Costa Rican Annual Pilgrimage to Honor “La Negrita”
Every August 2nd, Costa Ricans celebrate one of the most important Catholic holidays in our country: The Day of the Virgin of the Angels, our patroness saint, affectionately called La Negrita (The Little Black One).
The history behind it is very interesting: In 1635, a poor Catholic indigenous girl called Juana Pereira used to live in a town named Los Pardos, in Los Ángeles, Cartago, former capital of Costa Rica. On August 2nd of that year, she went to the forest to pick up some firewood and there she found on a big stone a small, black, stone statue of a Madonna and child, similar to a doll.
She took it and went home, where she kept it in a jewel box. The next day she went to the forest again and, to her surprise, found another doll on the same stone. Once she got home, she realized the first doll had disappeared. So, she put the new doll inside the box and this time, she locked it. On the third day, she returned to the forest and the doll was there. Then she went home and looked at the jewel box, which was empty.
She was confused and afraid, so she talked to the local priest, Father Baltazar de Grado, about it and gave him the statue. He did not pay that much attention to it, but the next day when he wanted to examine it, he noticed it was gone. He went to the forest and found the statue on the stone, so he took it and put it inside the tabernacle. The next morning, he realized the image had disappeared again. So, he decided to go to the forest along with other priests, where they found the statue on the stone one more time.
They understood that something supernatural was occurring there, and that the Holy Virgin wanted to stay there, so they decided to build a small church in that place. As time passed by, many temples were built; the actual Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels was built in 1912 over the rock where she first appeared.
It offers an impressive mix of colonial architecture combined with 19th century Byzantine style; it is a truly impressive church. Today, the little statue rests on a golden and jeweled platform above the altar at the Basilica.
On September 24th, 1824, the Virgin of the Angels was officially declared the patroness of Costa Rica. Thirty-eight years later, Pope Pius IX declared that all who visit Costa Rica’s Madonna’s sanctuary will receive a full pardon of their sins; and in 1983, Pope John Paul II made a pastoral visit.
In order to spread the blessings and fame of La Negrita, Father Grado instituted a fund committed to holding an annual celebration of the arrival of Our Lady of the Angels. Now, every August 1st, in a nation of 4.300.000 people, hundreds of thousands (about 2.500.000) pilgrimage on foot from across the country to the Basilica to honor our patroness saint, pay her back for her favors or ask her for miracles.
Most Costa Ricans walk the 22-kilometer distance from San José to Cartago on the night of August 1st, so the streets are totally full of people during the whole night. Others start the Romería (pilgrimage in Spanish) days and even weeks before August 1st, since they come from all over the country, some on horseback. Therefore, numerous streets are closed and special lanes on major highways are blocked off for the pilgrims, who are watched by the police and Red Cross volunteers in case they need help. Entire families, senior citizens, groups of friends, children, adolescents, there is a wide variety in the pilgrims’ ages. During the many hours of walking, you see people praying the rosary or just meditating. It is a time for reflection.
Upon arrival, many pilgrims enter the Basilica on their knees and get to the altar like this; other pilgrims choose to pray by the stone where the image was originally found. The surrounding areas of the Basilica are so packed with people it is even difficult to walk. Some romeros (pilgrims) prefer to rest and sleep some before going back to their houses, especially if it is late at night, so scenes of people with blankets laying on the sidewalks are very common.
La Negrita is made up of three different types of stone: graphite, jade and volcanic rock. Archeologists have shown great curiosity in this composition since it is very difficult, or even impossible, to join the three types of stone. However, they do agree that the Virgin does have all of these types of stone. There are studies that show that there was no graphite in Costa Rica at the time La Negrita was found, and the Old Continent had no jade or volcanic rock. Thus, we can conclude that the Costa Rican Patroness Saint has characteristics of both continents. The figure is 20 centimeters tall. It’s called The little black one although its true color is a greenish-gray. The Virgin’s features are those of a mestizo. She is looking forward, while her Son looks directly into her eyes, touching her heart with this hand.
Participating in the Romería is a great way to get to know the Costa Rican culture since this is one of the most important religious traditions of our country. August 2nd is an official holiday in Costa Rica, and over the years, the tradition of doing this pilgrimage has attracted more and more people. I became a pilgrim for the first time in 1995, and I have taken part of the Romería every single year after that, except a very few times I could not do it. It is truly incredible to realize that about half the population of the country participates in this festivity, which makes this event a really unique experience!
Basílica de la Virgen de los Ángeles Costa Rica
Romería a Cartago Costa Rica