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Nicaraguans celebrate Virgin Mary at traditional event

Nicaraguans came together for a Virgin Mary celebration in Little Havana, Sweetwater, Hialeah and Kendall.

Special To The Miami Herald
Standing in front of a decorated altar with an image of Virgin Mary, Nicaraguan Maria Vellasquez sang to a statue of the holy figure, which brought back memories.

Vellasquez, a Catholic, said praying and signing to the patron saint of Nicaragua moves her.

“I have a lot of nostalgia,” said Vellasquez, wearing a white T-shirt displaying an image of Mary. “It helps me remember my family I have back home.”

On Monday, she was one of thousands of Nicaraguans who took to the streets of Little Havana, Kendall, Hialeah and Sweetwater to celebrate La Griteria.

It has been 20 years since she last celebrated the event in her native land.

“I feel very emotional and happy,” said Vellasquez, who celebrated the religious affair at St. John Bosco Catholic Church, 1366 NW First St. “I adore the presence of Nicaraguans.”

La Griteria is a boisterous celebration, where Nicaraguan religious followers pray and sing traditional songs in front of an altar with an image of Virgin Mary. The altar could be placed anywhere from a corner of a family house to a big stage. It is celebrated every Dec. 7.

While some sing songs to Virgin Mary, other participants make noise with whistles, tambourines and other instruments.

As the singing and praying is taking place, traditional Nicaraguan sweets and drinks, sugar cane and other gifts are distributed.

Also, in the religious affair, participants cry out, “Who causes so much happiness?” Others answer, “Mary’s Conception.”

To Nicaraguans, the celebration is a way to show gratitude for Virgin Mary’s miracles.

“I have a daughter who was born prematurely and every year I come to sing to her,” said Miami resident Hector Luis Castro.

“I am not leaving until everything is over with.”

More than 30 altars were set up at St. John Bosco Catholic Church’s parking lot and across the street at a shopping center. Some Nicaraguans displayed their altars on the back of their cars.

The tradition started Dec. 7, 1857, in Leon, Nicaragua, when a priest wanted to bring joy to his country after it had endured a national war, Rev. Juan Carlos Paguaga, pastor of St. John Bosco, said.

“We see Maria like the mother that joins us and takes us towards Jesus,” he said.

Paguaga, a Nicaraguan, says the tradition is meaningful to the Central American community.

“This is important in the Nicaragua community,” he added.

He led a mass before celebrating outside on a stage set up at the church’s parking lot.

“It’s something we have been celebrating since we were kids and its part of our faith, culture and family,” he added.

La Griteria has spread across the county.

In Sweetwater, Alcides Ortega, owner of a pharmacy, has celebrated La Griteria for more than 20 years.

“This is a satisfaction to maintain our faith to the Virgin,” he said.

Several volunteers and employees handed out everything from bananas and lemons.

Almost 1,000 people sang religious songs as a live band played. And dancers performed Nicaraguan folklore.

Ortega’s daughter, Nuvia Ortega said it takes her about three months to plan the theme of an altar.

“I am a devotee of the Virgin,” said Nuvia.

The altar included the image of a large Virgin Mary along with colorful flowers inside a fish bowl, gold paper as a background and Christmas lights.

Although it’s a Nicaraguan tradition, other Hispanic Catholics mark the event.

“I am happy to see the faith and love they have for the Virgin,” said Hermas Sanchez, a Colombian.

He joined Vellasquez at St. John Bosco Catholic Church.

“People tend to forget about their traditions, but seeing this changes everything,” said Sanchez who visited several altars.

But the celebration didn’t end for Vellasquez who planned to celebrate La Griteria at her home Saturday.

“She is the mother of our savior,” she said.

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