Miracle in Barrio Betances
The gospel truth according to Geraldo González
On February 2, 1939, the people of Barrio Betances in the central mountains of Puerto Rico emerged from the darkness of poverty, of isolation, of the dullness of daily life, to see ancient volcanoes reignited, to see red planets encircling a black night, to see a garland of rubies appear on the neck of the world.
Most people believe that miracles no longer happen. But they once did happen, a long way from Barrio Betances, in or near a huge desert where nomads rode camels and men wore headdresses and long robes. I believe that miracles still happen; it just depends on where you live and how you live.
A man came to our house many years ago and tried to sell my brother Manolo Miracles of the Nazarene. He placed the book reverently on our kitchen table. It had lots of pictures but one of the biggest covered two whole pages and showed Jesus, not on the cross but fully-dressed in a flowing white robe, his long hair and beard neatly combed and his eyes looking lovingly up into a burst of golden light as he ascended toward it. Below him were three bloody crosses on a hill and below them was a crowd of brightly-dressed men and women joyously looking on. The hill, the salesman said, was called Golgotha. To me it looked a lot like Barrio Betances, although there were not nearly as many palm trees.
Manolo said miracles do not happen, not in Golgotha and definitely not in Barrio Betances, and the book was just full of fairy tales. “Sorry Mister,” he said, but it was easy to tell he wasn’t sorry. I was.
The man shut the book, eased it into its box, stowed it in his satchel, swallowed the last of his coffee, thanked Manolo’s wife Mariana for it, and nodded at me. I’m not sure if he was annoyed at Manolo for what he said or at all of us because we didn’t buy the book — even if it was only a few dollars a month, which he said he would be happy to come by and collect. I watched from the doorway as the man plodded up the path to peddle his books to Tato Rivera on the next farm.
Manolo mocked all the miracles we had seen in the book, but said the one about Jesus turning water into wine was the silliest. “Now, if he had turned it into rum, that would have been a real miracle,” he said and smirked.
Mariana didn’t like that. You could tell by the way she turned to look at my brother before she put the coffee cups on the shelf by the window. I sort of expected her to sound like Mama Monse who would have raised Cane or Abel or whoever it is that punishes people for using the Lord’s name in vain, but she just shook her head, which was probably because she was thinking about the rum. I don’t think she expected that miracle any time soon.
I guess you could say we were not a religious family. At least not my brother, especially not since the accident, which happened so long ago that I sometimes imagine it was before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
I have never really been confused about religion. Some people have it, some people get it, and some people leave it alone. Manolo didn’t have it. I must have been very young when I first decided this, because I was still going down the mountain to the old Barrio Betances schoolhouse. The Missy wore three crosses on a gold chain and I asked her, why three? I was always asking the wrong thing at the wrong time and getting called Ge-ral-do instead of Gero for doing it.
Just about everyone in that one-room schoolhouse and probably everyone on the island of Puerto Rico was Roman Catholic. Teachers often forgot the Pledge Allegiance to the Flag — to the American flag — but would always start class with an Our Father and a Hail Mary.
Our teacher was no exception. After she prayed and crossed herself, she explained to the class — all ten of us — that there were two other men suffering on crosses on the hill when Christ was crucified, that when the sky opened and God looked down on his son, who agreed to die for the sins of the people on Earth, and before God lifted him up wrapped in a golden light, Christ reached out and touched the hearts of the two men who had been murderers and thieves, and like magic erased all the evil in them and they glowed with goodness and followed Him into eternal grace. “That is why,” the Missy said, “whatever you are and whatever you do, whatever temptations you yield to, if you let Christ touch you, you — like me — will be forgiven.”
The three crosses reminded her of that.
Every time she turned to erase the blackboard I wondered what evil she needed to be cleansed of, but I never dared to ask. I had some ideas, but even at that age, I knew some things are private, like the things Manolo and Mariana did when I was supposed to be sleeping.
My brother and his wife and I never made the sign of the cross. Nor did we wear crosses or try to talk to God. We were not heathens, an accusation one of my aunts hurled at Manolo when he didn’t ask her to bless him. Every aunt and uncle when they were still alive and making rare pilgrimages to their ancestral land — our little farm on the mountain — always expected us to say bendición, and receive the rote answer, “Qué Dios te bendiga,” Manolo said they had no authority to tell God to bless us.
When Mama Monse was alive we prayed; that is, she prayed and we listened. My brother said God did not listen. If He had, Mama would not have become obsessed with fire. He blamed La Virgen de la Candelaria.
We all knew that the Virgin Mary, 40 days after the birth of little Jesus and like all good Jewish mothers in the Holy Land, went to the temple to present her baby and to get purified. For me, there is something wrong with this story: if she was a virgin, why did she have to be purified? Did Joseph insist? Didn’t the rabbi know? But that is another unsolved mystery to blame on living too far from a helpful priest. Somehow candles got involved and she became the Virgin of the Candelaria and it all came down to us, in Barrio Betances, as purification by fire.
Every year on the Virgin’s day, Feb. 2, Mama Monse, her sisters, their neighbors and their neighbor’s neighbors gathered pencas for a bonfire they had built at the highest point on their property. They piled on the tall branches of dry palm leaves and anything else they could find that burns bright and long. The very highest piles were bound with wood frames or tied together with vines or rope. For them the Candelaria was an act of devotion to the Virgin; for Mama Monse it was the ultimate purpose of her life.
In spite of Mama Monse’s room full of santos, her novenas, her crawling on her knees up the stairs to the Basilica of Our Lady in Homigueros, her pilgrimages to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Candelaria in Mayagüez, her self-flagellation and her cries in the night, Christ never spoke to her, never touched her heart, never erased the secret evil she thought was there. I believe now that she lived with the hope that her candelaria would be seen by the unseeing eyes of the Lord and she would be saved. Manolo called this nonsense.
A little after dusk, the fires on the hilltops would be lit and groups of the faithful would shout “¡Qué viva la candelaria! ¡Qué viva San Blas!” and repeat it over and over again. Some would write their troubles on scraps of paper and toss them into the fire hoping they would be purified and that would be the end of whatever bothered them. We never did that.
Year after year, Mama Monse’s passion continued to be to have the biggest, the highest, the brightest, and the longest-lasting bonfire in Barrio Betances. She wouldn’t let Manolo light her pyre until she had assessed all the others. She’d mock those who had started the blaze too early knowing their fire would be embers when her own pyre just started to roar. She loved to point from hill to hill, mocking her sisters’ and cousins’ meager efforts, especially the spinsters and widows who did not have her strong sons. She meant Manolo, of course, not little me.
On one fateful night — February 2, 1939— I wrote it on our Virgin’s calendar and will never forget — the people of Barrio Betances, here in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, emerged from the darkness of poverty, of isolation, and from the dullness of daily life, to see ancient volcanoes reignited, to see red planets encircling a black night, to see a garland of rubies appear on the neck of the world. And Mama Monse, dressed in white like a spectral bride, danced around her splendid fire as Manolo and I watched from a polite distance, her inspired voice reaching the universe (or at least reaching her nearest relatives) as she chanted triumphantly, hopefully, “¡Qué viva la candelaria! ¡Qué viva!”
Then we heard a demonic roar. Mama Monse’s bonfire swayed crazily. Flaming arrows shot out in all directions from the exploding maya and before she could move, the teetering towering inferno fell directly where Mama Monse was standing. Manolo rushed toward her, but the furious fire pushed him away. He screamed for Mariana to run for water, but the well was a hundred yards down the hill and even I could tell it would be useless. In moments, Mama Monse was gone.
I believe she rose to the heavens like Jesus in the book of miracles, but we saw no crosses, no thieves or murderers. There were just me and her strong son and his wife huddled together on a hillside, baptizing the ground with tears.
It had been a magnificent candelaria, everyone agreed, greater than anyone had ever seen in Betances or would ever see again. Even though it tumbled and lay on the hillside like a fallen meteor, the remnants could still be seen long after the last embers of its defeated competitors faded away.
Manolo pulled me into his lap. I looked up — I swear on the Bible that this is the gospel truth —and I saw a burst of golden light in the sky and rising up to it was Mama Monse. She wore not robes but a long, glimmering wedding dress and her arms were outstretched as if to touch the stars. There was a radiant smile on her face. I know she was smiling at me. As I waved at her, she dissolved into a tiny circle of light that quickly took its rightful place among the galaxies.
When I told Manolo about what I had seen, he said, “Nonsense.”
I’m sure he never got it.
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