“Procession” is the term we hear most often in relation to the Jan. 9 Black Nazarene crowds that surge through Quiapo, but it’s a term I’ve always felt to be inadequate. A procession is solemn and somber, not quite what we see in Quiapo.
An older term that is used to refer to the Nazarene “procession” is “traslacion,” which in Spanish means moving something from one place to another. The term offers a more accurate description of what we see in Quiapo, as the Black Nazarene image makes its way through the sea of humanity. The term is also used for the image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia when it is transferred from its shrine to the Naga Cathedral, to mark the beginning of several days of festivities and religious devotions.
The online Spanish dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy (www.rae.es) defines traslacion both as moving something as well as translation. This connection with translation intrigued me and I went on to the Online Etymological Dictionary (www.etymoline.org), a massive compendium devoted to the origins and evolution of English words, and was surprised to find that “translation” had an original 14th-century meaning—”removal of a saint’s body or relics to a new place”—besides the more common definition that we know today, which is “rendering of a text from one language to another.”
The two definitions are not that far off because linguistic translation is, after all, the transporting of words from one language to another. But these two definitions of the Spanish traslacion and the English translation did get me thinking of how our religious “processions” involve both as a ritual transferring of sacred images or objects, as well as a way of translating religious teachings, meaning making them more concrete for the faithful.
The Spaniards, while preaching monotheism, introduced many religious images including numerous representations and variations of Jesus and Mary. These images allowed more localized and focused devotions built around particular patron saints or figures. Together with the images came religious indoctrination, including concepts that one can bargain and negotiate with God, Mary and the saints for favors. The religious images were important, brought out in a traslacion during feast days, as well as during disease outbreaks, droughts and other disasters. Failure to hold the traslacion and other religious activities were believed to risk gaba or divine wrath and punishment. It is not surprising that devotees are always looking for signs and omens during the Black Nazarene traslacion.
The original Black Nazarene came to the Philippines from Mexico, said to have first been enshrined in Intramuros and then moved, presumably in a festive traslacion, to Quiapo. There are disputes over the exact history of the image, with some accounts suggesting that the Black Nazarene came directly to Quiapo, but what’s more important is that the image (and its replicas) have been moving around, and that once a year, millions of Filipinos participate in one grand traslacion.
For the missionaries, the traslacion was street theater for religious indoctrination. The Black Nazarene traslacion reenacts Christ’s suffering, one which is redeeming and, by extension, healing. Because participation in the traslacion is difficult, even risky, devotees look at their participation not just as a profession of faith but also as a way of gaining or returning a favor, expressed in the panata or vow.
Many devotees are unaware that the Black Nazarene image moving around on Jan. 9 is a composite, with the head and upper limbs only replicas. But that doesn’t matter precisely because the goal of a traslacion is to allow devotees a glimpse of the sacred object. The more privileged get close to, and even touch, the image. There is, too, the possibility of bringing home part of the image, through handkerchiefs and towels thrown to the anda or carriage, and rubbed on the image.
There are still other aspects of transference involved in these rituals. Participation in the traslacion is important for families, so we see here a transfer of religious traditions from one generation to another. This is certainly happening with the Black Nazarene devotions.
Lost in translation
The Spaniards actually introduced a global traslacion. Our Lady of Peñafrancia is a prime example of a global traslacion, the devotions brought over by a Spanish government official from Peñafrancia in Spain to Manila, then to Naga, with a figure that is now venerated not just in Naga but throughout the Bicol region and beyond. Similarly, the Black Nazarene has devotees from all over the Philippines, many of whom travel to Quiapo on Jan. 9.
The Spaniards probably did not anticipate that the traslacion would take on many secular functions, especially around gender. The traslaciones are often predominantly male, reinforcing ideas that only men can take on strong physical challenges such as transporting the image. There are variations in the masculinities involved—in the Peñafrancia devotions, men are more like sons, protective of Ina (or Mother), while the Black Nazarene devotions are more testosterone-driven, with men emulating the Nazarene in endurance but also competing with each other in terms of prowess, of getting to the anda and the image.
The traslaciones, like so many of our religious rituals, are in constant flux. There are tensions between incorporating traditions (such as the resistance to a change in the Black Nazarene traslacion route) as well as accommodations to the changing times (for example, using stronger solid tires for the carriage this year). Another significant change that has been moving in through the years is the gradual acceptance of participation of not exactly macho males, and women.
In recent years, television has reconfigured the Black Nazarene traslacion, transporting the Quiapo devotions into homes throughout the country, as well as homes of overseas Filipinos watching through satellite television.
When I’m asked to comment on the Quiapo devotions, I’m often at a loss, almost as if these represent a different world, speaking a different language that cannot be translated. Today, the traslaciones are eclectic mixtures of the old and the new, the familiar and the alien, animism and Catholicism, the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular, including the appearance of opportunistic politicians hoping to gain publicity and name recognition for the coming elections. As with linguistic translations, there’s always something lost, maybe even betrayed, in the process of transporting images and messages. I can confidently predict that the more uncertain and difficult the times are, the more important these traslaciones become, open to more interpretations and reinterpretations by the faithful.
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