San Juan’s shame | Inquirer Opinion
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San Juan’s shame

IF CURSES could work as prayers the city of San Juan in Metro Manila will be blessed many times over for the coming year.

Last Friday was the feast day of St. John the Baptist, San Juan’s patron, and, following tradition, male residents from the poorer areas of the city set up “checkpoints” (or, maybe more appropriately, choke points), mainly around jeepney and tricycle stops.  There they waited with their pails of water, which they would use to douse hapless victims getting off the vehicles.  In some cases, they would chase after victims who got away dry.


Some commuters took it in stride, probably having learned to be prepared from previous years’ attacks.  But these “game” ones were probably a minority. Many more were distraught and angered, which was why the air was filled with some of the most foul invectives. That only seemed to goad the pranksters to jeer and cheer as they went after more victims.

Ironically, one of the most dangerous areas was right in front of a police station, but the police couldn’t do anything except watch, because they had been instructed to allow the dousing until 12 noon, and for as long as the “Baptists” (apologies to the real Baptists) didn’t use dirty water—from canals, for example.


The number of pranksters has declined over the years.  This year, too, the “celebrants” were partly rained out, with storm “Falcon” forcing the suspension of classes and many offices to close down as well. There were, however, still many victims and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these commuters prayed for stronger rains. Against the rain, they could protect themselves with an umbrella, and also seek shelter. Against San Juan’s dousing maniacs, they were totally defenseless.

As a resident of San Juan, I felt I had to write about this issue, with a very clear position: It has to stop, no ifs ands or buts.

Cultural relativism

This might surprise some of my friends and readers since I am an anthropologist and we usually ask that culture be respected, no matter how irrational a belief or practice might be. We warn against ethnocentrism, which is judging other people based on our norms and we propose cultural relativism instead.

What does that fancy term mean? Let’s refer to Rizal, who besides being a physician, artist, poet, sculptor and a dozen other professions was also an ethnologist or someone who analyzes culture. Long before that term was coined, Rizal practically defined cultural relativism when he wrote to Fr. Pablo Pastells to explain his views about religion: “In examining them (religions) impartially, comparing them, and scrutinizing them, one cannot fail to recognize in all of them the human imprint and the stamp of the time during which they were written. . .”

Cultural relativism is recognizing that cultures, and that includes religions, are shaped by history, by human institutions, even by the environment and climate.  Recognizing how cultures are shaped means that we need to be more understanding of the differences in the way people think, and do things.

There are, however, limits to cultural relativism.  Respecting culture has to be tempered by a respect for people. When particular beliefs and practices begin to become dysfunctional, harmful, even oppressive, they have to be challenged and, where necessary, changed, which was what Rizal saw with many religious practices.


When San Juan was a quiet little town, the imitation baptism could be taken as a legitimate part of the festivities—“katuwaan lang”, all in good fun. Most residents were taking the day off anyway for the fiesta, and if there were visitors, they knew what they were getting into,  some raring to get into water “fights” because they too would be given pails of water so they could retaliate.

Today, San Juan is a busy city with many schools, hospitals and business establishments. People go to San Juan to work, or pass through for connecting rides on jeepneys and buses to other parts of Metro Manila.

There’s more to these unwanted baptisms than ending up soaking wet without a change of clothes.  I saw one woman looking very distraught as she fished out her cell phone from her bag, dripping wet and probably damaged.

Note too that the pranksters pick on women in particular because the wet clothes end up highlighting certain parts of the female anatomy.  In effect, the women end up not just wet, cold and disgraced but also sexually harassed.

The pranksters are bullies, picking on women.  Some go for the elderly, as I saw on the corner of P. Guevarra and Wilson Streets, where a young boy emptied a pail of water on a passing elderly man from the top of a stairway, then quickly hiding as the poor lolo looked up totally bewildered.

Then there’s the class factor. Almost all the pranksters were male, from poorer sections of the area, jobless and without anything better to do.  In effect, it was the poor picking on other poor people, and the middle-class. In previous years, they would try to pry open private vehicles to throw in water but the authorities put a stop to that.


San Juan’s authorities must stop this practice completely. To allow it to continue is to honor it, even to fetishize it. The original meaning of a “fetish”, incidentally, was not sexual.  A fetish is a bundle of objects used for religious purposes and to “fetishize” something is to make it sacred, the central focus of veneration or worship. A sexual fetish is an extension from the original religious meaning, now transformed to refer to a sexual fixation on some part of the human body, or some piece of clothing.  Religious or sexual, a fetish loses sight of what is important.

San Juan prides itself in being a rapidly developing city.   This economic development must come together with developing a civil culture that respects people’s rights.  There is no such thing as a “right” to harm people, as the dousers think they do, encouraged by this tolerance of their vandalism during the morning. I am not saying the dousing should be allowed in the afternoon instead, but I feel the morning “reprieve” is particularly hideous in the way it allows a victimization of people just as they are going to work, especially people who render vital services.  This year, the suspension of classes at least spared the teachers, but in my area many nurses and health staff going to work at Cardinal Santos Hospital were victimized.

Sure, it’s only one day a year, but it’s also a special day for San Juan.  San Juan’s parish priests would do well to speak out against these mock baptisms and the way it dishonors St. John the Baptist, who was a religious leader and a teacher to Jesus.

San Juan’s feast day should be celebrated with honor and pride, not reduced to a day of shame just so some boys who never grew up can have their fun.

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