Quiapo Fiesta, is it still a Religious Event?

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I went to Quiapo yesterday morning. Though I have lived in Manila the most part of my life, I have never actually joined a Black Nazarene procession, nor went there for the event itself. Yesterday I did the latter. I did not go to join the procession; I mean procession as we normally understand it, to walk with the image from start to finish. Except for a few you cannot do that in a Black Nazarene procession. Traditional processions do not apply to Quiapo fiesta: you don’t hold candles while walking; you don’t pray the rosary during the procession; you don’t, in fact, you don’t have that prayerful atmosphere. You have a crowd composed of different groups, teasing each other, sleeping, standing, holding meetings at the side of the streets on how to better handle their Nazareno replicas, hooting, and a lot of machismo. You have a masculine crowd. All around are young sinewy men who last year easily moved a container van blocking their way as if it had wheels. In this particular religious procession, men outnumber women.

I know their type. I grew up in quite a tough neighborhood in Sampaloc – that bygone time of occasional riots and legendary tales of how some survived a mug for passing by a rival street. Certain crowds in the Quiapo fiesta evoked that tensed atmosphere of my boyhood: no prolonged stare, no provocative gestures. To be fair, I have not quite heard of any story of violence among groups during the Nazarene procession, probably because their energies are directed to the brutish throng around the Black Nazarene image, frenzied enough to risk life and limb – literally – just to touch the statue.

So far we have one reported death for the fiesta, Renato Gurion, from Manila. His death will pose questions, will scandalize and will draw criticisms. Why would people lose lives to a religious procession? Such outcome we label as fanaticism. Every year, media reports would always include the word “fanatic” to lump up the behavior of Black Nazarene devotees. It begs a second look.

My companion, after seeing up close how people fought their way to the statue said, “They are brave.” The other one answered, “Are they brave or foolish?” He said “foolish” firmly. Though I basically grew up in Manila, I have never joined a Nazarene procession because of its rowdy reputation. My father, a devotee, only brought us to Quiapo Church in the evening when the crowd has subsided. All along, I only thought of Nazarene devotees as rowdy, but not foolish. My experience yesterday of the Nazarene celebration did not bring me to that conclusion either.

First, the great chunk of devotees is urban poor. When I switched on the television at 1 PM the crowd estimate is 5.5 million. It is not hard to imagine amassing class C and D crowd to that number. Second, Quiapo fiesta as a religious celebration is a voluntary activity. People are not mandated to join. When we only take into account the rowdy part of the event, we fail to see it as a religious gathering. It is a religious gathering of poor people. When I had an immersion among the urban poor in Pasay and Navotas I learned that many of them never leave their place, unless displaced. In order to get out of their settlements they need two rides, one tricycle and one jeepney. And you need almost 30 pesos for a roundtrip. If 10 pesos is hard to come by, imagine 30 pesos. So the thievery. So the tough neighborhood. So for them Quiapo Fiesta is a time to go mainstream, to walk the streets, to own the city that has placed them at the margins for most of the year. Quiapo Fiesta makes them breathe.

It is unfair to measure the celebration according to our own standards of religiosity. I did not see collegialas there. I did not see the sosyal crowd of Catholic RH Bill lobbyists there. We demand order from them, we demand our standards from them, we demand that they be depopulated, because we have failed to love them, to give them voice, to respect them and to give them education. We have come to fear and despise our own shadow.

On the other hand the Black Nazarene gives them hope, gives them a concrete situation to struggle against from. That is what I saw and felt. Let them. For after-all they are the stevedores, construction workers, factory workers, the “voters”, the unemployed, whose voices we stifle for the rest of the year.

Ah!, yes, it is still a religious event.

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