Exploding bulls and dancing virgins own the streets of Leon

The first thing I heard and realized when I arrived in León is that it is the “oven of Nicaragua.” Not only does the heat leave you constantly dripping with sweat—you have to plunk yourself directly in front of an arthritic fan to find any respite—but it is also an oven for action and liveliness.

My girlfriend and I had been relaxing in front of the Iglesia La Merced for the evening, sucking on bags of chilled Coca-Cola and watching the world go by. The sun had set and an unnatural chill came over the plaza.

Then the church bells rang for eight o’clock and the screams of teenage girls almost drowned out the noise from the exploding fireworks. Meters away the rockets were being sent skywards with impatience as the organizers seemed to be emptying their stock as quickly as possible. Some of the Léoneses ran for cover around the perimeter of the plaza while others just stared skywards and enjoyed the spectacle. The street vendors refused the let up and carried on circling and hollering about their goods.

The plaza had been getting busy all day. As the fireworks roared away, there were several hundred people gathered. Then another high-pitch scream deafened the plaza and a great wave of bodies parted to the right and to the left. Down the middle came an enflamed figure, a bundle of sparks and fire, running full pelt in our direction.

I grabbed my girlfriend’s hand and tried to jump away from its path. Fireworks leapt across the plaza and, amid the flames, I could make out the outline of a person and a contraption on his shoulders.

It was one of the ‘toro encuetados’ I had read briefly about. I have been unable to discover their meaning and the locals I asked seemed nonplussed, but in essence someone dons a wooden armature that is packed with fireworks. The contraption is then lit ablaze, and the person pretends to be a bull by tearing through the crowds. Some expats told me they stay away because it’s dangerous; as we ran away from the flaming bull, I noticed there weren’t many other foreigners partaking in the dangerous fun. 

After our close encounter with the flaming beast, we were left breathing heavily, but were soon on the run again as another toro was lit and chased into the plaza from the opposite side. In a joyous panic, I knocked over a street vendor’s basket of toffee apples that had been balanced in his head; he seemed confused as to why I would run from the fireworks.

Two more bulls came and went. Finally we joined the panic-stricken Léonese teenagers in taking a moment to catch our breaths. So why on earth were men running around with fireworks inches away from their faces and why had hundreds of locals flocked to outside the church? Well, it was the night before the celebrations for the “La Virgen de la Merced” (the Virgin of Mercy), an important day for the people of León. The Catholic figure serves as the patron saint of León and is celebrated each year on Sept. 24.

Have Mercy: The Virgin of La Merced parades through the streets of León (photo/ David Hutt)

My guidebook only made a brief reference to this celebration, stating that the day is a rather solemn one for the catholic population of León, and that the night before is more lively. Beyond that I had no real idea of what to expect before I picked up a copy of the El Nuevo Dairio that morning, which explained it all.

The event was officially announced in 1912 by the Bishop of Nicaragua, Simeon Pereria, however the tradition went back a long way before then. Spanish missionaries brought over the “image,” or the figure in lay speak, in 1792. In the two and a half centuries that it existed in León, the image has remained pretty much intact.

It was even rescued from the church fire by a passerby who was said he was “guided by faith.” One source states that the rescuer was in fact a black slave who had to break the protective glass and save the image with his bloody hands. For this heroic act he was awarded his freedom.  Over time the Virgin of la Merced has become the patron saint of León and is said to be the protector of the city during times of catastrophe.

So one hundred years after the official announcement of the day for the Virgin, the people of León gather to parade the statue around the streets followed by marching bands of local youths. On the 24th, the parade circles more than 40 blocks of the city and is joined by throngs of more sombre bands, marching soldiers and  robed religious individuals.

It is certainly a special event. But to one Catholic faithful, Lydia Ortiz, the parade is worth quite a lot. Over the past 40 years Mrs. Ortiz has forked out almost $10,000 of her own money to produce the clothing worn by the Virgin statues. I say statues because there are two; one that stays inside the church and one that is taken out to parade around town. The costumes are made in Spain in a venerated location that specializes in making religious dress. Over the years, the rips and tears have been mended by Leon’s own tailors.   

So special is the Virgin to the people of León that in February of this year it was named a “Historical and Cultural Heritage of the Nation.”

David Hutt is a freelance writer from London, UK, who will be on the trail of Latin America during the next year and will be working as a tour guide in León, Nicaragua. Follow his travels and misadventures on his blog, and follow him on twitter @davidhutt1990