Cheap booze & punitive penises: pueblos blancos honor their patron saints

SAN JUAN DE ORIENTE & DIRIA—In the small towns lining the base of Nicaragua’s Mombacho Volcano, men young and old relentlessly lash one other with sticks and petrified bull penises in the celebration of their patron saints.

Going at it (photo/ Claire Luke)

The annual festivities—called fiestas patronales—are celebrated during the last week of June in honor of Saint Peter, the patron saint of Diria, and Saint John the Baptist, of Jan Juan de Oriente.

For three days, residents dance and march to drumbeats and trumpets in processions that snake through the towns’ streets, carrying religious statues that sway to the beat of the music. The processions go door to door, stopping at each house to collect gifts of fruit, candles, cash, drinks and sweets in offering to the saints.

But the flogging matches between men have become the highlight of the celebrations, as contenders revel in the thrill of beating one another to a swollen mess.

While the beatings once had strict Biblical implications, the increasingly violent nature of this annual blood sport—one where participants occasionally lose an eye or ear, or get beaten to the point where they are unrecognizable to their mothers—has left some folks concerned.

“This used to be an act of repentance where the hitting represented a purification of the spirit and body, but it’s changed into a celebration of machismo and drunken debauchery,” historian Ronald Bendaña laments from his rocking chair, as he watches the bands of wiener wielding men process through Diria’s streets.

Ready for battle (photo/ Claire Luke)

“In the past, the celebration was a religious act of faith. People asked for forgiveness and everything was for the saint, but now it’s only about drinking, drugs and fun,” Bendaña says.

In San Juan de Oriente, a town famous for its ceramics and artisans, Monce Darling, 18, points to her friend who is sporting bright red lash marks all along his back, with a bloody arm and black-and-blue eye to boot.

“It’s so violent,” she says, standing next to her popcorn stand and serving the many observers gathered in the bleachers to watch the beatings in front of the town’s Catholic church. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a little kid—you can still fight. I don’t like it.”

Darling’s friend, Eddyson Vasquez, 14, proudly displays his battle scars. Asked what he thinks of the experience, Vasquez mumbles a few drunken and incoherent words, before stumbling away, tailed by a strong stench of rum.

Though no one in the town seems to know exactly why petrified bull penises are used in the celebration (other than the boilerplate answer “tradition”), the phallic whips seem to greatly invigorate the men, who alternate between jumping around and shouting battle cries, and then pairing off for a penis fight.

Battle scars (photo/ Claire Luke)

Ramon Vega, who owns a pulperia in Diria, says the centuries-old practice is interesting because it combines tradition from three cultures.

“It has components of African, Spanish and indigenous cultures, which makes it more interesting,” he says as he hands out cokes and beers to a group of soldiers who came to march in the band.

“It’s certainly a unique celebration that you won’t find anywhere else in Nicaragua, or the world.”

And the bulls are thankful for that.

  • daddy-yo

    That “the beatings once had strict Biblical implications” leaves one to wonder. Dueling with desiccated bull penises? I missed that part in the scriptures.

    Editor: I would question the use of the adjective ‘petrified’, for if they actually turned a bovine phallus to stone, cracked skulls would inevitably result. Although the modifier does tie well to the patron St. Peter – the ‘rock’ (petros) upon which JC built his church.

  • mike

    Properly promoted, maybe with a tie-in to both professional wrestling and professional writing in the US, this could turn into something very big — The Sun Also Rises At 11 Degrees N. Lat.

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  • Alvan Dazbohrk

    I have always thought that these kind of celebrations where there’s some sort of violence involved must be banned. Those hardened bull’s penises can cause quite some damage in the hands of drunken men. There’s nothing to be proud of when it comes to this kind of violence, even when it’s in the name of religion and their so called heritage.

  • Kelvin

    Alvan, we chase cheese down hills, chase logs as well, run with bulls, love boxing, MMA? come on Alvan, lets live a little.

    La Virgen del Camen is coming up, a little craziness on the ocean in the name of religion…only fighting is over a bag of chicha thrown by the Padre! It could be a lot worse. Come to SJdS on the 16th of July and jump on boat.

  • Kelvin

    Sorry, Carmen, La Virgen del Carmen