Perhaps I have been slack of late as my forays into as yet unknown sectors of Bogotá have dropped off a little, but I am happy to say that we took full advantage of the long-weekend here to explore a little of the Barrio 20 de Julio. Named after Colombia’s cry for independence, the Barrio 20 de Julio is something of an emblematic district for Bogotanos, principally due to the market and indeed the Divino Niño Jesús found in the huge church at one end of the main plaza.
Waze was applied and being a Sunday, so many of the city’s roads were closed for the ciclovía, we enjoyed the App’s scenic route through the Candelaria from Chapinero, crossing Las Cruces and the Calle de los Comuneros before winding our way over some foothills and into the Barrio 20 de Julio.
The ubiquitous spectacle of stray dogs idling alongside poker-drinking locals and cracked sidewalks of hastily installed cement quickly gave way to a greater urgency, something which you can completely associate with the bustle of a market day in any city or town. The throngs moved in every direction, circling as they viewed the wares on sale outside of the 20 de Julio marketplace, the items on sale in the street leading away towards the plaza and in the direction of the Avenida 1 de Mayo. You can get your hands on anything here from wonderfully ripe fruit to discarded rubber gloves and bottles of water to have blessed in the parish.
Rounding the corner into the plaza from the market reveals the real reason to visit. Here you can see the faithful from all social strata in Bogotá coming to pay their respects to the Divino Niño Jesús and ask favours of this tiny statue. In the Plaza before the church there’s a mass underway, and simultaneously, there’s a mass taking place in the packed central church and in a huge glass ceilinged auditorium alongside the church there’s another mass in process. Towards the back of the church is the chapel where the Divino Niño Jesús is located and this space is sought after by people paying their respects.
So, I have read a little about the importance of this Divino Niño in the 20 de Julio and while he represents something truly iconic to Colombians, Catholics and a great number of other countries – including the original location in Prague – and I am overwhelmed. This does not happen often. With my son in my arms, I sit and watch a steady flow of the pious entering, looking for a space at a pew, a space on the benches around the walls, or appropriate standing space and either reciting a well-known prayer known by heart or reading from a printed one procured outside. What are they asking for? Riches, health, help with a business? I cannot be sure.
Forgive me for suggesting it, but there is a certain fetishism to this effigy and I don’t mean this pejoratively. What I mean is that the people in attendance and the hundreds more who will descend on this side chapel today, really truly and in an unrepentant fashion are focusing their desires on something that is present here. One can feel it in the ambiance of the place. It’s definitely something more than the a simple sunday mass. There’s a weight of history, a weight of belief and a weight of expectation. I’m told that around 50,000 people come on a Sunday, that’s a huge amount.
So what is the 20 de Julio really like? To respond directly to this question would be to do disservice to various barrios of Lima, Quito and La Paz by overlooking their particular attributes and attractions. But, with the stripped brick constructions, plastic tables out front of most locales, the marketplace peddling everything, smells of chicken broaster and juicer repair shops, on the surface this could be any of the aforementioned cities. But of course it’s not Lima and neither is it Quito, but it represents an unseen Bogotá to those of us confined to the Candelaria and further north. Here, you don’t see other gringos and precious few monos. Here, I was taller than usual. Here, the lady at the herbal store couldn’t care less if she answered my questions or not and it was refreshing. I was less than an oddity, it was not as if I was unwelcome, it was more like being a novelty individual who was blocking a potential sale to her regular clientele. This is a barrio, it’s business as usual and a gringo observing life in the 20 de Julio is an interference.