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A Sacred Symbol Arrives

The faithful carry an image of the Black Christ into church

October 20, 2003|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 75 people, carrying candles and flags and singing "hallelujah," marched slowly down Florence Avenue in South Los Angeles on Sunday morning to deliver a 300-pound wooden statue of el Cristo Negro, or the Black Christ, to a nearby church.

The religious symbol, a dark-skinned, intricately carved depiction of Jesus, is a reproduction of a 16th century bronze sculpture. Thousands of Roman Catholics from throughout Central America and southern Mexico make a pilgrimage each year to see the original statue, located in the Guatemalan village of Esquipulas.

"We believe in him because he provides miracles," said Dolores Juarez, 23. "He helps people. If you have cancer, or a broken leg, or someone in your family who is sick, you pray to him and he will make things better."

The legend of el Cristo Negro dates back to the late 1500s, when a Portuguese sculptor created the figure of a black Jesus as a statement against slavery and discrimination. It was adopted by indigenous people of Central America and Mexico as a symbol closer to their own image.

The $4,000 reproduction, which was paid for through donations and fund-raisers, arrived in Los Angeles from Guatemala last month. A local family arranged to have it sculpted, painted and shipped, so that community members in Southern California could share the religious tradition with their families, children and neighbors. The ebony statue, mounted on a giant wooden cross, will remain inside St. Raphael Catholic Church at 70th Street and Vermont Avenue.

On Sunday, Father Vicente Lopez of St. Raphael led the mile-long procession, which headed east on Florence Avenue and then toward the church. He walked slowly, using a wooden cane, as followers carried the flags of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador and America.

Some women wore multicolored woven gowns or white lace veils. Others wore straw hats with miniature baskets hanging from the rims. Children carried white and purple carnations. Little girls had ribbons braided into their hair, and some carried dolls on their backs.

"Our presence is one of peace," said Lopez, who added that the parade was also an effort to show unity within the multicultural community of South Los Angeles.

The Black Christ has been an object of deep devotion for hundreds of years by Guatemalans, but it also speaks to black Catholics. St. Raphael, like a growing number of urban churches, is finding itself with congregations composed of blacks and Latinos. Lopez said he hoped that the sculpture would help bring the two groups together.

The procession paused near a gas station on the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues, where the 1992 riots began, and Lopez led a prayer. Then it continued past auto shops, beauty salons and restaurants, as children and families trickled out of their homes to watch. "That's Jesus!" an onlooker proclaimed.

One marcher, Monica Pineda, 26, put her hand over her heart. "I can't believe this," she said with tears in her eyes.

Pineda believes the Cristo Negro granted her a miracle. When she was 22, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. After surgery four years ago, in which doctors removed the tumor, Pineda said she is now healthy and cancer-free.

"I prayed to him. And thank God, here I am," she said.

Her father, Carlos Pineda, 50, helped bring the statue to Los Angeles, arranging for its construction and transportation. He has lived in the United States for 25 years. When he was a little boy, in Guatemala, his family would take a four-hour bus ride every year to visit the statue. "It is very important for us to give this tradition to our kids," he said.

Mariela Rodas, 11, who marched holding a Belizian flag, said people stared at the procession because they had never seen anything like it, adding, "It's not embarrassing because this is our culture. We want to show other people this is what we praise."

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