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Looking Back

In Quiapo, nothing is impossible

/ 05:07 AM January 09, 2019

On my way to Makati Medical Center Monday night, I caught a sight that made me smile. In the din of rush-hour traffic, when tempers rise with the heat and exhaust fumes, I saw a “mini-me” image of the Nazareno de Quiapo on top of a tricycle. Christ was kneeling from the weight of his cross, in a white ruffled gown, patiently waiting like everyone else for the stoplight on Buendia and Pasong Tamo to turn green.

The sight provided a welcome distraction from the traffic, and while it looked like it would cause traffic or delay the cars behind and ahead of it, nobody dared honk at the Nazareno de Quiapo. When the light turned, everyone made way for the Señor Nazareno to pass unimpeded to its destination.

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All roads lead to Quiapo today, Jan. 9, the Feast of the Black Nazarene. A holiday is declared in the jaded capital city, more for practical than religious reasons, since vehicular traffic will not move along the route the image will take today, with all streets choked with devotees and the curious. This dark, ancient image of Mexican origin makes its annual trip outside its sanctuary in Quiapo to the Luneta and back, a short distance that takes many hours. I have always marveled at the crush of people on Jan. 9, because the practical side of me thinks there are 364 other days of the year when one can visit and venerate the image comfortably. Sacrifice does have its rewards.

On trips to Quiapo outside the ferial days, I have always been fascinated by the religious fervor and devotion that occurs inside, and the commerce and superstition that unfolds outside. Stalls sell everything from replicas of the Nazareno, novenas, prayer books, rosaries, candles, religious medals and other Catholic sacramentals to brass amulets or anting-anting of folk design, with mysterious letters that read out ancient incantations and spells in a mix of pig Latin and Filipino.

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There is an amulet of protection for any form of trouble, and my all-time favorite is that of the Santo Niño or child Jesus with an erect penis that, according to some, is used either for fertility or virility. I buy these as welcome or going-away presents for foreign diplomats, who must see in this simple image the many parodies and contradictions of Philippine life and history.

Aside from anting-anting, there is a wide assortment of herbs and oils for various uses — to conceive, to have an easy delivery, or even to abort an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. There are massage oils, oils for healing various ailments, and oils to bewitch, to cause or cast out love. There are oils and herbs to heal or harm. Nothing, it seems, is impossible in Quiapo. You can sit on a stool and have your palms or cards read; you can also pay for someone to pray a rosary or novena for you if you don’t have the time or inclination to do so. One looks at all the business and busyness of Quiapo and wonders when things started to be this way.

There were no Quiapo stalls to buy amulets from during the Philippine Revolution or World War II; these had to be had from banana hearts that opened in the dead of night, or from those who forged the metal and gave them power during Semana Santa. Of our heroes, Rizal did not need an amulet as his hands could give sight to the blind. Emilio Aguinaldo was said to have a friendly kapre in one of the trees in his Kawit home who warned him of danger or protected him in battle. There is a reference to Andres Bonifacio handing out small pieces of black cloth to Katipuneros as amulets, these allegedly being pieces cut from the vestments of the martyrs of 1872, Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora. Closer to our times, there is the rumor that revolutionary Fr. Gregorio Aglipay embedded a splinter of magic wood on the back of Ferdinand Marcos that kept him safe from all harm during World War II and in all his years in politics.

Time to visit Quiapo again, after Jan. 9, when the vendors have returned to their stalls to sell good fortune for 2019. Politics, the economy, the state of the country and the world — all these may be unpredictable, but, believe it or not, Quiapo is a place where one can find hope for free, or for a fee.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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