TRANSFIGURATION – “La Bajada,” San Salvador, 1990
Of all the “Bajadas” I attended in my youth, the one I attended in August 1990 was the most poignant. It was my first return to El Salvador more than a decade after leaving the country on the eve of the Civil War as a ten year-old child. The pageantry and flair of “La Bajada” brought back a flurry of vivid recollections from my childhood growing up in El Salvador; memories that I had scuttled as unnecessary for assimilation and survival in America. The sounds of the street, the rush of sounds and sights and smells of San Salvador in August, took me back to the egg, back to my personal Eden. The return was made even more moving because of the reason that motivated the trip back: the death of the grandmother who had raised me during my childhood while my mother tried to find a foothold in the U.S. Finally, the 1990 “Bajada” was stirring because it represented a tender and sensitive moment in Salvadoran history: the prelude to the Peace that ended the war there.
By the time we got to the Metropolitan Cathedral area, the streets were already filling with people. With me were my mother, her brother, and my cousin. After we found the “carroza” (carriage or float that the Divino Salvador icon is carried on) to check out the decorations, we tried to beat the crowd by taking a short-cut across downtown to Parque Libertad, the square in front of El Rosario Church where the ‘descubrimiento’ (unveiling) or ‘bajada’ (descent) ritual would take place. The ‘descubrimiento’ refers to the revelation or unveiling of the Jesus image in resplendent garments to signify His Transfiguration from mere human to Divine Savior. The unveiling occurs after the image is lowered (thus, the descent, or “bajada,” as the ritual is also referred to) into an impossibly tight part of the ‘carroza’ to emerge transfigured. The whole thing is a major “before and after.” So, we wanted to get a good look at “before” so we could better appreciate the “after.”
We got a very good glimpse of the ‘carroza’ near the Cathedral. The float sat astride a pick-up truck, which was barely recognizable below the layers of papier mache and liturgical dressing. The shape of the float was of a terrestrial globe balanced on a pedestal, with ecclesiastical arches adorning the sides of the vertical shaft supporting it. It looked a little like a giant sporting trophy, if I may say so respectfully. Jesus was decked out in blue and white garments, his hands outstretched from his majestic perch over San Salvador. We feasted our eyes quickly, then darted into an alley to cut away from the Church, towards the Central Market. My mother needed to find some aspirin, and I needed film for my cheap camera. We spoke to various street merchants, who pointed us to a pharmacy at an adjacent street, where both our needs were satisfied.
Back on the pilgrim trail, we raced to catch up with the ‘carroza.’ There were people everywhere, and it was hard to tell which group was behind the truck, and which was ahead of it. The confusion was generalized because asking around did not lead to definitive answers. We rushed somewhat aimlessly, when suddenly we spotted the itinerant, stretched-armed Christ disappearing around a corner. Not having been on these streets in twelve years, I instinctively told my mother and my cousin to follow me down a random backstreet. We negotiated a few unforeseen turns in the passage, ending up on a block that seemed like it was in a different town, because it was so deserted. My cousin grabbed my hand and pulled me into a lane between two houses, and we emerged smack in front of the ‘carroza,’ stepping back into the passage, which was all we could do to avoid being run over by the Jesus.
After the ‘carroza’ had passed, we followed it the last block into Parque Libertad, where a throng had gathered around the perimeter of the square. Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas delivered a message of peace, which took hold of the crowd gathered there. When everyone in the crowd got out white handkerchiefs and waved them in the air, turning the plaza into a blizzard of peace wishes, I knew that I was living a moment in history. Somehow, in that multitudinous crowd, like seabirds who find their fledglings in a flock of untold thousands, we found my uncle. In the middle of that historic moment, we stood apart from history, just us and ‘El Colocho’ (“The Curly One,” Salvadoran slang for Jesus).