What? Que horror! (How horrible!) Well, it’s true IF the saint made the trip from Europe. It seems that the European Santa Librada was one of nine girls, all born on the same day, to the wife of a King of Portugal back in the 14th or 15th century or so.
If you ask me, the biggest miracle in Librada’s life was that her father allowed her to live in a time when TWINS were considered unlucky and the second born was still often tossed on the hillside as a wolf-snack. Here we have nonuplets, a rarity even now, truly scary to the superstitious then. Not to mention that she and her eight sisters (who all lived!) were GIRLS. Of course, girls were far more useful to a king than to a peasant, as they could be used to cement alliances and strengthen the realm. So she and the sibs were lucky there, as well.
In any case, all nine made it to maidenhood, at which point their father rubbed his hands together and set about locating hubbies for them, with intent to solidify his power. Unfortunately for him, Librada and some of the others had discovered Christianity and decided on the holy virgin career path. So when daddy informed Librada that she was about to become the bride of a Sicilian king who was not just a MAN (eww), but a PAGAN MAN (eww, eww, eww, right?), she was horrified and prayed for deliverance.
Now you should always be careful what you ask for. Librada’s prayer was answered. When the Sicilian dropped by to check her out, the story goes that she suddenly developed not just 5 o’clock shadow, but a full, long, black beard. The appalled Sicilian Majesty instantly excused himself – something about needing to rush home and decapitate the ambassador who had recommended this chit as a bride – and Librada’s daddy was furious.
How he decided it was her own doing is a really good question. Unless maybe, in the best virgin martyr tradition, Librada had rolled her eyes heavenward, crossed her dainty hands upon her breast – below the beard, of course – and declaimed to the world, “I cannot tell a lie. I took hormones.”
What else could a father and a king do in the face of such defiance? He had her crucified, naturally.
Although technically she only ever had a fiance, Santa Librada immediately became the patron saint of women wanting to escape difficult marriages and, as her story progressed into history, of – are you ready? – prostitutes and transgender folk, as well as criminals fleeing the law. Go figure.
The tale of how she defied her father and became one of the first independent women (even if it did end badly for her, she did it, what a woman) spread across Europe and she was assigned half a dozen or more heroic names – Wilgefortis (from the Latin for Strong Virgin) in Germany, Uncumber (Cut Free) in Britain, Liberata, and others. None of these names were actual names, but all are descriptive of breaking free. She became symbolic of independence. Her fame spread to the southern half of the New World, and she represented Libertad (liberty) itself in Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, and possibly elsewhere.
So how did she get to Las Tablas, Panama where she has a church famous for its gold altar, and a town famous for both Carnaval and the wild fiesta they throw on her feast day?
One story has it that a couple of the faithful who just happened to be politicos from elsewhere in Panama were fleeing for their lives with a statue of Santa Librada as part of their luggage. Their ship was wrecked more or less where Mensabe is now, but their persons, clinging insistently to the the statue, were rescued, using tablas (boards) from their sunk ship. Those rescued were certain they had been saved by the saint herself, vowed to install her statue in the first church they came to, and did. But the saint had other ideas, as usual.
The story also says that same ship was the source of the tablas (boards) used to build the first structures of Las Tablas. Santa Librada kept appearing to folks in the area and asking to be moved to a church of her own in Las Tablas, where the tablas that floated the statue of her miraculous self ashore had been placed .
And after a while, she was.
There’s another story, as well. This local version, told to me by a Las Tablas neighbor, has Santa Librada and her eight sisters being born in what is now Guarare some time between the late 1600’s and early 1800’s. In this version, daddy was not a king, but extremely well-off and highly placed, a Don. When he tried to marry her off to some other Don, she objected and he crucified her.
I haven’t more details on this version than that, except that the local ladies have great reverence for her, and regularly ask for help with both their men and childbirth. Men also ask for help with various health issues. The custom has been to make offerings of jewelry, as that was the customary offering to the lady of one’s Don. From those who wish a miracle for a foot, a leg, an arm, a hand, etc., she is given gold charms made in that shape. From her not so well-off supplicants with needs less physically specific, Santa Librada has received rings and bracelets. Gifts from the more wealthy, particularly from anxious wives and pregnant women, drape her statue in the form of the traditional pure gold chains worn in the Pollera (the national costume). So many chains and so much gold has been offered that the priests have been forced to acquire a bank vault just to store them, although the statue still glitters behind the iron picket fence that surrounds her shrine in the church. But with gold at its current price, the probability is great that these are just copies.
On her feast day, Santa Librada wears the real thing as she is carried in procession. She also wears real hair, as local women will have their long hair cut off and specially prepared for the statue to wear. The procession is at night, and in years gone by was a blaze of candles. Supplicants for her favor walked in from as far away as Chitre, Tonosi, Pedasi and Macaracas to demonstrate their faith as they followed the statue borne aloft by strong men.
After the procession, there are parties, about which no more shall be said, except that there is dancing. Lots and lots of dancing.
Anyone in town will tell you that Santa Librada constantly works miracles for her believers. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church decided in 1969 that hers was a loose canon, that she probably didn’t exist and the whole story was based on another statue of the crucified Christ in a beard and long (lady-like) robe. The Church withdrew their approval of her sainthood and de-canonized her. It probably didn’t help Santa Librada’s cause with the Church that her South American fan base had become heavily weighted with the military and she was included in so many patriotic, revolutionary sorts of festivities, processions and parades.
So now Santa Librada is not an official saint, but that means nothing to the people here in Las Tablas, for they love her dearly.
Santa Librada’s colors are red and blue and all year, but especially in the weeks before her saint’s day on July 20, all throughout Las Tablas you will see flags and banners of red and blue.
A very scholarly account of her following can be found at
Revista Brasileira de História.