurity.

Then in 1972, Elisio Gamboa Villalobos found a copy, all tattered and smudged, and copied it on his typewriter, thus saving it for present and future generations. Although it is not always easy reading, it is considered to be the foundation of poetry, which gave San Ramón the name of City of Poets. A new edition of the Testamento de Judas, with a biography of the Father Joaquin and an explanation of the problems besetting San Ramon, by Jose Angel Vargas Vargas, is sold in the regional museum of San Ramon for ¢2,500.

El Camino de los Penitentes also goes back to Father Garcia’s shepherding. The road from San Ramón to San Mateo was constructed by San Ramonenses for their sins. Instead of saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers as a punishment, the priest had them work on the road for three days. The road is mostly abandoned now.

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