Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


Linkogle, S. (1998) 'The Revolution and the Virgin Mary: Popular Religion and Social Change in Nicaragua'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 2, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 6/3/98      Accepted: 11/6/98      Published: 30/6/98


This article is concerned with analysing the role of popular religion in social transformation in Nicaragua from 1979 to the present, focusing in particular on popular religious practices, as spaces in which gender, political and religious identities are shaped and contested. It explores the elements of Nicaraguan popular religion that were constitutive of a religious and often gendered 'common sense' which fostered identification with specific political projects. My aim is two-fold. Firstly, I am concerned to examine some general issues around popular religion in Latin America and its relationship to the practice and pronouncements of the Catholic church. To this end, I begin my analysis of popular religion in Nicaragua with an exploration of some of the general themes which dominate considerations of popular culture and popular religion. I next examine how the issue of popular Catholicism has been taken up both by the 'official' church, particularly in the wake of Vatican II, and by liberation theologians. This discussion leads to a more specific focus on popular religion in Latin America. Secondly, I explore 'Marianism' and the Nicaraguan popular religious festival La Purísima. Here I focus on the competing gender discourses which are worked through different representations of 'the Virgin Mary'. These competing discourses are often also linked to different versions of an 'ideal' society. Finally the article concludes by outlining how an analysis of popular religious practices can inform a sociological understanding of contradictory processes of social change.

Gender; La PuríSima; Nicaragua; Nicaraguan Revolution; Popular Religion; Sandinistas; Social Change; Social Transformation; Virgin Mary

La Purisma Poster


This article is concerned to explore the role of 'popular religion' (extra-institutional forms of religious practice) in processes of social transformation in Nicaragua. The past twenty turbulent years of Nicaraguan history have seen an insurrection to overthrow a dictatorial regime, a revolutionary government, a counterrevolutionary war and a conservative resurgence. Here religious discourses have played an important role in the ideological struggles surrounding these events, with liberation theology and hierarchical forms of Catholicism positioned at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. These struggles and their wider implications have been analysed in detail elsewhere (Mainwaring and Wilde, 1989; Crahan, 1989; Dodson and Nuzzi O'Shaughnessy, 1990). Yet the role of beliefs and practices outside, although in many ways continuous with, officially sanctioned religious custom and credence has received relatively less academic attention.

With the notable exception of Roger Lancaster's (1988) elegant study of popular religious practice in Nicaragua, the messy, lived experience of religion in Nicaragua and its role in social change has been greatly under-researched. Lancaster maintains that although popular religious beliefs and practices were unsystematised and often contradictory, they played an important role in building a 'common sense' understanding of and commitment to the redistributive programmes of the revolutionary government. I will argue that within this normative framework there were and continue to be very traditional conceptions of gender, so that while popular religion may have served to strengthen class-based identities, it reinforced 'common sense' norms around gender and sexuality. In this way, popular religion may enhance class interests at the expense of women's gender-specific interests.

In examining the extent to which popular religion in Nicaragua has contributed to processes of social change, the aims of this article are twofold. Firstly, the article is concerned to explore the gendered and 'gendering' dimensions of Nicaraguan popular religious practice. Secondly, the article seeks to use Lancaster's analysis of Nicaraguan popular religion, which focused on such practice during the revolutionary government (1979-1990), as a basis for identifying some important issues in the study of popular religion in the post 1990 period. 1990 is a significant year in recent Nicaraguan history because it was then that the revolutionary Sandinista government, which had been in power for more than a decade, was voted out of office. This election initiated a period characterised by the dismantling of the revolutionary state and its redistributive social and economic policies. It has also been an era in which the symbolic grammar of the revolutionary epoch is being re-written by a new set of political and economic circumstances.

In the December 1997 edition of Sociological Research Online, Tamir Bar-On offered an insightful analysis of football as a terrain of social change in Latin America (Bar-On, 1997). He argued that in the main it had served to reinforce traditional notions of masculinity and a conservative conceptualisations of 'the' nation. As such, football reinforced the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes or at least served as a kind of 'opiate' which channelled collective impulses into a set of activities and identities which reinforced the capitalist status quo. Football in Latin America, Bar-On argues, built consumerist and aspirational identities and reconfirmed traditional gender norms.

With respect to popular religion, however, I argue that social transformation is a contradictory and uneven process and whilst some forms of cultural expression may serve to reinforce the status quo and inhibit social transformation, they may also provide the basis for future or more partial forms of social transformation. Therefore, I maintain that it is difficult to consider any site as bereft of the potential to foster social transformation. In the case of popular religious practice, the identities of participants are never exclusive to or solely defined by these activities. Furthermore, these practices often involve a complex range of social positions. For example, participation may be a highly personal and privatised activity in terms of the 'contracts' that are often made between saints and petitioners. At other times forms of participation may be collective, presaging and at times mirroring mass mobilisations, so that a religious parade may be continuous with the experience of a political march.

In the sections which follow, I examine some of the theoretical concerns germane to the analysis of 'popular religion' in general and Nicaraguan popular religion in particular. I begin with a brief explanation of the methodology of the research. I then explore the notion of 'popular religion' and its particular manifestation in Latin America. A specific discussion of La Purísima, the Nicaraguan popular religious festival dedicated to the Virgin Mary, follows. This analysis of La Purísima is a case study which examines a specific aspect of Nicaraguan popular religion in more detail. The final section of the article focuses on how constructions of Mary may help to construct class cohesion and national unity at the same time as they serve to validate women as mothers and to circumscribe their roles in the public sphere.

In my analysis, I draw on newspaper and radio coverage of the La Purísima festival and my participant observervation of the festival in December 1992. The experience of participant observation allowed me some access to the lived experiences of popular religious practices but clearly the fluid meanings of such practices are impossible to fully 'know' or 'fix'. In addition, I utilise material from twenty brief informal interviews which I conducted with festival participants. The interviews took the form of unscripted conversations between myself and the respondents and were initiated with the question 'what is the significance of La Purísima'. The respondents were ten female and ten male working and middle class Managuans and were chosen at random. The conversations were undoubtedly shaped by the fact that I was a foreigner and respondents were keen to explain the uniquely Nicaraguan character of La Purísima and the ways in which it manifested the depth of Nicaraguan Marian devotion. The purpose of the conversations was to gain further information on the festival itself and to get some sense of what popular perceptions of the festival were. These interviews were in no way 'representative' of popular understandings of the festival nor did they provide the 'thick' data of more in-depth qualitative interviews. Instead they served as a supplement to the textual analysis and participant observation which form the basis of the research conducted for this article.

Popular Religion and Popular Culture in Latin America

'... in popular piety there is a mix of the divine and the human; there are lights and shades; the sacred and the profane are seen. We recognise this matter as a valid method of evangelisation, but there must be a purification of the cultural expressions of the people.' (Ubeda Bravo, 1992)

Popular religion in Latin America is a highly localised phenomenon. The unique pre-conquest cultures, the conquest and colonial experiences of different regions, plus varying experiences of urbanisation and modernity, all influence the character and prevalence of popular religion in a particular area. There is no single Latin American popular religion, in the same way that there is no uniform Latin American culture. There are only popular religions and popular cultures which are rooted in and give expression to local knowledges, meanings and concerns. In Latin America, popular culture is a mixture of the vestiges of indigenous culture that have survived the conquest, the cultural practices and beliefs that preceded urbanisation, and the ensuing preponderance of mass cultural forms. Yet the boundaries between 'high' and 'popular' culture are no longer as distinct as they once were, and in an analysis of these increasingly blurred distinctions, García Canclini concludes that: 'High, popular, and mass are no longer to be found in their familiar places...' (García Canclini, 1992: p.30). Neither popular culture nor popular religion are hermetically sealed systems; there is an interaction between the two and also between themselves and their respective 'opposites' of 'high' culture and orthodox religion.

Popular religion is not just religion that has many adherents; rather its denotation as 'popular' reflects its lack of integration with or accountability to established religious institutions. At the same time, the practices and beliefs of popular religion, while in conflict with authorised forms of religious expression, are often held by their adherents to be consistent with and at times more 'genuine' than 'official' customs. Writing about popular religion in the United States, Peter Williams notes that all movements which fall within the parameters of popular religion 'exist apart from or in tension with established religious groups with regular patterns of organisation and leadership'; although in fact the distinction between popular and official religion does not necessarily imply a discordance between the two, for, as Williams notes, popular religion may be 'tacitly welcomed' as a contained expression of unacceptable but prevalent beliefs and practices (Williams, 1989, p.17).

The separation between popular religion and established religion is not therefore strictly demarcated and there is an interaction and slippage between the two. 'Syncretism' or the fusion of religious forms is often a feature of both popular and established religion. Yet syncretism has been more recognised as a feature of popular religion because the origins of beliefs and practices that have been adapted and reshaped are hidden within the official discourse and codifications of established religion. Thus in Nicaragua, as well as other Latin American countries, pre-conquest religious practices and beliefs have been encased in Catholicism, both in its established and popular forms. In Latin America, the conquest initiated a process of syncretism between Catholicism and indigenous or pre-conquest religion that can be witnessed most clearly in the practices and beliefs of popular religion. In the section which follows the La Purísima festival is examined as a specifically Nicaraguan expression of popular religious practice.

La Purísima and Marian Devotion: Fuel for Social Change in Nicaragua?

'Neither war nor earthquakes, nor volcanic eruptions, nor acts of terrorism, nor economic difficulties has been able to dampen the fervour of the Nicaraguan people...' [in their celebration of La Purísima] (Armando Quintero M.,1992).

La Purísima is a popular religious festival unique to Nicaragua. It is initiated with a novena (a nine day period of devotion) to the Virgin Mary that culminates in a celebration on December 7, the eve of the Catholic feast day of the Immaculate Conception. Altars in devotion to the Virgin Mary, many of which have been in families for generations, are set up in homes throughout Nicaragua. These altars are visited throughout the evening by groups of people who 'shout' for their gorra, the gifts given out by those who sponsor the altars.

The traditional gifts include sugar cane, toasted maize, chicha (a fermented maize drink) and pumpkin with honey (Nuevo Diario, 7 December 1992). However, writing in the conservative Nicaraguan daily newspaper La Prensa, Eloisa Ibarra A (1992). noted that, due to the difficult economic situation, gifts of basic necessities, such as rice, beans and soap, were taking on increasing significance. There is an expectation that the maintenance of these altars and the distribution of these gifts will be undertaken by members of the community who are able to afford it. Throughout the evening of 7 December revellers go from house to house shouting the question, 'Who causes such happiness?' (¿Quien causa tanta alegría?), and receiving the response, 'The Conception of Mary' (!La Concepción de María!).

For the faithful of Nicaragua, La Purísima 'is one of the clearest expressions of popular religiosity and is, in its original sense, a revelation to a poor, humble, suffering and believing people' (Aragón Cárdenas, 1992). The Immaculate Conception is a celebration, not of the 'immaculate', ie. non-sexual conception of Jesus as is commonly assumed, but rather is concerned with Mary's lack of original sin and thus her suitability to be Jesus' mother. The idea of Mary's 'sinless' state from conception was made official church dogma in 1854 by Pope Pius IX's papal bull Ineffabilis Deus. While in Nicaragua, the earliest written reference to the celebration of La Purísima is in a document dated 7 December 1742, almost one hundred years prior to Pius XI's 1854 bull. At this time the then Mayor of León, Alfonso Navas, declared that on this day residents of the municipality should clean their patios and put out lights or face a five peso fine. The traditions surrounding La Purísima had their origin in this northern Nicaraguan city and it is here that the oldest altars are found (Armando Quintero M.,1992). The festival of La Purísima was initially promoted by members of the Franciscan order, in keeping with the keen Marian devotion that has long characterised the order (Warner, 1985: pp. 181 - 184).

Although, as my observations confirmed, La Purísima is a singularly Nicaraguan festival, Marian devotion is of course prevalent throughout Latin America (Rowe and Schelling, 1991), often representing a syncretism of aspects of indigenous religions and Catholicism referred to earlier. In Latin America, the conquest gave the figure of Mary a highly particular significance as there was a syncretism of Mary and existing indigenous goddesses. Mary was defined within Catholicism in terms of two highly gendered roles, the virgin and the mother, and was singular in that she was simultaneously the standard bearer of both. Officially her sanctity rested on her exemption from original sin, articulated in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Yet clearly her privileged position within popular Catholic discourse in Latin America was not based solely on this theological distinction. The indigenous peoples were the 'victims' of the conquest, yet with victimhood came the self-loathing and stigma of collaboration. This was particularly strong for women as the mixing of the 'races' was almost always a result of the union of a European man and an indigenous women. In this way, women were seen to be and sometimes saw themselves as responsible for the 'betrayal' of their own 'race'. At the same time, rape and coercion were often the defining features of these unions and thus the violation of indigenous women became a living metaphor of the violation of all indigenous people and their surroundings. Thus there was a conflation of impurity and violation. La Malinche, the much mythologised indigenous woman who was 'given' to Cortés (Franco,1989, p. xix) became the archetypal representative of all that the Virgin Mary was not: a violated, impure woman.

In considering a number of issues surrounding 'the cult of the Immaculate Conception', Sofía Montenegro is concerned to reconcile the veneration of the Virgin Mary with the shabby and often violent treatment that Nicaraguan women receive. For Montenegro, this 'Virginity in the sky... violation on the earth', is borne out by physical and verbal abuse that affects large numbers of Nicaraguan women (Montenegro, 1992: p. 7). For Montenegro, in Nicaragua this veneration/violation binary is rooted in the experience of the conquest. Because of this experience Nicaraguans, 'like the rest of Latin Americas are marked by this original violence and therefore obsessed with a feeling of impurity and stigma by virtue of their birth' (Montenegro, 1992: p. 8). The violated land and culture have been personified as a violated woman, 'Mother earth'. Moreover, the representation of Mary as a European virgin rather than as an indigenous mother has an impact on the way that women are perceived within Nicaragua society, as Montenegro points out:

It is from this perspective that one can better understand the neurotic and ambivalent attitude of the Nicaraguan man before the figure of the mother and therefore before women in general. The maternal cults of today are an expression of the identity of the victim that we all share and therefore they reflect a deep pain: the self-negation that obligated the mestizo population to be ashamed of their colour, their ancestry, and of the culture of their maternal ethnicity (Montenegro, 1992, p.8).

The emphasis on Mary's virginity and the ascription of European characteristics to her created a sense of distance between her and her Latin American devotees. Yet as well as the white virgin who bore the son of God, Mary was also the mother who raised Jesus and stood by him through his life and death, and consequently came to represent the ideal nurturer. Furthermore, the suffering that she thereby experienced through the loss of her son established her as a supremely empathetic figure. In the context of the conquest, the possibility of solace from a comforting and maternal presence took on heightened significance, and the role of the female divinity in the indigenous cosmology under assault shifted from that of encouraging fertility and fecundity to giving consolation and succour. Here Octavio Paz 's description is especially relevant:

The Indian goddesses were goddesses of fecundity, linked to the cosmic rhythms, the vegetative processes and agrarian rites. The Catholic Virgin is also the Mother..., but her principal attribute is not to watch over the fertility of the earth but to provide refuge for the unfortunate. The situation has changed: the worshipers do not try to make sure of their harvests but to find a mother's lap. The Virgin is the consolation of the poor, the shield of the weak, the help of the oppressed (Paz, 1961, p. 85).

Lillian Leví too uses the metaphor of the maternal lap and as she emphasises, '... all Indian America likes to fill the sky with firecrackers and gunshots in that unique collective ritual,... in order to send pleas to 'María Purísima', whose maternal lap protects all our orphaned' (Leví, 1992: p. 10). In Nicaragua, part of the celebrations of La Purísima is the La Gritería or the 'shouting' where throughout the 7th December vigil, the revellers shout their praises to the Virgin Mary, shout about the happiness that they feel about the 'conception of pure Mary', and through these cries they also shout for their gorra or gifts. There is an interesting relationship between the different forms of shouting that are central to Nicaraguans, who Leví points out, also have a history of 'shouting' about injustice and oppression. 'Shouting' during La Purísima is just one of the ways in which a Nicaraguan national identity is constructed or 'conceived' of through the Virgin Mary.

Nicaraguan newspaper coverage in 1992 of the festival tended to reinforce the perception of the festival as a point of national unity. The overriding thrust of conservative daily La Prensa's coverage is that La Purísima is a tradition that unites all Nicaraguans in spite of social class and that the festival will endure in the face of all difficulties. Here La Purísima is presented as a tradition that has retained its centrality in Nicaraguan life despite all 'natural' and 'man-made' disasters. La Purísima is said to fulfil 'our religious race' (La Prensa, 7 December 1992). Clearly La Prensa is drawing on a notion of national unity as constructed through Marian devotion in which class distinctions are unimportant because all Nicaraguans are one in their dedication to the Virgin Mary. Yet the coverage in Barricada, the official Sandinista newspaper, did not deviate greatly from the notion of La Purísima as a conduit for national unity. Yet references to 'we Nicaraguans' in Barricada had a more 'popular' intonation. For example, Barricada's list of 'precautions and advice' for a 'safe and enjoyable La Purísima' (Barricada, 6 December 1992) were directed primarily towards those who would be travelling from house to house to collect their gorra rather than towards those who had the means to sponsor a purísima. Evidently Barricada was working with a different version of national unity than La Prensa but one that nevertheless tapped into the pervasive Marian devotion that characterised Nicaraguan popular religion. The left leaning daily Nuevo Diario also highlighted the theme of national unity when they stated: 'Nuevo Diario wishes all Nicaraguans a happy day'. In all the three national newspapers there was very little secular or distanced coverage of the festival.

In the informal interviews that I conducted, respondents gave very similar responses when asked what significance the festival had for them. With respect to the meanings that respondents gave to the La Purísima festival, there did not seem to be a sharp distinction on the basis of gender. Typical responses were: 'It's a tradition of the Nicaraguan people'; 'It is very traditional for our country'; 'It is part of our religious beliefs'. All the people that I interviewed maintained that La Purísima was the most important Nicaraguan patronal festival. One woman that I interviewed contended: 'La Purísima is the maximo (maximum). It is the most dear of all patronal celebrations. She is the queen of all of Nicaragua.' One reason that La Purísima was accorded such prestige by the respondents was undoubtedly its national standing; unlike other Nicaraguan patronal festivals, La Purísima was celebrated in every region of the country.

In the days leading up to the 7th December vigil, many different organisations and institutions of all political stripes gave purísimas, or parties in which small gifts are given out. This 'pre-vigil' phase had the atmosphere of the lead up to Christmas in the US or the UK, not least because of the commercial aspects of the festival. Television and newspapers were filled with advertisements for the items necessary to 'give a purísima'. Furthermore, because people from all social classes gave 'purísimas', supermarkets, luxury outlets, small shops, and market stalls alike all do a brisk trade in the weeks preceding the La Purísima vigil. Unlike its more riotous Managuan cousin, the Santo Domingo festival, the La Purísima vigil seemed to arouse no controversy whatsoever.

The content of popular Marian piety and the manner in which it is expressed in La Purísima are, by and large sanctioned, and in some cases directed by the 'official' church. Church-based activities and approved forms of religious expression such the 'novena' are part of the La Purísima celebrations. People fulfilling 'promises' made to Mary for favours received (pagadores de promesas) honour their obligations through prayer, giving purísima gifts, maintaining the traditional altars and carrying out other forms of sanctioned religious expression. The more 'carnal' character of a number of other popular religious festivals, as exemplified in the sporadic violence and all night drinking and dancing that surrounds them, is not an integral feature of La Purísima.

During the years of revolutionary government, however, La Purísima was the subject of antagonism between conservatives within the Nicaraguan Catholic church and the Sandinistas. For example in 1986 there were rumours that Purísima celebrations would be banned as part of the 'State of Emergency' declared because of the continuing war against the contras. Just prior to the celebrations of that year the Interior Ministry issued a statement declaring that there would be no restrictions on the celebrations which preceded without limitations. (Envio, November 1987: p. 32) Indeed, throughout its tenure, the Sandinista government sponsored La Purísima events, giving out toys and candy to children. In addition it held a competitions for the best public purísima altar and businesses, organisations and various government ministries participated (Mainwaring and Wilde, 1989). This state involvement in the festival was irksome to conservatives within the church because it was perceived as a threat to their authority and in particular their influence over popular Marian devotion (Crahan, 1989: p. 87; Dodson and Nuzzi O'Shaughnessy, 1990: p.152). In this way, the controversy around La Purísima was part of a larger conflict over the control of religious imagery between the Sandinistas and opponents of the revolution.

While the Sandinistas held state power between 1979 and 1990, the events around La Purísima were often a barometer for tensions between 'church' and 'state'. In comparing the controversy surrounding the festival in the 1980s to the relatively uncontentious celebration of La Purísima in 1992, it seems that there has been a marked decrease in tension or a political neutralisation of the festival events. One immediate reason for this was that the Sandinistas did not have the resources of the state to sponsor purísima celebrations and so the change of Sandinista interference had ceased to be tenable. More generally, I would argue that La Purísima is perceived by both Left and Right as no longer as a 'terrain' for hegemonic struggles to define national and religious identities. Furthermore, in the post 1990 period, even amongst the most committed of revolutionary Christians there was significant ambiguity with respect to the link between religious commitment and political affiliation (Linkogle, 1996).

In the period of revolutionary government, the discourse of the Sandinistas sought to re-inscribe both informal and organised religious expression with revolutionary meaning (Girardi, 1987). This recasting of religious expression reinforced an identification with the revolutionary project for the committed and helped to inspire a more tacit acceptance by the seemingly apolitical or unaffiliated as they negotiated their way through a complex web of political, economic and religious discourses. The Sandinistas utilised religious discourse in order to achieve a hegemonic consensus. In the post 1990 period there has been a shift in common sense away from the politicised and religiously inspired understandings that made up the revolutionary matrix.

Roger Lancaster argues that La Purísima serves to reinforce a set of values antithetical to capitalist accumulation (Lancaster, 1988). In Nicaraguan neighbourhoods, those with the financial means are expected to 'throw' a Purísima for their neighbours, while those without the necessary resources are free from this social pressure. In this way, Lancaster argues, La Purísima plays a 'levelling' role in many neighbourhoods because it serves to eliminate or greatly diminish material differences between neighbours:

'... throwing a Purísima has the effect on those who have been more prosperous during the preceding year of effectively wiping out their savings and eliminating any material advantage that they might have accumulated over their neighbours. The annual celebration of the Virgin Mary's purity, then, is not coincidentally also the approach of a great levelling device that vigorously levels the economic distinctions that have accumulated in a community over the year.' (Lancaster, 1988: p.53)

In linking popular religious tradition to the redistributive principles of socialism, Lancaster argues that social transformation often emerges from existing religious and cultural traditions rather than as a break with these as some notions of social change suggest. This is not just the case with religious practices themselves but also with the meanings invested in religious icons or symbols. However, the meanings attached to popular religious practices are not fixed. In the absence of a dominant discourse, popular religious practices may take on new meanings or may generate a changed set of values and understandings.

Significantly for the people I interviewed, the features which Lancaster highlights were not distinguishing aspects of La Purísima. The festival was seen very much as an apolitical popular religious tradition and no reference was made to wider socio-political issues. This discrepancy explicable in two key ways. Firstly, Lancaster conducted his research during the 1980s when religious discourses were highly politicised, whilst my research was conducted after the 1990 change in government. I would argue that the absence of a revolutionary government to highlight and reinforce these connections, coupled with the corresponding reassertion of hierarchical authority within the Nicaraguan Catholic church and Nicaraguan society more generally has lead to the increasing de-linking of political and religious discourses.

Secondly, it is not unusual for there to be a discrepancy between the narratives of 'social analysts' and those of the 'protagonists' of such narratives. Renato Rosaldo argues that there is much to be gained from 'holding the social analyst's narratives in creative tension with those of the protagonists' (Rosaldo, 1993: p.143). He goes on to argue that, whilst protagonists' narrative should 'should broaden, complicate, and perhaps revise', the narratives of social actors they should in 'no way inhibit, "our" own ethical, political and analytical insights' (Rosaldo, 1993: p. 148). So, for Rosaldo, the social analyst's narrative should be considered alongside that of the protagonist of an ethnographic account. Clearly there is an epistemological strain between the authority of 'academic' analyses of social phenomena and the meanings articulated by those who are implicated in such analyses (Stanley and Wise, 1993).

During the years of revolutionary government many Nicaraguan exiles celebrated La Purísima in Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and other cities in the Unites States. In this context, the celebration of La Purísima was a way of retaining and demonstrating a unique Nicaraguan identity distinct from that of other ethnic groups in the US. However here an assertion of Nicaraguan identity was often linked explicitly or implicitly with a rejection of the revolution and the 'radical' meaning that it attempted to imprint on religious discourses and practices. Humberto Belli, fervent anti-Sandinista in exile and Minister of Education in the Chamorro and now Alemán governments, voiced the objections of the Right and the Nicaraguan Catholic hierarchy to this mixture of religious and political symbolism. He contended:

'... the revolutionary Christians were putting into practice the [Sandinista's] call to re-invest religious symbols and celebrations with new revolutionary meanings...In the liberation theology being preached in the country, the revolutionary Christians identified sin with capitalism; Satan with the bourgeoisie and US imperialism; salvation, or deliverance from sin with revolution; the Messiah - Jesus being a revolutionary zealot - with the vanguard or the revolutionary party; the kingdom of God with revolutionary socialism. All this was the Marxist-Leninist world view and eschatology; only the terms changed.' (Belli, 1985: p. 160)

Whilst many revolutionary Christians would disagree with Belli's simplistic assessment, his view articulated a concern common to many opponents to the revolution. For those exiles who have returned to Nicaragua since 1990, steeped in their own recent traditions of opposition to the revolution and the 'politicisation' of religious expression, the practices around La Purísima may have a distinctively 'anti-revolutionary' meaning. The subsequent increase in poverty and unemployment since the 1990 change in government also may have initiated a change in the meaning of practices around La Purísima for the 'popular classes'. As noted earlier, in the context of increasing poverty and malnutrition, purísima gifts of staple goods have taken on greater economic importance. Thus, it is possible that the levelling function of La Purísima which Lancaster describes will be undercut as throwing a purísima becomes less affordable to those in the 'popular classes'. It this way, it may become a form of charity from the rich to the poor rather than an interclass redistribution of surplus. I would argue that La Purísima, barring an end to the present government's neo-liberal economic policies, will increasingly become more a site for class tension rather than national unity.

The 'Common Sense' of Nicaraguan Popular Religion: Gender, Class, and Nationalism

Many of the norms may build cohesion within a community can also serve to undermine diversity and suppress demands for change which do not conform to accepted values. This is particularly the case with norms on gender roles. Key factors, integral to the 'common sense' of Nicaraguan popular religion, which serve to reinforce existing gender inequalities are: the 'class' character of the solidarity constructed through popular religion; traditional notions of 'womanhood' and women's roles contained within popular religious practices and beliefs; and the 'nationalistic' character of many Nicaraguan popular religious practices.

Political projects constructed around class have been notoriously remiss in their ability or willingness to concretely prioritise issues of gender, race and sexuality. Often the resolution of 'non-class' issues is linked to an a priori socialist transformation of society; in this way, it is posited that all 'non-class' issues will be resolved after, if not through, the introduction of socialism. Here issues of gender, race and sexuality become subordinated to the issue of class. In many ways the Sandinistas reinforced this 'class bias' by designating many gender-specific interests 'petty bourgeois'. This point is well illustrated by an anecdote related by Sofía Montenegro. At a 1987 women's 'De Cara al Pueblo' (Face the People) public meeting in which Sandinista leaders answered questions, Montenegro attempted to focus the meeting on issues such as sexual discrimination at work, sexual harassment, rape, abortion, etc. rather than around economic and community issues. The usually diplomatic Daniel Ortega publicly reproached her for being 'petty bourgeois' (interview in Küppers, 1994: pp. 175 - 6). This anecdote has particular resonance given the recent accusations of sexual abuse made by Zoilamérica Narváez against her step-father Daniel Ortega (Nitlapán-envio team, 1998).

Nicaraguan popular religion is uniquely 'Nicaraguan' and in this way it serves to reinforce and transmit patriotic and nationalistic impulses. This nationalism, as expressed in the revolutionary slogan 'patria libre o morir' (free fatherland or death) was a key component of the Sandinista project. Given the level of US military aggression against Nicaragua in the 1980s, anti-imperialism was the inevitable corollary of nationalism. 'Feminism', or even the articulation of 'gender-specific' interests, was often erroneously considered as a 'foreign' or 'imported' discourse. Because of this, women who have sought to address gender- specific interests are often greeted with a resistance based on a defence of Nicaraguan 'traditions' and a rejection of a 'foreign' discourses. As Maxine Molyneux contends: 'there is a tendency for nationalist movements to reject it [feminism] in the name of their own national authenticity' (Molyneux, 1981: p. 4). Clearly, Nicaraguan nationalism is not reproduced solely through popular religious practices and beliefs. However, they are one of the underlying supports for Nicaraguan nationalism because they shape and reinforce a particular version of 'Nicaraguaness'.

La Purísima is a festival which was identified by the people whom I interviewed and in the Nicaraguan media as uniquely Nicaraguan - as emblematic of the Nicaraguan culture and way of life. Centred as it is around a highly revered female, the Virgin Mary, it is interesting to consider Nira Yuval-Davis' observation that: ' Women often come to symbolise the national collectivity, its roots, its spirit, its national project.... Moreover, women often come to symbolise national and collective "honour"' (Yuval-Davis, 1997: p. 196) This symbolic significance reaches its apex in the figure of the Virgin Mary and in the festival of La Purísima. There is a contradictory aspect to such representations for, whilst they emphasise the great power of Mary, this authority is located in her role as the ideal sacrificing mother. So whilst La Purísima celebrations are generally not officially organised or controlled by the Catholic church, they draw upon and reinforce the dichotomised roles of women and men which form the basis of Church dogma.

However, whilst in orthodox terms Mary represents idealised notions of purity and passivity, in popular discourse she is also seen as a very powerful figure capable of dramatic and decisive interventions into the lives of the faithful. As noted earlier, many participants offered their prayers and gifts to others in return for what they believe to be Mary's intercession on their behalf. In other words, for many participants, La Purísima represented both a public celebration and the opportunity to fulfil a personal obligation incurred when their 'prayers had been answered'. Furthermore, it must be stressed that women often exercise a high level of control over Purísima celebrations, with women generally holding responsibility for maintaining the shrines of the Virgin Mary and organising the customary gift giving and parties.

Popular religion is always practised within a particular socio-political context. In reflecting on how popular religious practices may challenge or reinforce traditional gender norms, it is important to consider the wider contexts in which gender ideologies are shaped. Here there is a clear distinction between the period of revolutionary government (1979-1990) and the post 1990 period. With the promulgation of the constitution in January 1987, many of the laws designed to address some of the legislative underpinnings of women's subordination were given the status of fundamental rights. The March 1987 'Proclamation on Women' reiterated and extended the Sandinistas' commitment to women's emancipation as a key feature of the revolutionary process. The document explicitly addressed the issue of machismo in that it problematised the gendered division of domestic labour and overall gave Nicaraguan women 'a certain moral authority' in organising around gender-specific issues (Envio, 1987: p. 30).

While the 1987 Nicaraguan Constitution established equality for women, it was at variance with a civil code which had been left relatively untouched during the years of revolutionary government (Alemán, 1993: p. 19). Nicaragua's 1904 Family Code was based on the principle that men had absolute authority over the family and this civil code remained intact through the years of revolutionary government and beyond. For example, the civil code had stipulated that divorce could be granted only on grounds of infidelity, an offence that carried a two-year prison sentence. The differential enforcement of the civil code meant that the vast majority of prosecutions for adultery were lodged against women. (Alemán, 1993: p. 20) Further, rape was considered to be a civil rather than a criminal matter and it was up to a woman to pursue a prosecution against a rapist. This aspect of Nicaraguan law was not changed during the years of revolutionary government (Stephens, 1990) although the 1989 divorce law stipulated that a marriage could be terminated by either partner.

As with the failure to institute gender-neutral conscription during the contra war, the Sandinista government often conceived of women's roles as supporting players on the revolutionary stage. The emphasis on women as the caretakers of children, 'the coddled ones of the revolution', coalesced with existing understandings of women's interests based on an unproblematised gendered division of labour. It also served to valorise women as mothers in nurturing and supporting roles, rather than as having a set of interests separate from children.

In post 1900 Nicaragua, there has been an attempt to reassert and legally endorse the traditional notions of womanhood. One of the most recent attempts is the present Nicaraguan governments efforts to create a Ministry of the Family which would support the 'traditional family' described as 'a man, a woman and their children' in its efforts to instill and protect 'inherent moral values' (Hadgipateras, 1997: p. 8). The proposed ministry has garnered much opposition form women's movements, who see it as an 'attempt to extend the principles of Catholic morality to the entire Nicaraguan populace' (Envio, April 1997: p. 15) and to roll back much of the legislative and institutional gains that women made in the 1980s. An editorial in the conservative daily La Prensa maintained that those opposed to the new ministry were 'radical feminists, far removed from the interests of real women'. La Prensa defined the 'children and husbands' as the interests of 'real women' (Hadgipateras, 1997: p. 8).


This article has argued that popular religious festivals are sites for the contestation, reformulation and in some cases entrenchment of discourses around religion, gender and politics. Running through this analysis has been the view that the knowledges attached to popular religious practices are uneven, fluid and contingent. In relation to wider socio-political discourses, popular religious practices may take on new meanings or may generate new values and understandings.

For Lancaster, in the festival of La Purísima it is possible to locate some of the values and assumptions that predisposed Nicaraguans to the revolution. He argues that Nicaraguan popular religious practices and beliefs are the basis of the 'norms' that underlie the 'self-consciousness of the poor', in other words revolutionary class consciousness. Yet in looking at the contradictory way in which women are positioned within Nicaraguan popular religion, it is clear that this normative function of popular religion can serve to reinforce traditional conceptions of gender in addition to fostering class consciousness.

Social transformation is a contradictory process which the changing meanings attached to religious practices in Nicaragua demonstrate. When looking at popular religion as a space of resistance we can see it as equally a site for reinforcing and validating beliefs and practices which may be antithetical to social change. Popular religious practices can reinforce highly dichotomised gender roles at the same time as they build class solidarity and collective forms of identity. Popular religious practices can form the basis of both continuity and change, positing social transformation as a way of defending and preserving an 'authentic' way of life. La Purísima celebrates Nicaraguan identity as derived from a singular devotion to the Virgin Mary. The idea of a unique Nicaraguan culture and way of life was a key aspect of popular mobilisation against US intervention in the 1980s, when the revolutionary project often was represented as a nationalist struggle.

In the 1990s the nationalist sentiments articulated through La Purísima no longer feed so easily into an anti-imperialist discourse, in part because there is no national popular project nor the lived experience of war and economic embargo to prompt this connection. Hence La Purísima's reaffirmation of Nicaraguan national identity is arguably less of a basis for generating change in the 1990s than it was in the 1980s. The extent to which popular religious practices like La Purísima play a role in processes of social transformation is dependent on the wider context in which they are lived. In the 1990s there is less overt politicisation of religious discourses and practices and hence fewer obvious linkages between the events of La Purísima and processes of social change. Yet the meanings attached to popular religious practices are fluid. Popular religious practices may take on new meanings or may serve to generate new values and understandings often in response to wider processes of social transformation. To say that popular religion in Nicaragua, and La Purísima in particular, is no longer a site of social transformation is to ignore the creative and unpredictable aspects of human practice and the discourses through which it is realised.


I would like to thank colleagues at the Universities of Manchester and Birmingham for their careful reading of drafts and useful comments. I would also like to acknowledge the helpful suggestions of the two anonymous reviewers. I am very much in debt to Thelma Flores for the many wonderful discussions in which she shared her perceptive insights into Nicaraguan forms of religious expression. Finally, I would like to thank Professor John Gabriel for his useful support and advice on the theoretical framework of the article.


ALEMAN, Verónica (1993) 'Sexist Laws Scorched', Barricada Internacional, vol. 13, no. 395, March.

ARAGON, Omar Cárdenas (1992) 'El Dogma de La Inmaculada Concepción', Barricada, 5 December.

BAR-ON, T. (1997) 'The Ambiguities of Football, Politics, Culture and Social Transformation in Latin America', Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 4, < cresonline/2/4/2.html>.

BARRICADA, (1992) 'Purísima en La Verde Sonrisa', 6 December.

BELLI, Humberto (1985) Breaking Faith. Crossway Books: Westchester, IL.

BRAVO, Ubeda (1992) 'Piedad Popular' in La Prensa, 19 de agusto.

CRAHAN, Margaret E. (1989) 'Religion and Revolutionary Politics in Nicaragua', in Scott Mainwaring and Alexander Wilde (editors), The Progressive Church in Latin Americ. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN.

DODSON, Michael and Laura NUZZI O'SHAUGHNESSY (1985) 'Religion and Politics' in Thomas Walker (editor) Nicaragua: The First Five Years. Praeger: NY.

ENVIO, (1987) 'Church-State Relations: A Chronology-Part II', vol. 6, no. 78, December.

ENVIO, (1997) April.

FRANCO, Jean (1989) Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico. Verso: London.

GARCIA CANCLINI, Nestor (1992) 'Cultural Reconversion' in George Yúdice, Jean Franco and Ibarra A. Eloisa (1992) 'Nicaragua se Inclinó ante María' La Prensa, 9 December.

GIRARDI, Giulio (1987) Sandinismo, Marxismo, Cristianismo: La Confluencia, 2nd edition. Centro Ecuménico Antonio Valdivieso: Managua, Nicaragua.

HADGIPATERAS, Angela (1997) 'Women's Rights in Nicaragua - Aleman's Fundamentalist Agenda', Central America Report, Winter.

IBARRA A., Eloisa (1992) 'Nicaragua se inclinó ante María', La Prensa, 9 December.

KUPPERS, Gabby (editor.), Compañeras: Voices from the Latin American Women's Movement, Latin America Bureau: London, 1994. LANCASTER, Roger (1988) Thanks to God and the Revolution: Popular Religion and Class Consciousness in the New Nicaragua. Columbia University Press: NY.

LEVI, Lillián (1992) 'Del Grito y la Gritería', Barricada (Gente), 11 December.

LINKOGLE, Stephanie (1996) Gender, Practice and Faith in Nicaragua: Constructing the Popular and Making 'Common Sense'. Avebury, 1996.

MAINWARING, Scott and Alexander WILDE (editors) (1989) The Progressive Church in Latin America. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN.

MOLYNEUX, Maxine (1981) 'Socialist Societies Old and New: Progress towards Women's Emancipation?' Feminist Review, vol. 8, Summer.

MONTENEGRO, Sofía (1992) 'La Gritería: La Otro Cara del Culto a la Inmaculada Concepción', Barricada (Gente), 4 December.

NITLAPáN-ENVIO TEAM(1998) 'Who's Who: A Key to Understanding', Envio, vol. 17, no. 201.

PAZ, Octavio (1961) The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. Grove Press: NY.

QUINTERO M., ARMANDO (1992) 'Traditición Viene desde Tiempos Coloniales: Léon Listo Para Gritería', La Prensa, 5 December.

ROSALDO, Renato (1993) Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Routledge: London.

ROWE, William and SCHELLING, Vivian (1991) Memory and Modernity: Popular Culture in Latin America. Verso: London.

STANLEY, Liz and WISE, Sue (1993) Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and Epistemology. Routledge: London.

STEPHENS, Beth (1990) 'Developing a Legal System Graples with an Ancient Problem: Rape in Nicaragua' in Women's Rights Law Reporter, vol. 12, no. 2.

WARNER, Marina (1985) Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. Picador: London.

WILLIAMS, Peter (1989) Popular Religion in America: Symbolic Change and the Modernization Process in Historical Perspective. University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago.

YUVAL-DAVIS, Nira (1997) 'Ethnicity, Gender Relations and Multiculturalism' in Pnina Werbner and Tariq Modood (editors) Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi- Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism. London: Zed Books.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998