North America - Caribbean
Christianity - General
Same Ardor, Different Color
by Samantha Henry ("Newsday," October 1, 2003)
At the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in
Jamaica, a woman leads a boy to the altar of the Black Christ of Esquipulas. Whispering a prayer, she rubs the feet of the
statue, then traces the sign of the cross in the air around her child's face.
The Black Christ of Esquipulas, named for the town in
Guatemala where the statue originated, has a devout following among Central
Americans. It is just one of the many black versions of Jesus and the Virgin
Mary that are part of the religious iconography of countries from Poland to
Increasingly, immigrant groups are celebrating these black figures in New York
City, where several traditional Catholic churches place the black statues
alongside white religious icons in recognition of their increasingly diverse
Although each culture has a different interpretation of the black Christ or
black Madonna mythology, many of the images have similar historical origins,
said Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, director of Brooklyn College's Office of Religion
in Society and Culture.
"There is no living record of what Christ or Mary or Joseph looked like,
so artists would often paint the Blessed Mother as the most beautiful woman
they could imagine," Stevens-Arroyo said. "The features reflected a
cultural imagination of how she would look."
According to Stevens-Arroyo, for Iberians (predecessors of the Spaniards) in
the 10th century, that meant depicting the Madonna as a brunette, in defiance
of the blond images that were being imported from France. He said the blackness
associated with some representations of Madonna today can be traced back even
further in European history.
"When the Moors invaded Spain, destroying all religious iconography, much
of it was hidden in caves to escape the destruction, where the combination of
environmental conditions and the vegetable dye of the paints combined to cause
the images to darken," Stevens-Arroyo said.
"When these images were then brought to the Americas , they quickly
acquired a racial meaning, wherein the 1600s we saw in leaps and bounds the racialization of religion, and that was a sign that there
was a God for those of color," he said.
For other groups, such as African-Americans, the image of a black Christ often
has an added political dimension.
Ronald Brown, an associate professor of political science at Wayne State
University in Detroit, is the author of the study "The Social Construction
of a Black Christ Religious Ideology." Brown said some groups seek to
prove that Jesus was black by tracing his roots back to Ethiopia or Egypt, and
others simply view the notion of a black image of Christ as empowering.
"What's consistent for marginalized groups is they're trying to find their
own representation of Christ, and for many the only way they can do that is to
have an image that looks like themselves," Brown said.
"The only reason it's political in the U.S. is that skin color means
everything in this country, so the image of Jesus Christ takes on the added
political dimension because skin color doesn't just stay in churches, it exists
outside the church as well."
The stories that accompany these black figures vary depending on the cultural
context, but they often emphasize a connection with a specific ethnic group and
feature a miraculous tale of the statue's appearance in a particular country.
During a recent Mass in Queens to celebrate the Black Christ of Esquipulas, the sermon focused on the suffering of Jesus
and equated it with the hardships many Guatemalan immigrants face.
"The suffering of Christ from the Latin American perspective is not to
challenge power, but to understand the power," Brown said.
"That is the real difference between Latin American black Christs and African-Americans, who say, 'Yes, he suffered
like you but you must mobilize against the forces of oppression.'"
In some instances, immigrant groups worship the same figure for different
reasons. One example is the black Madonna of Czestochowa,
Poland. A shrine in Doylestown, Pa., featuring a replica of the Madonna of Czestochowa, draws not only those of Polish ancestry, but
also Haitian immigrants from Queens who make pilgrimages to the site each year.
They believe that the two scars on the cheek of the black Madonna - believed to
have been created centuries ago in Poland when the image was attacked by
invaders - actually signify that she is of African origin.
Regardless of one's beliefs, many immigrants such as Julio Cesar Barillas, a
Guatemalan who attended the celebration of the Black Christ of Esquipulas in Queens, say they feel comforted by these
familiar religious icons.
"When I was a child, my parents used to take me to the church [in
Guatemala] where El Señor de Esquipulas
is," Barillas said. "I feel very proud, and very emotional, to see
that here in Queens they also celebrate the day of El Señor
de Esquipulas. It makes me feel as though I was back
home in my own country."