Story and photos by Miluska Berrospi
In the dictionary, purple is defined as a group of colors with hues between violet and red. For Peruvians the world over, however, purple signifies miracles, pride and, above all, faith—a faith rooted in centuries of devotion to a painting of a dark-skinned Christ, the “Lord of Miracles” (El Señor de los Milagros).
Each October, referred to by Peruvians as the Purple Month, a procession in honor of the icon wends its way through central Lima, drawing more than a half-million people. In many places around the world, from Madrid to Denver to New York, processions dedicated to this icon, also known as the “Purple Christ,” attract faithful followers of different nationalities.
The New York City procession, which drew an estimated 3,000 people on Oct. 18, has been a tradition since 1972. An annual mass is held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, followed by the procession along 51st Street.
“I have been a follower of the Purple Christ for 36 years,” said Hugo Martinez, a 76-year-old retired mechanic who serves as first assessor to the Brotherhood of the Lord of Miracles in New York.
“The Purple Christ” dates to a mural painted around 1651 by an Angolan slave in Pachacamilla, a town on the outskirts of Lima. Painted on the rough surface of a decaying adobe shed, the painting is said to have appeared fresher, brighter—and sharper each day.
In 1655, a powerful earthquake struck Lima, leveling homes and killing hundreds of people. Yet, the frail wall with its mural remained, the only structure left standing in Pachacamilla. In the following two years, the painting survived three more earthquakes, each time emerging unscathed. The original painted wall survives to this day in the Church of the Nazarenas, which was built around it in Lima.
Stories of miracles have grown since. They are heard yearly amid the chanting of hymns and through the thick incense of the processions.
How did this painting from 1651 grow to influence people thousands of miles away?
“Saints are carried by immigrants: Irish brought their national patron St. Patrick; Mexicans, La Virgen de Guadalupe,” explains Prof. Gerardo Rénique, of the Department of History at City College of New York.
Many of these saints have been embraced by other communities, much the way St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated by a broad cross-section of New Yorkers. Next month, on Dec. 12, many members of New York’s Latino communities will join a parade honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. The parade will travel north from 14th Street and includes a mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Although the Purple Christ is a Peruvian icon, the procession in New York City included a mix of Americans, Mexicans, Australians, Ecuadoreans and Venezuelans.
“I am Cuban, but I have an international heart,” quipped, Max Rodriguez, 63, of Long Island who served as a town trustee in the town of Hempstead. He proudly donned a purple habit for the procession. He says the Purple Christ saved his life. “In 2000, I had a heart attack. My blood pressure dropped. … It was really bad, but he brought me back to life,” explains Rodriguez as he headed inside St. Patrick’s on Oct. 18, where hundreds of people crowded the pews.
“Folk religion, religion of the people, such as El Señor de los Milagros, is the democratization of religion,” explains Prof. Ted A. Henken, who teaches Latin American studies at Baruch College. “It allows democratic action in that people have control, not far-away bishops or priests. Miracles exist because people want to believe in them, because they need an explanation for the unexplainable.”
Gina Masotto, a 50-year-old executive secretary of Italian and Spanish descent, is the beneficiary of one such unexplainable event. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, an abnormal functioning of the immune system. “I started experiencing rapid-hair loss,” She says. “I went to every kind of doctor you can imagine and they all said there was nothing that would make my hair grow. I am a woman, our hair is our pride and it was very traumatic. I started thinking I was better off dead than alive.”
Masotto was introduced to the Lord of Miracles through a co-worker who gave her a small stamp of the Purple Christ. A short while later, Masotto and her family began fervently praying to the stamp. “And then, my hair started growing,” she says. “I went from having 10 percent of my hair coming in to about 70 percent of my hair growing in.”
Doctors often cannot provide concrete explanations for these types of occurrences, and so people passionately adhere to their religious inclinations. “Science speaks one language, and religion speaks another,” says Professor Henken.
The power of faith transcends both regional and rational boundaries. All along the New York procession honoring the Purple Christ, tears of adoration could be seen streaming down the faces of hundreds of worshippers.