Written and photographed
By Jude Thaddeus L. Bautista
The Feast of the Black Nazarene in the Philippines for 2012 was unique for several reasons. Not least of which was a black out of cell phone signal across all networks like Smart, Sun and Globe. The threat of terrorists attacking the biggest religious fest of the country had the government requesting for the temporary signal ban. Explosives have recently been detonated by cell phone. Fortunately there has been no terrorist attack on the Feast attended by an estimated 8 million people.
I have not photographed it for almost five years now. I stopped covering since I lost my own cell phone to pickpockets during the same feast at an especially crowded area near Quiapo church. It wasn’t entirely that incident that led me away from covering, as I had begun to shoot and write about a more demanding beat or subject: film and music. I was worse than the ‘faithful’ whom Bishop Tagle admonished in his sermon during the mass who sought forgiveness and salvation through it rather than live a pious life.
Going there, I arrived at around 6:30am just as the mass was already under way. Organizers were assisted by various government agencies from the MMDA and the PNP. To a certain extent the devotees and the crowd seemed orderly. And the ease with which the media accessed the event was commendable. That was why it could be seen live in nearly all the TV networks and channels. Looking up I see several photographers stationed at the roof of the Grandstand offering a wide and safer view above the crowds. One of them is a good friend, Linus Escandor of Manila Bulletin. His is most likely the photo chosen for the paper’s front page the next day.
Since I had been away from it for so long I naturally assumed that the larger area of the Quirino Grandstand would easily accommodate the throngs that gathered for the procession. From what I remember the original route for decades started and ended from the Quiapo church. That was one of the reasons why Plaza Miranda (in front of the church) was so historic and significant to Filipinos. Politically it was the Plaza Miranda bombing combined with the faux machine gun attack on then Defense Sec. Enrile that justified martial rule for almost a decade.
Now as dawn was literally breaking on the mass before the Nazareno’s procession, millions of people filled the park. I wondered when the dawn of a better life for all of us Filipinos would finally break? At least we have The Black Nazarene to pin our hopes on. The asphalt road was initially the blank region between the devotees and the image. Several layers of barricades have been put up from even behind it. Even before the mass ended the crowd was already rumbling for an unstoppable surge forward.
Even with human barricades it was useless, men clasped arm in arm (kapit bisig) trying to control the wave of people trying to get close to the Black Nazarene. There is almost a mystical frenzy associated with it. A handkerchief, a towel wiped at the cross, the robes could cure illnesses. Prayers were granted to the faithful devotees who did the pilgrimage with their bare feet. The origin of the image is a burned sculpture of Christ from Mexico hundreds of years ago. Catholicism itself came from the Spaniards.
For Filipinos however, there is something about the tangible god. We want to see him, touch him and feel him. According to those who touch the image during the procession there is a feeling of ecstasy. We’ve been maligned for assigning an infinite being to a piece of wood. I see it as an outpouring of affection and devotion that say a photo of a loved one elicits. Why would parents put their kids pictures on their wallets or even wear wedding rings, if they are not tangible and real symbols of people whom they treasure?
The wave of pilgrims that overflowed to the grandstand accidentally pushed me closer to the image. Carried by an especially privileged brotherhood from the back of the stage to the ramp down that began the procession. I was able to shoot it closer than I had ever done in the past. Before photographers and cameramen would be perched on a stage across the plaza and wait for the image to pass by. This time it was barely a few meters away from me on it’s way to the carosa.
The heave of people pulling the ropes to transport it actually also is the cause of it’s delay. Men jumping on top of other men’s shoulders and heads try to grab a hold of the exposed end of the cross atop the shoulders of the figure. Later on I would see a little girl pushed up to touch the image of Christ. There have been several warnings not to bring children and senior citizens to the event for obvious reasons. There were also warnings that terrorists will attack, none of which have been heeded.
The number of injuries this year has doubled to 160 of last count. Still, an attack that would have caused a great loss of life has been averted. And there are few events that truly bring Filipinos together culturally and traditionally. Even if you’re not Catholic there’s a strong sense of continuity to a procession that has been going on since the year 1606. At this day and age of materialism, the Internet and foreign influence, this religious tradition has actually become stronger not weaker over the years.