The image of the Immaculate Conception of Mary for which Luis Flores builds an altar each year no longer dons its traditional crown.
The young Nicaraguan removed the crown following the death of his grandmother, Maria Mejia, from whom he inherited the love for their homeland’s tradition.
Since he was a child, Flores would help his grandmother adorn an altar to honor Nicaragua’s patron saint for an annual religious celebration known as La Gritería. So when his grandmother died, he placed the Virgin’s crown on her coffin.
“It was my special gift to her for passing on this love for traditions, for always supporting me and being at my side as we erected the altar,” Flores said.
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La Gritería is a big deal for the family, which began sharing the tradition with the community 17 years ago with an event at a shopping strip on Southwest Flagler Street and 108th Avenue in Sweetwater, where the family owns the Madroños Restaurant and an adjacent grocery store, La Pulpería.
The custom of erecting altars, singing to the Virgin and distributing food and toys to children was established locally in the late 1970s, when the first wave of Nicaraguan exiles settled in South Florida. The altars are artistic representations that include flowers, candles, lights, colored fabrics and incense. In the ’80s, contests were held to select the most beautiful altar in an effort to promote the tradition.
As the Nicaraguan community started adapting to its new home, the celebration developed new characteristics. While in Nicaragua the 7th of December is a national holiday and elaborate altars are displayed at churches and almost all public spaces, in Miami-Dade the tradition has taken on a mobile flair.
Altars are erected on the back of cars and pickups, inside vans and in U-Haul moving trucks for transport to the parking lots of Catholic churches and shopping centers, where La Gritería events are organized.
The most popular meeting spot is in Sweetwater, known as Little Managua because of its high number of Nicaraguan residents. For the past three years, Sweetwater’s municipal government has allowed the Community Performing Arts organization to close off a section of 107th Avenue for the celebration. That event was held Saturday.
But smaller celebrations are also being held in Hialeah, Little Havana and Kendall on Sunday and Monday.
Members of the public walk in procession from altar to altar voicing the emblematic cry of “Who causes so much joy?” Those who created the altars respond: “The Conception of Mary!” Later, gifts, food and drinks are handed out to all attendees.
“My altars are a production. I become a little crazy, like my family says,” Flores, 36, said, joking about his elaborate altars, which require a full day’s work to be set up. “I select each detail cautiously; it’s my way of expressing my spirituality and my love and devotion towards the Virgin.”
Even so, Flores said that since the first year he saw some devotees show up with altars set up in the trunk of their cars, he liked the simplicity and creativity displayed with the “mobile altars.”
“It was something so impressive, all of a sudden, the next year, three or four vehicles showed up [with the mobile altars] and later it was 10. Last time we had the event, I counted 30,” said Flores. “They’re very creative and beautiful. Many people do it because they’re fulfilling a promise they made to the Virgin and it’s their way of expressing their devotion.”
In Sweetwater, two of the most popular altars are the ones created by Violeta Ocampo, placed in front of the Los Ranchos restaurant, on West Flagler Street and 107th Avenue; and the one belonging to the Farmacia 2224, in the Centro Comercial Managua shopping center, on Flagler and Southwest 104th Avenue.
The Ortega family, owners of the drugstore Farmacia 2224, has organized a Purísima gathering for the past 25 years. Each year, they welcome about 1,000 people, who participate in the celebration, and enjoy folkloric dances and music by Eduardo “Guayo” Gonzalez, a Nicaraguan man who in 1977 won the grand prize in an international song festival known as OTI.
“We have the prettiest altar,” Zura Ortega, co-owner of the pharmacy, said while she showed off a photograph of the altar in 2014. The altar in the picture has a backdrop of white and yellow curtains, a string of lights, and many cases full of roses surrounding the image of the Virgin.
“We love for people to enjoy themselves and for each person to take home a gift,” she said. “It’s our way of honoring the Virgin and also the loyalty of our customers.”
IF YOU GO
On Sunday, beginning at 6 p.m., Farmacia 2224 will hold its celebration at the Centro Comercial Managua shopping center, on West Flagler Street and Southwest 104th Avenue, in Sweetwater.
Another event will be held at 6 p.m. Monday in front of the Los Ranchos restaurant, on West Flagler Street and Southwest 107th Avenue.
Both events are open to the public but have limited capacity.