Wanderlusting: Nicaragua’s La Griteria

Image Credit: Flickr user joseferguson
Image Credit: Flickr user joseferguson

The fireworks hadn’t stopped since I arrived at Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua, Nicaragua. It was now 6 a.m. on December 7, 2005. It was my second trip to Nicaragua and I couldn’t sleep. Like I said, the fireworks hadn’t stopped.

“Those fireworks, they go on every day starting on the 1st of the month and they basically go on throughout the rest of the year. And on the 7th, you’ll hear them every 6 hours, from 6am through midnight,” my aunt had told me over a breakfast of gallo pinto, eggs, and fresh fruit. I never eat as well as I do in Nicaragua, I told myself.

La Griteria is technically a Catholic celebration honoring the Virgin Mary, but that’s not why I wanted to celebrate then and it’s not why I still celebrate it in a way now. The way my mom told it, the reason behind the celebration had to do with a volcano that had errupted somewhere in Nicaragua. The people of the town closest to the volcano ran to the local church and began to pray to the Virgin for a miracle, to stop the volcano from destroying their homes. And a miracle they did receive! Every home and every person was unharmed and so every year, the people gather to celebrate and shout to the heavens their appreciation for La Virgen.

Image Credit: www.teinteresa.es
Image Credit: http://www.teinteresa.es

Most of my Nicaraguan family had stopped celebrating La Griteria or La Purisima (more on that later) after they discovered evangelicism, but my Tia Con still enjoyed it and I wasn’t about to miss out on one of the biggest parties in the country. I knew there was more to it than that, but. My cousin already had the whole thing figured out: we’d walk around the neighborhood with our Tia for the first few hours and then hunt down where the pseudo-after parties were at. Her boyfriend at the time was part owner of a bar down the road from her house; he’d know what to do and where to go.

That afternoon, we began to hear the chants of the chavalas and chavalos grow as they congregated in the cobblestone streets. Up and down the neighborhood, people set up their personal altars to the virgin Mary, keeping their doors open for los gritos to begin. At 6 p.m. on the dot, the fireworks began to really fly, competing with the locals shouting, “Quien cuasa tanta alegria?!” (“Who causes so much joy?!”) to which one responds, “La concepcion de Maria!” (“The Virgin Mary’s conception!”). Clouds of smoke took over the evening sky as we finally made our way out the door and into the masses.

As the households opened up, people holding plastic bags and pillow cases walked up much the same way American children trick-or-treat on Halloweens. The older women would sing the typical songs sung at Purisimas while the kids eagerly waited to be handed wooden noisemakers, pieces of sugar cane, coconuts, cajetas, and other sweet treats. Others would chant the catchphrase of the eve and await a bag of rice or beans to fall in to their open sacks. People would comment to one another about the different altars, adorned with twinkling holiday lights, cotton balls for clouds, cardboard painted blue for skies, glitter, and flowers of all kinds.And every now and again, you’d even catch a glimpse of a Gignatona or an Enano Cabezon, like the ones below:

It reminded me of childhood, of going out into the main squares in Sweetwater, the Miami neighborhood I grew up in, and attending their version of La Griteria. It brought me back to my old Catholic days, when my parents would take me for the mass at La Divina Providencia Catholic Church, where hundreds of people would gather outside yearly on uncomfortable chairs for hours just to pray and give thanks to the Virgin Mary. And when the mass was over, the local Nicaraguan owned shops (and there are plenty in Sweetwater) opened their doors just like the people of Managua and Leon and Granada and Corinto and all of Nicaragua, singing the songs of the old matronly women, handing out the same sugar cane, the same coconuts that they grew up with.

A bit more toned down than the Nicaraguan festivities, but still with a lot of heart.

It made me nostalgic for my Mama Adilia, my father’s mother, whose Virgin Mary statue was always a source of curiosity for me as a kid. When my Mama Adilia was still around, the families would hold yearly Purisimas, which tie in to La Griteria. The Purisimas involve more prayer and singing, and are held in private homes with invited guests, usually on the day following La Griteria. In our family’s Americanized version of these traditions, the gifts also began to vary and it was not uncommon to find Magic 8 Balls and wind-up cars for the kids in place of the humble matraca. After my grandmother passed, the Purisimas stopped. The Catholicism ceased. And there was always a gap in the family that just couldn’t be filled.

But traditions, they can outlive the rest of us. And maybe this was why the people sang, I thought to myself. Maybe this was why even the poorest of people did what they could to get involved in the celebration. They were singing for those who were there before them, and singing with their children so they knew where they came from, and maybe they were even holding on to the possibility of miracles like the one that happened in that church near the volcano.

Or maybe it was just the fireworks.

That could be it too.

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