CARTAGO – As she does every year on Aug. 2, La Negrita, the tiny black statue of Costa Rica’s patron saint, this week drew crowds of worshippers to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles in this eastern Central Valley city, Costa Rica’s colonial capital.
They came by bus and bicycle and even on roller skates, though most made the trek on foot in a growing stream that became a steady column of pilgrims Tuesday afternoon and evening, both unseasonably clear.
Many of the estimated 2.5 million people walked the 22 kilometers from San José, though others came from around the country and even beyond Costa Rica’s borders, walking for days or weeks to see La Negrita and attend a special mass in her honor on Wednesday, Our Lady of the Angels Day.
As in years past, the pilgrimage was marred by casualties, including one traveler killed by a drunk driver Sunday in the eastern San José suburb of Curridabat. However, this year’s romería was also marked by an increased police presence and a notable decrease in the amount of advertisements and noise along the route – the result of efforts by the National Police and the Catholic Church commission in charge of organizing the event.
Jorge Eddy Solórzano, parish priest of the Basílica, announced last month that in order to reduce distractions to pilgrims, organizers would ban unregistered vendors and tumbacocos (trucks equipped with speakers that, last year, blared advertisements and reggaetón along the route), along with screens and other mobile units set up by advertisers and the media, according to the daily La Nación. Approximately 1,500 police officers assigned to the route to protect those walking also helped enforce the church’s regulations.
It worked. The route was quieter and less cluttered than last year, and two long banners from dairy cooperative Dos Pinos that ran the length of the church to demarcate the central aisle were replaced this year by banners bearing messages about the Virgin Mary.
However, plenty of advertisements still greeted pilgrims, who flocked around promotion tents to grab free samples of Powerade and sports balm Cofal, whose strong peppermint scent is the official odor of the pilgrimage. People discarded their cups and wrappers at their feet, leaving an estimated seven tons of trash in their wake. This year’s event did feature one new distraction: more reliable text messaging.
According to a statement from the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the government-run telecommunications monopoly, ICE reinforced cell phone service provider equipment in the Cartago area so that cell phone users would be able to stay connected during their journey.
The idea is to allow Costa Ricans to “maintain their faith through this tradition with the greatest security and calmness – not just for pilgrims, but also for their families and friends,” the statement said.
The Red Cross, which sent 250 workers to aid walkers at 11 points along the route, reported attending to 3,620 people for fatigue, dehydration and other complaints, said Red Cross spokesman Gelson Rodríguez.
On July 30, pilgrim Cristian Rodríguez, 26, was hit by a car and killed, Red Cross spokesman Carlos Bolaños told The Tico Times. His walking companion, Gerardo Campos, 53, was also hit and injured.
The driver, whose last name is Montenegro, 26, was arrested five hours later in the town of Tres Ríos, further along the road to Cartago, according to La Nación. His blood alcohol level when he was captured was 1.34 milliliters per liter of blood, well over twice the legal limit of 0.49 milliliters.
Montenegro was ordered to two months’ preventive prison and accused of manslaughter, according to a statement from the Penal Court of Goicoechea.
Last year, two young men died after being struck by cars during the pilgrimage, while 40 people were arrested (TT, Aug. 5, 2005). This year, only three arrests were made.
On Wednesday, walkers listened to messages of world peace from Episcopal Conference president José Francisco Ulloa during a mass to honor the virgin, and President Oscar Arias seconded wishes for peace in the world, particularly in the Middle East.
“I pray for the men and women in the Middle East, that the echo of love resounds over the machine gun, that the dove of peace flies higher than the missiles,” Arias said. Earlier in the week he called for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon (see separate story).
According to popular belief, La Negrita was found in Cartago in 1635 by a young girl and reappeared several times in the same spot, despite being moved. Many people attribute miraculous healing power to the statue of the Virgin Mary, and make the annual pilgrimage to thank her for their blessings during the year.