Nov 29, 2011

ProcesiĆ³n de la Virgin de la Medalla Milagrosa

November 27th is the date the Catholic church dedicates to celebrate the Virgin Mary.  I am not Catholic, and I don't have a good understanding of the holiday.  But as a Christian, I was interested in understanding what this day means to the people in Santiago, who celebrate it more fervently than elsewhere in Panama.   I also wanted to observe the manifestation of their celebration and faith.

I did, and the experience was emotionally powerful,  uplifting, entertaining, spiritually humbling, and a little perplexing.  I am a Lutheran, and the Lutheran church does not practice devotion to saints or to the Virgin Mary.  It was a little hard to wrap my head around this celebratory event.   At the risk of possibly being incorrect in my reporting, I will try to capsulize what I came to understand about the day and the parade. 

Apparently, on November 27, 1830, [Saint] Catherine Laboure, a novitiate to the order of the Sisters of Charity in Paris, France, had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who showed her a medal and instructed the young girl to have other medals forged just like it.  She told Catherine that those who trustingly wore the medal around their necks would receive her abundant blessings.   Two years later, when Catherine's priest and confessor,  Padre Juan Maria Aladel, commissioned the production of 1500 medals,  Europe was in the throes of a cholera epidemic that had extended into Paris.  More than 18,000 people died from the disease according to conservative reports.  The Sisters of Charity began distributing the medals when they arrived, and the medals were subsequently credited with healing the sick who wore them.   People claimed the medal was miraculous, and that's how the name Medalla Milagrosa (Miraculous Medal) came about.  Other miracles are also attributed to the medal, including the conversion to Christianity of a Staussburg banker who had previously been an enemy of the church.    The story goes that a french nobleman gave the banker the medal, which he begrudgingly accepted to avoid appearing rude.  A few days later,  the Virgin Mary appeared at the church Sant’Andrea delle Fratre.  Her appearance sufficed to convert the banker, and later he and his brother funded missions dedicated to spreading Christianity.   My understanding is that Catholics revere the Virgin Mary as the mother of God and as an interventionalist with the ability to bestow blessings and miracles upon those who ask for her help.  She also symbolizes unconditional love and the "sum total of the love of all the mothers in the world and even more".    She is granted November 27th as her special day with the church. 

The city of Santiago, Panama, celebrates with a parade in her honor every fourth Sunday in November.  Small towns and aldeas, churches, neighborhoods, and even some businesses in Santiago and the surrounding areas,  construct floats featuring statues of the virgin Mary.  These floats are then pulled, pushed, or propelled by people on foot several kilometers through the streets and barrios of Santiago.  Each float is attended by many devotees who walk in front of and behind the float, carrying banners and singing songs.   After marching through Santiago, they return to the cathedral, when the floats are parked and admired.  A winning float is designated, but I'm unclear if there is any kind of prize other than the satisfaction of being voted the best float in the procession.    The final float to arrive is the float belonging to the city of Santiago.  It is generally the largest and most elaborated float.   When all the floats and their entourages have returned, the cathedral priest leads the multitude in prayer requesting Mary intervene for everyone and bestow blessings upon them.

At Sunday's procession, there were 252 participating floats.  The procession ended around 4 pm, having started early in the morning.  As people returned from their marches in the sweltering sun, they were met by members of their community who distributed food and drink to refresh them.   As things were winding up, prior to the priest's benediction, it started to rain heavily.   People around me explained,  "It always rains for the benediction.  That's part of the blessing!"

During the priest's benediction, one could have heard a pin drop in downtown Santiago, Panama's 3rd largest city.  All heads were bowed and not a single car horn, child's cry,  stray voice or dog's bark interrupted the silence.   It was truly awesome.  The spiritual energy of the faithful was almost palpable.   I felt myself trembling and was briefly moved to tears.   Would have been embarrassed,  but noticed I wasn't the only one wiping their eyes.   I don't believe in religious medals, nor in the need for someone to intervene on my behalf with God.   But I was definitely moved by the faith & devotion expressed within that huge crowd.    

Shake, Rattle and Roll

I've returned to Boquete.  It was a pleasant 3 hour drive.  As I sat down to start my post on the parade in Santiago, we experienced an earth tremor I would guess was around a 3 on the Richter scale.  No science or equipment to base this on,  just what it felt like from personal experience as a long-time SF Bay Area resident.  If there's a way to check out my guestimate later, I'll do so.  It lasted maybe 20 seconds.  There was a low bang, the house shook and vibrated, and the desk I'm sitting at wobbled.   Because my house is situated in a valley between two volcanoes, I always give things a second thought when the ground shakes.

Addendum:  Five hours after the tremor, I found documentation of it at the University of Panama's geosciences website.  It was a 4.1.  I guess it takes a lot to impress a San Francisco transplant.  Didn't feel all that strong....The epicenter was Volcan, just over the hill (Baru Volcano) from Boquete.

When I returned home today, my neighbor told me yesterday's Independence Day parade here is Boquete was really something to behold.  She said the town was packed so full of people there was barely even standing room, and she said the parade didn't end until 11:30 pm.  She said bands that first marched in Volcan contacted the mayor, asked if they could march in Boquete's parade, and then with his blessing showed up to add to the spectacle.  The bands marching in the evening carried candles, which added to the character and charm. 

A lot happened in Panama yesterday and over the weekend !

Back in Boquete---Briefly

Still job-seeking and interviewing. No solid offers yet.  Will probably take on a short- term temporary contract as soon as it opens up in a couple of weeks.  In the interim, made a quick trip back to Panama to wrap up some loose ends.  Boquete continues to grow and change,  with substantial progress made on the David-Boquete highway expansion.  Also, I hear the centennial water fountain in central park was  inaugurated today.  Two days ago I watched workers put the water pipes through a trial run, but I haven't seen the final outcome. I'm presently in Santiago.

November 28th in Boquete is always a big deal.  This is the date of Panama's independence from Spain, first celebrated in 1821.  Every year Boquete hosts a huge parade in which school bands from all over the country participate.  I'm told the parade starts very early in the morning and continues until late afternoon.  Unfortunately, I missed it.  I can't be in two places at once, and made a choice to attend the festivities in Santiago instead. 

Also occurring this same time in Las Tablas, is the pollera festival, which I also wanted to attend.  I was told the road is very bad due to new construction, and that it would be impossible to find lodging there at such a late date.  Maybe next year I will be able to make it.   Polleras are the intricate folk dresses worn by Panamanian women.  They are incredibly beautiful and unique.  Apparently there were 1000 polleras represented at this year's festival.  What a pity I wasn't there!  Below is a photo of a pollera I found on the internet.  I have photos of polleras taken on a canal cruise a few years ago, but they aren't uploaded to my laptop.  I may add them later when I return to the states...I've been wanting to research the origins and history of the pollera and may post more on the subject sometime in the future. 

Every last Sunday in November, the city of Santiago has it's own event which isn't practiced elsewhere in Panama.  It is a religious event, but as I quickly learned yesterday, religion and politics and business concerns and old-fashioned competition are all intertwined.  I was emotionally moved, nonetheless. I need to sort through photos and will post information tomorrow about the "Procession de la Virgin de la Medalla Milagrosa."