The streets are filled with vendors, every hotel room is booked, and fireworks welcome new pilgrims to El
Sauce day and night. This can only mean one thing, El Sauce has officially entered the Patron Festivals. Every year in January, the faithful make a pilgrimage from countries throughout Central America to see the Black Christ and commit themselves to better lives, pray for healing, and to show their devotion to God. It is an enormous event that involves almost everyone in El Sauce; it is both a spiritual and economic boom for the town.
For those unfamiliar, the Black Christ is a dark wooden crucifix that made its way from Guatemala to Nicaragua 292 years ago and has been in El Sauce ever since. Upon its arrival, it was originally placed under a willow tree (Spanish: sauce), thus the town's namesake, El Sauce. Several attempts were made to return the relic to Guatemala, but each time the unlucky person responsible for the retrieval died suddenly. As a result the Black Christ has called El Sauce home for almost three centuries, where it has continued to add to its legend, including miraculously surviving a fire that destroyed the entire church on December 26, 1997. Today, people come from far and wide to see the Black Christ, "our lord of miracles."
To someone familiar with El Sauce, the town’s change is night and day. Normally open streets have turned into loud, busy markets where a mix of local and visiting vendors have set up shop to sell everything from sugar sculptures and sweet treats to children’s clothing and cigars. In addition to the vendors and their tents, it seems that every house has opened its doors to sell food, water, or services to the weary travelers. The economic injection is incredible, but the humanity that accompanies it is overwhelming.
All told, as many as 70,000 people visit El Sauce during the two-week festival every year. They have traveled from Panama, Guatemala, and all over Nicaragua to be here. Some are here for the first time, but many make the trip every year. This year, returning pilgrims are greeted by the bright new paint of the church in El Sauce. Gone is the pale and dirty yellow, in its place new white trim pops out from a bright goldenrod. Yet within the new colors a very familiar scene unfolds.
Extra masses are being run to accommodate the faithful visitors, and on Saturday it is particularly full with standing room only. Throughout the service more people arrive and quietly make their way inside. As a symbol of sacrifice, many people have already walked many miles to arrive in El Sauce; still others walk down the aisle of the church on their knees to ask God for health and happiness for themselves and family members. Seeing it is both deeply moving and humbling.
Outside, people are lined up to the street as they wait to enter the adjoined chapel where the Black Christ is housed behind glass. Inside the small room the air is hot and heavy despite an open side door. Unlike the church, the chapel is mostly quiet. Murmured prayers and a young woman crying add a solemn air to the moment. To think that the subject of all this attention is the less than two feet tall Black Christ enforces the strength of faith that many must feel, not just in the moment, but also in their lives.
After the two weeks, many of the visitors and some of the vendors have already left. Those that remain will soon leave as well. Slowly, El Sauce will return to being a quiet town… until next year.