*Translated from Oscar Garcia’s article by Ryan Bonfanti
Fervent religious attachment is a characteristic feature of Cuencan society. Religion played an important role in the historic development of the city and has formed a part of the Cuecano identity. You can see the religious cultural heritage reflected primarily in the lifestyles of our people. From the founding of the city, on the 12th of April, 1557, by General Gil Ramírez Dávalos, the Spanish Crown, in their effort to conquer, imposed Catholicism onto the indigenous population. According to the Spanish, they gave the indigenous the gift of civilization; therefore, religion in the new world was seen more as an instrument of Spanish authority. However, with the passing of years, the conquistador’s imposed religion has been more and more embraced by Cuenca’s faithful.
Since the conquest, they have erected churches and monasteries that represent the faith of the people. In the historic center of the city, you can visit more than 10 churches, not counting the surrounding neighborhood parishes. We can see the religious attachment reflected even more in the city’s cardinal points, which are each marked by churches: to the north, Cristo Rey, to the south, La Virgen de Bronce, to the east, San Blas, and to the west, San Sebastián. In colonial times, the city limits were also demarcated by religious symbols—in this case, with crosses that represented the conquistadores. In addition, Cuenca is the only city in the world to possess two cathedrals—the old cathedral, constructed in 1560, and the new cathedral—construction on it beginning in 1885. With respect to the new cathedral, revered bishop Miguel de León said that the cathedral would be “as large and as great as the faith” of the Cuencanos.
Each church and religious monument represents the faith of our people; however we can not pass over the architectural beauty that has also been of great admiration. Renowned Cuencano artists like Gaspar Sangurima have left their hallmark in artistic works that transcend their religious themes or overtones. Cuenca is a city with great religious artistic wealth, of which it has formed a part of our historical-cultural heritage.
This historical-cultural religious heritage manifests itself in the celebrations and festivals that play themselves out throughout the year—el Pase del Niños Viajero, el Corpus Christi (or Semana Santa), among others. Some devotees take it as the best pretext for taking a deserved rest, others for reflecting upon their acts.
Religion has molded the streets and avenues of Cuenca. This is evidenced in the city’s architecture, in its artistic heritage, like we’ve mentioned, and in the popular festivities that adorn it. However, the strongest impact that Catholicism has had has been on the Cuencanos.
Some people brand us “curuchupas,” which means that we show great attachment to the Catholic Church, and this is not very far from the truth.
One only need to walk amongst the streets of Cuenca to be able to perceive and realize the religiosity of the Cuencanos—the crosses on the colonial and republican houses; when someone crosses him or herself while passing by a church; or the religious figurine hanging from the rearview mirror of some taxi driver; they all show the faith of our people.
These religious precepts and conceptions have been passed from one generation to the next. Still, I remember when my mom scolded me because I wasn’t pleased by the idea of going to mass every Sunday or how I was annoyed in participating in the catechisms for first communion and confirmation. I didn’t understand them, nor was I incredibly interested in these processes.
The power of Catholicism has been present from the times of the Spanish conquest. In that time of peak religiosity, it was common that the wealthiest families gave land and buildings to the church in order to reserve their seat in heaven. It was also worthy of applause that a daughter took a life of solitude in service to the church, or that a son took up the priesthood.
But nowadays, this same level of religious fanaticism is not as evident. And yet, we still cling to it. In our society, we usually act and even judge based upon on our religious precepts. For example, it’s frowned upon by the church, and by the families of women especially, to move out of the family’s home before having gotten married—worse still if an unexpected pregnancy occurs.
The Cuencana society is conservative and traditionalist, however it’s one of the cities in our country with the highest-rate of alcohol consumption, especially among the youth.
Where are the ethical morals once instilled by religion?
Perhaps we are a society that only wants to appear that way.
Memories come to my mind of those festivities where we used to celebrate the christening or the first communion of another Christian added to the fold. There were guests, wearing their finest, eating and drinking the night away. Surely, soon enough, the godfather, father, or uncle would get so drunkenly loopy, few would remember the honoree. The same happens in popular religious festivals, where some people wait, hoping for the end of mass, their minds already in the parties that will follow, time with their friends afterward.
“Take and eat all that he gives you.”
This is a phrase Cuencanos know to take quite literally, taking and eating and enjoying what is in front of them.
From the nuclear family, we have instilled upon ourselves this religious attachment, which influences our way of life. It even shows in our way of talking; it is very common to hear in our daily life phrases like, “Dios mío santo,” “Ay mi Dios,” o “Que Dios le bendiga,” etc. And though we might not repeat these phrases everyday, they exist in small prayers and in reference to religious figures. These phrases have always been present. Like this, religion has been involved in our daily lives, whether for good or bad. Everyone has their saint to whom they usually offer a popular pray or two. The problem that afflicts you is not important—you will always have a saint to console you.
In every prayer or whispered dream, some of us offer up our wishes or our desires, others look for solace from their pains; consequently, the church offers an answer: in us is the faith and the fight for the power to continue. In this context, Cuenca has emerged proud and prosperous in the eyes of our own and those not from here, without letting ourselves be undone by the passing of time. That faith and fight characterize us Cuencanos as we exhibit it before the world, with our impressive religious buildings, which are symbols of our city.
Nevertheless, it is necessary that we understand ourselves, us Cuencanos, through our religious history, in particular that we know it and appreciate it. The devotion of the people for the Catholic faith has carved the spaces of Cuenca. If we were to ask a Guayaquileño or Lojano what, to them, represented Cuenca in one image, it would almost certainly be the cathedral.
Our religious past is rooted in the everyday life of the city, from our streets to our mannerisms of speech.
In the city’s chapels you can see the petitions and prayers of the people, pleads for the protection of a loved one—placing a photo as a symbol. Others still light candles, which you can buy in front of the cathedrals every day. Each religious act feeds the faith and our city moves forward.
The city of Cuenca is in possession of a great wealth of architecture which characterizes our culture. It has been formed with the hand of our brothers, who, through the years, have propelled the city to the forefront. The teachings and religious beliefs that have undoubtedly influenced our way of life have certainly managed to find fertile ground, to take seed, to flower and to grow into the city that you now see.