Peñuelas was shaking / like a leaf in the wind / and the sea came out inland / like a wild beast. / Before an image that there was / of the crucified Christ, / Don Francisco kneeling / to heaven began to pray / and the sea returned to its place / like a lamb in its meadow. (Tony Santos)
Peñuelas. Generation after generation, many Peñolanos have embraced the legend, mixed with history, of how devotees – with the image on their shoulders of the Santo Cristo de la Salud – managed to make the raging waters of the Caribbean Sea recede in the Bay of Tallaboa after an earthquake occurred. on November 18, 1867.
The image of the Crucified Christ, which was made from a Chinese stick trunk by an artisan from San Germán, is around 166 years old and is the one that presides over the altar of the San José parish, in Peñuelas. There, devotees and faithful present their requests and intentions to the palo santo, especially in a year when the earth has not stopped shaking in these southern parts.
From the church, also centenary, the cultural leaders of Peñuelas, Gumersindo Velázquez and Silvio Echevarría recalled in an interview with Primera Hora, the emotional story of the “Cristo de Chino”, as they popularly call it.
“The history of the Santo Cristo de la Salud goes back to San Germán. It is around 1840 when a craftsman, some say he had a dream, others say that he came up with the idea. He was a cabinetmaker, carver of saints, the most famous of the Spanish colonial era, ”Velázquez narrated about Tiburcio de la Espada, a renowned wood carver whose sculpture“ San José y el Niño ”is exhibited at the Smithsonian Art Museum. , in Washington.
Velázquez reported that in the 19th century, Peñuelas produced some of the best Chinese in Puerto Rico, so Espada moved to the town in search of a good Chinese tree as this is a durable and heavy wood.
“The carver went to a farm, cut a china tree, took it to San Germán and there he began the carving, but he could not finish the work because he died. His son finished it, possibly a year or two later, and they brought him to Peñuelas on a well-sacrificed journey through the rivers and mountains that had to be crossed. In addition, the Christ weighed a lot because Chinese is heavy, ”said Velázquez, who some time ago directed the Publications Program of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP).
“When he was brought in, the town greeted him with cheers and enthusiasm, and he settled in the church we are in, which was restored. And there it was in 1867 when there were very strong tremors in Puerto Rico and in the southern area, “added the former director of the Ángel Pacheco Alvarado Cultural Center, in Peñuelas. He stressed that in the mixture of oral tradition and historical data, some say that in Tallaboa there was a tsunami, while others described it as “an overflow” of the sea.
The historian and former director of the ICP, Luis E. Díaz Hernández, in his book “Tremors and earthquakes in Puerto Rico”, says that “the powerful earthquake of 1867” originated in the Virgin Islands and caused several outlets in the area. south of the Island.
“The sea rose and when it rose more than it should have, it spread across the Tallaboa plain. The water reached the Hacienda Julia, owned by Mr. Francisco Subirá. They say that when the water was approaching his house, Don Francisco implored the Holy Christ of Health that if the sea receded, he would make a procession from Peñuelas to thank the miracle, “said Velázquez.
He also related that, “others say that the sea, when it invaded the valley, remained there for a long time, created a clamor in the town and it was decided to make a procession from the church in the town to the place where the sea had arrived.”
He added that oral and written history tells that the trip was a bit tortuous because the Guayanés River had to be crossed in many steps and afterwards they were able to make the very tedious journey, when the devotees arrived at the place that was (and), with the Christ presenting it to the waters they began to recede ”.
The cultural leader narrated that in gratitude “to the miracle of the Holy Christ of Health”, every year the Catholic people traveled the journey in procession to the place where the sea receded.
“Over time it was stopped, but about five to six years ago, the walk was resumed. You go out in a procession and make some stations along the way ”, he explained.
Velázquez also stressed that after the “miracle” Santo Cristo was named as the patron of the town and San José, who was the patron saint, was kept as the saint of the church.
In the 70s, Velázquez said that a priest had Christ painted with “ordinary” paint, which was classified as damage to the work. Later, in 1984, another artisan from San Germán, Waldemar Morales, restored it.
“It was brought here and put away, but in a hurricane the church suffered roof damage. It was decided to make a complete restoration of the temple and when it was opened to the public, the Holy Christ of Health was placed on the altar ”, he indicated.
“Throughout many places in the world and in Puerto Rico, the Santo Cristo de la Salud is a saint of great devotion because many miracles are attributed to him,” he said, adding that the saint has its origins in the Andalusia region, Spain.
“In the city of Malaga there was an epidemic, similar to the one we have now of COVID-19, in 1649 in which many people died and a Christ produced miracles. The people were healed and they called him the Christ of Health, ”said Velázquez.
Echevarría said for his part, that many Peñolanos believe that the sea was about to cover the people, “but that was not the case, the sea only reached the flat part of Tallaboa.”
The Cristo de Chino and the Cristo de los Milagros, as many say, has also been a source of inspiration for some Peñolanos like Echevarría, whose literary work includes two stories related to the legend: “El Cristo de Chino” and “The miracle de Cuatro Calles ”, both published in the book“ En violenta y amarillo ”.
One of the stories, Echevarría explained, includes the journey of the Cristo de Chino, from when he left San Germán until he was received by the Peñolan parishioners and the other addresses the history of the Peñolano Christ.
“The theme of that story is love for the religious heritage of our people,” said the writer and poet.
He also related that in 1970, the late professor Guelcia González Bigas wrote a poem denouncing what she considered an outrage when she tried to renovate the saint with ordinary paint.
“It is a beautiful poem, a combination of a sad poem and a bit of courage, in protest at the desecration of Christ when they painted his nails and other parts of his body,” he explained.
Echevarría also outlined that the Santo Cristo de la Salud was a source of inspiration for attorney Sergio Gelpí, who in his 1972 book “Heroes of minimal glory” dedicated two chapters to it: “Marejada” and “Rogativa”. Likewise, the subject was included in the book “Compendio intrahistórico de Peñuelas”, by Dr. Lorenzo Balasquide.
This year, in which the tremors have not stopped in the southwest of the country, Echevarría said that there has been a more marked inclination towards the spiritual, while Velázquez indicated that groups have been created on social networks in which the Holy Christ is acclaimed Of the health.
“Peñuelas is one of the most devoted towns in the area. He has a devotion that does not vary, that no matter the difficulties, the pandemic, whatever, the devotees are always here, ”said Velázquez.
“I come to pray to him every Sunday, because the Holy Christ of Health healed me,” exclaimed an 80-year-old woman, showing her legs covered by sores while waiting for mass in the temple.