Visiting El Niño Compadrito is one of my favorite things we’ve done on this trip so far. According to legend, El Niño is a mummified boy that was found in a wall, who has the power to grant wishes. After reading a few creepy articles about El Niño, I expected something similar to witchcraft. I was surprised that we would even be able to visit El Niño, because it seemed to be a cult type of situation that would be unwelcoming to outsiders (especially gringo nonbelievers).
However, when I got there, it was much more reminiscent of Catholicism than witchcraft. El Niño was wearing the same type of ornate robe thing that the Pope wears and a tall crown. The whole scene was similar to the old churches we visited—there was lots of gold details on El Niño’s clothing and surroundings, ornately carved wood on the box he was in, and many flowers. On the walls hung Catholic-seeming messages and images. There were snacks, toys and other gifts to El Niño filling the room. In order to see El Niño, we had to wait in line while people knelt to pray. In the room next door, people burned candles of various colors and prayed to El Niño. As we were leaving, we saw a woman carrying in her sick child, presumably to pray to El Niño for his health. It was clear that people fervently believed in his power. Overall, El Niño was treated like a saint.
It shocked me to see this because it was a clear example of idolatry. Peru is an extremely Catholic country, so it amazed me that the people there praying were able to reconcile El Niño with their faith. I think this may be due in part to the fact that Catholicism isn’t the original religion of this region. The Incans were pagans who accepted the various gods that were revered by the groups of people that were added to the Incan Empire as it expanded. Accepting El Niño as another deity or near-deity fits with this tradition and fits with the fact that other remnants of Incan culture are still visible in modern Cusco. Quechua is still apparent in the street names, and many people speak the language. Many people, especially women, still dress in the traditional manner, with long braids and colorful skirts. Many of the people visiting El Niño were women in traditional dress, and a lot of them were older, although some younger women were present as well.
The most amazing part of all of this was that El Niño is clearly not even a mummified human. His skull is too small to be even a newborn baby, and he has teeth, which babies do not have. His facial structure, especially in the nose area, is also non-human. He is certainly a small mummified monkey, not a human boy. I was just amazed that the people there truly believe he is a child. It really speaks to their faith, and also their lack of education in human anatomy.