Every year during the hot, dry weeks before Semana Santa, Popoyuapa welcomes more than 30,000 visitors who arrive by bus, truck, car, and wagon to visit the miraculous Jesus the Redeemer and swim in nearby Lake Cocibolca.
The origin of the Pilgrimage to Popoyuapa is a matter of speculation, but living memory attests that the pilgrimage has existed for the past 150 years, and maybe longer as a pagan ritual for the Nahua wind god, Hecat. Hecat, one of the three major divinities, had a sanctuary in Popoyuapa in 1528. During the Nahua religious ceremonies, they refrained from work and sex, and became drunk. They partied, fought, and danced throughout the night.
According to local legend, the modern-day image of Jesus the Redeemer was found floating on the waves of Lake Cocibolca as one woman’s response to a personal miracle, hence the name, Rescued Christ.
The 1970s heralded a growth in the reenactment of cultural processions and parades in Nicaragua and the Pilgrimage to Popoyuapa was born out of a desire for nostalgic reenactment and religious and cultural devotion.
But, the pilgrims’ festive party brawls clashed with the Rivas parish priests’ desires for a solemn occasion two weeks before Holy Week. The erection of houses of ill-repute, dance halls and liquor stalls in the town square in front of the small church horrified the Rivas priests.
The priests said the atmosphere was more like that at a fair than a sanctuary. Thus, the heavy marketing of Jesus began. With the assistance of the Rivas city government, they cleared the party stalls from around the square, removing the festive marketplace to the highway.
The sanctuary was enlarged to accommodate more visitors, and entrance to the sacred space was strictly controlled by the nuns and priests.
Their aggressive marketing of Jesus paid off big time. The nuns at the sanctuary sold statues and prints of various popular saints. They developed a brisk market in Jesus the Redeemer bumper stickers and ornaments to hang in one’s car or chicken bus.
In addition, Cardinal Obando and Bravo attend the events annually, bringing more exposure to their work.
The aggressive marketing of the Pilgrimage to Popoyuapa has been described as a move to restore the festival to its original Christian meaning and form. However, it is obvious that original doesn’t refer to historical reality, instead it refers to an ideal that these religious leaders endorse.
Today, most Popoyuapans view the pilgrimage primarily as an economic opportunity.
Even though the priests have monopolized the marketing of Jesus at the site, they allow Popoyuapans to sell and serve food inside their homes to festival goers, but they can’t use the sidewalks or streets.
The celebratory aspects of the festival have been removed from the sacred space, but it doesn’t stop the party goers from heading to the bars and restaurants that line the shores of Lake Cocibolca. It just goes to show that you can take the people out of the party, but you can’t take the party out of the people.
Today, the pilgrimage to Popoyuapa is a very organized and coördinated event. The wagon pilgrims visit one another in their homes to plan their trip. They collect resources for distribution, seek sponsors to pay for their pilgrimage, and mark their departure from their hometowns by forming a procession with jubilant brass band music and sponsoring a feast with an all-night vigil.
Pilgrims break their three-day trip by camping along shaded riverbeds and dusty paths where they can find reprieve from the hot sun. They circle their wagons in their groups and share their food and festivities among their groups.
The priests require that the pilgrims take a vow of sobriety for their duration of the pilgrimage. The wagon procession is undoubtedly the most devout group of pilgrims above those that travel by bus or walk because it takes devotion, money, and persistence to organize the procession.
One of the largest sacrifices of the pilgrimage is financial. Few participants own their own oxen and drivers charge from $50-$100 plus meals to take the participants on the pilgrimage. A common miracle attributed to the saints is his sending money their way (usually through generous family members or neighbors) so they can make the journey.
Civic leaders in Rivas organize welcoming activities to encourage participation. The Rivas leaders select Godfathers for the wagon trains and it is customary to provide a food basket to each wagon, nacatamales, and silo packs for the oxen.
The current understanding of the pilgrimage reflects the more religious focus the priests created for the festival. The wagon pilgrimage is meaningful to participants because it combines religious devotion with a colorful display of distinctive identity. Through social interaction and an extended stay, it reinforces community interaction and integration.
Yet, the wagon pilgrimage is simultaneously a show in which pilgrims become their own folklore performing their identity for Rivas and for the nation. They have made themselves the guardians of their unique traditions, not only because they preserve it, but because they create it through performance.
Every year, I am on the lookout for the pilgrimage and this year we were generously rewarded with the colorful procession when returning from the Managua airport. I felt very lucky indeed to see the procession of religious, artistic, and playful sensibilities of this multifaceted community spirit.