Douglass SULLIVAN-GONZALES. The Black Christ of Esquipulas. Religion and Identity in Guatemala. 208 pp, $55.00. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-68432. Reviewed by Daniel H. LEVINE, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI 48109-1045.
The center piece of this book is what has been known since the 19th century as the Black Christ of Esquipulas—the image itself, the shrine located in a small town in Eastern Guatemala, and the uses to which it has been put. The shrine and the image itself—a dark wood carving of Christ—inspire considerable devotion and regular large scale pilgrimages. If there is a central theme to this book, it is the question of color. In a country marked by strong racial and class divisions, the very notion of a “black Christ” crystallized national fears and disputes about race, identity, and political regime.
The author delves deeply into the history of both image and shrine and sets these in the context of a very detailed account of Guatemalan national and regional history. Working with a combination of archival data (Spanish, national, church, and local) he presents a rich and layered portrait of the evolution of the shrine as a source of devotion and identity, and in particular of the way in which the color of the image was used and understood by different actors. Political uses of the shrine have been very prominent. A notable recent example was its deployment in an anti communist mobilization (a national tour of the image was arranged by Archbishop Rossell y Arrelano) that did much to undermine the Revolutionary government of Jacobo Arbenz regime in 1953 and 1954. More than three decades later, Esquipulas also offered a relatively open and neutral space for negotiation of peace accords that aimed to end the country’s civil war while promoting reconciliation and democracy.
The author covers a lot of ground, from the colonial period to the present day, and demonstrates fully his knowledge of the ins and outs of Guatemalan history, national and regional. He spends considerable time on church state conflicts in the 19th century, which were an important element in the Liberal Conservative wars that dominated the politics of the period. The book is generally well written although occasionally the author’s descriptions can be puzzling. What sense does it make to speak of Rafael Carrera’s “jaunty leadership”? (83) Effective yes, violent like all leaders of the period, yes, but “jaunty”?
The closer the author gets to the shrine itself and what it means in Guatemalan life, the more lively and interesting the book becomes. The most interesting sections concern how the color of the image was depicted and explained over time, and how darkness itself took on symbolic value. The very name “Black Christ of Esquipulas” was coined in the mid nineteenth century but took awhile to gain currency and began to stick only after a few decades of the twentieth century. In the final chapters the author provides his readers with a rich and textured understanding of what the shrine is like today. This is reinforced by a set of good photographs. We get a firm sense of the smell and feel of the pilgrimage, and of what pilgrims seek and find.
The book concludes with these sentences: “The devotional power of the Crucified Christ of Equipulas, now the Black Christ of Esquipulas, continues to mediate the message [of help and salvation] in new times and circumstances. This Jesus of Esquipulas, black and olive and bronzed in color, lives to reflect the desires and hopes of those who look to it. (160)