The Black Nazarene procession as social phenomenon

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

MANY must have scratched their heads in disbelief, pardon the pun, in the spectacle they witnessed - three million fellow believers crowding Jones bridge near Quiapo scrambling for that chance to climb up the carriage and wipe their pieces of cloth on the revered statue of the Black Nazarene. Over the years, it has become a unique event drawing even greater crowds and spawning local versions in other cities including ours.

The annual Black Nazarene procession and you can include here the various religious festivals that will follow such as the Ati-atihan festival and the Sinulog soon after are showcases of how local culture has appropriated Spanish Catholicism. The reversal in the pigmentation of these religious icons from the caucasian make of their origins to that that approximates the shade of locals like us is telling proof of this adaptation.

But it is the substantive element that drives the spectacle, the meaning that people who participate in these activities project to the icons, that ultimately reveal how these festivals are not so much about a display of religious fervor but instead indicate the given state of what sociologist Emile Durkheim called the collective conscience or put simply the status or state of mind of Philippine society.


The Elements of the Procession

In this single event which covers the icon’s journey from the Quiapo church to the streets of Manila and back, we see throngs of people along the way jostling against each other in what has come to be called “buwis-buhay”or life-threatening acts of sacrifice just to have the chance to pull the carriage or wipe their cloth on the revered icon. What drives this devotion and from what well of cultural belief to these present-day acts emanate from? What kind of societal condition makes possible these grand collective events?


At the heart of the Black Nazarene procession and other similar religious festivals is the concept of “Panata.” People year in and out fulfill their obligations to the revered icons whether it be the Black Nazarene or the Sto. Nino for graces received or expected. It is a promise of fidelity or commitment that a devotee proclaims before the revered, a proclamation of belief to the power of the icon.


The manifestation of this promise comes in range of forms with varying degrees of sacrifice. But there is always that element of pain or “pagpapakasakit.” This endurance of varying degrees of inconvenience or pain is intertwined with the panata. Whether it involves the recitation for hours of the Pasyon, or the walking throughout the circumferential road of Camiguin during Holy Week, there is a performance of sacrifice. Through these gestures, a unity with the icon’s own journey of pain is achieved.

Both the element of “panata” and its accompanying “pagpapasakit” can be interpreted as expressions of the devotees of their union with the narrative of the icon. Performatively, what is communicated is that the devotee will undergo the same pain and sacrifices of the icon as some sort of wager or a collateral for the sought after indulgence or for wishes already granted.

In the case of the Black Nazarene procession, the extreme acts of sacrifice of millions placing their bodies at the mercy of the throng follow this logic. It is not madness but either a performative visceral appeal or a bodily expression of gratitude to a higher benevolent power.


There is another important element to the procession since not everyone is fortunate to have pulled the reigns of the carriage or to have clambered up the platform of the icon. Not everyone gets to wave their cloths or panyo in victory at the end of the exercise.

An indication that one’s indulgence is heard or at the very least considered by the icon is that one gets to touch the icon with his or her cloth or grasp the rope which pulls the carriage. Those who do consider themselves the “pinagpala” or the chosen ones, indicators of those who have successfully undergone the journey with the icon. For that is what the Black Nazarene procession somehow subliminally represents – the journey of millions of Filipinos as they consider their fate in an increasingly cruel world or what we say in Filipino as “pakikipagsapalaran.”

Embedded deep in these ritualistic practices is the fervent hope that their day-to-day sufferings are considered by the benevolent icon, and they perform these sacrifices symbolically in the chaos of the throng during the celebrations.

What is curious about these ritualistic processes is that these are not undertaken by individuals out to accomplish a personal devotion, but perhaps as a throwback to our indigenous social formations, these activities are undertaken as members of a tribe. As the icon makes the rounds of Manila, for instance, the men-folk of the barangays at the route await him and initiate the individual members of the tribe to the ritual by paving the way for their successful participation in pulling the reigns or wiping their clothe on the icon. The victory of the participant becomes the pride of the tribe, the family, and the barangay.

The procession as neocolonial journey

If we are to consider these elements of the Black Nazarene procession some themes can be distilled given the meaning people project onto the activity. At its core, it is a ritualistic mass appeal for redemption amidst collective suffering.

What people relate to is the image of the suffering Christ and they relate their own suffering or “pakikipagsapalaran” with him praying that they can be considered for redemption or at least a reprieve. Health care for the sick relative, a stable job here or abroad for the struggling parent, and essentially a better fate in the context of a backward society are some examples of the appeals of the faithful hoping to be one of “pinagpala.”

In the time of natural and social disasters like Yolanda, jobless growth, and decades of economic crisis presided over by local landlord elite, the growth in the participation of the Black Nazarene processions in Manila and elsewhere is not a surprise. But the procession as a social phenomemon also reveals some unchanging features of the social base from where it sprung.

During the period of Spanish colonization, various social movements were established throughout the islands headed by self-styled messiahs offering essentially the same things that the throng in the Black Nazarene processions was praying for. Using the narrative of the suffering Christ and appropriating the rituals of the colonial church, these millenarian groups gathered people toward their fold and eventually transformed into pockets of resistance against the excessive taxation and general abuse of the colonial order and our local elite. Among their demands were absolute freedom from colonial rule and land for the landless and the tiller. Some of these groups eventually morphed into the Katipunan and Philippine history was altered.

I posit the view that the Black Nazarene procession is a contemporary manifestation of the same aspirations and political potential in the era of neocolonialism. As the procession circled Malacañang on that day, I wouldn’t be surprised if the seat of power at the nation’s capital felt a degree of chill over the sight of millions of the desperate at their doorsteps.

Sometime soon, perhaps.

(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV, Sociology Department, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on January 12, 2014.


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