My childhood in the 1930s was in Quiapo when there was no Quezon Boulevard and no Quezon Bridge, which were constructed during the Commonwealth era in 1939 (when I was nine). These were named after the much revered and handsome mestizo president Manuel Luis Quezon. He was the first president of the Commonwealth era in 1935, which promised full Philippine independence from America in 10 years, or 1946.
All were small parallel streets (including ours) that led to what is now basically Plaza Miranda and Quiapo church. These small streets all had to be bulldozed to build Quezon Boulevard. We lived in an old bahay-na-bato with a tile roof which was eventually modernized. Our corner house was located on a small abbreviated street beside the now seedy Times Theater.
The streets were called Escaldo (meaning burned) and Barbosa (which I learned was a member of Magellan’s fleet). Several of my friends lived on the streets which disappeared. Some of their houses had split bamboo floors and allowed candle and betel nut vendors to stay in their silong on Fridays (which was the day of the Black Nazarene) to sell their wares.
We kids liked to lie facedown on the floor to watch them. They had the awful stench of the unwashed.
On Fridays, Escaldo was always lined with carretelas whose horses were feeding on bran and molasses from pails hanging on their necks. All around was a commerce of brass anting-anting medals; herbal cures; red candles in the shape of parts of the body which one burned in the church as offering for cure of that ailing part; cheap cloths by the meter; finished dusters (not called dusters then, which is an American term; we even like to show off our dusters—besides which, dusting is servant work); bamboo toys like a pair of warriors whose arms hacked one another when the wind blew; miniature clay pots and stoves… Thank heavens nothing plastic yet!
‘Utos ng pare!’
The Señor Nazareno on its altar faced the congregation. But its back part (or its foot) could be accessed from outside the church via a tall bamboo ladder anytime.
My scientific father and his colleague, who were doing the first book on the heights and weights of Filipino adults, took advantage of this by putting a weighing scale and a meter stick at the foot of the bamboo ladder, almost blocking it, and ordered every devotee to step on the contraption. If anyone asked questions, or through fear and suspicion hesitated to be measured, two words settled the dilemma: “Utos ng pare!” It helped that the recamadero or official keeper of the Nazareno statue was Dr. Mariano Ocampo, who was a collaborator in the project.
It was a perfect meld of religion and science. (It won some congressional award.) Patient papa and his associate were able to document 6,000 adult Filipinos this way!
My father often made fun of my mother’s over-religiosity. In those days, small movable altars in wooden boxes that closed with a flap and doors, like an envelope, and contained different saints, were available for a day—for a fee, I assumed, from the church. You could have the statue for a day or two when someone was ill.
Even an arm of the Nazareno could be borrowed (“rented”) when someone was ill. My physician father assumed there was always someone somewhere who would rather pray for a cure than go to a doctor.
Even the arm of the Black Nazarene statue, which was believed by many to be miraculous, could be borrowed. My heretic Dad said the Nazarene must be an octopus because, in the 1930s, when someone fell ill you could borrow its arm (it came in a varnished box). During epidemics, there were many of these holy arms roaming around.
When I was a child, it always terrified me when the Señor Nazareno procession passed our narrow Escaldo street. Everyone in the procession carried a lighted candle, but when the carroza of the Nazarene passed by everything was dark.
I think the carroza did not have wheels then, but was borne on the shoulders by barefoot devotees. And it was dark because only the males could fight their way up to the Nazareno in order to wipe a handkerchief or a towel on the statue in the fanatic belief that the cloth would thenceforward also be miraculous. Thus, the women with lighted tapers never could join the Nazareno portion lest they be trampled to death.
On top, with the image, was always the burly sacristan mayor of the Quiapo Church in red and white monecillo garb. His job was to push down devotees who managed to climb the carroza. Or at least to receive the handkerchiefs or towels, wipe them on the image and throw these back to their owners. It was a frightening scene of fanaticism, and every year it passed our street.
I haven’t gone to Mass in Quiapo since I was a child. My husband and I moved to Quezon City, and therefore another parish, when we got married. But in whatever guise the Christ is, in whatever church, to me he will always be simply God.