BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Quiapo: Where Men and Women Are At Home in the Mayhem

Sharing with my readers a portion of a commissioned article for the Informal Markets World Atlas, a project by Peter Mortenbock of the University of Vienna.

The district of Quiapo in Manila is home to the Catholic faithful and to thieves and street hawkers alike. Religion, commercialism and mysticism merge in this labyrinthine place, where a centuries-old church lies at the center of a surrounding maze of third-world commercialism.

There is a natural chaos that embraces anyone brave enough to step into the mayhem, a mecca of bootleggers, hawkers, vendors, beggars and pickpockets. One can find anything and everything in the district’s nook and crannies. Traders, have something for everyone: passport holders and fake diplomas; electronics and karaoke machines; motorcycle helmets and bicycles; Halloween costumes and military uniforms; pirated DVDs and fake signature bags; religious artifacts and the latest sex toys.  

Quiapo lies at the heart of Manila, the Philippine capital. It is the primary city square, bounded by Recto Avenue to the north, San Miguel to the east, Estero de San Miguel to the South and Quezon Boulevard to the west. It has population of roughly 25,000 people.

Long before the district became what it is now, it was principally a fishing village where water lilies called Kiapo floated in abundance. On August 29, 1586, in the early years of the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, Governor General Santiago de Vera founded the district of Quiapo as a suburb of Spanish Manila.

At the center is Plaza Miranda, a city square named after Jose Sandino y Miranda, the secretary of the treasury of the Philippines in the pre-war era. 

At the heart of the city square is the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, simply known as Quiapo Church, a cream-colored structure built in elegant Spanish Baroque style, with two imposing belfries glistening under the sun.

The main crowd drawer is the Nazarene itself, a cross-bearing life-sized dark statue of Jesus Christ wearing a maroon tunic with gold embroidery, believed to be a patron of miracles and impossible favors.

Brought by the Augustinian friars in the 1600, the Black Nazarene, more widely known as Senor, has spawned a culture of unquestionable devotion, immovable idolatry and unshakable faith among Filipinos especially among the masses.

The image is housed inside the Basilica and is the reason why thousands crowd the church everyday especially every Friday, Quiapo Day, when an hourly novena is held.

Whichever day it is, the faith is unwavering. It is ordinary to see men and women walking on their knees on the cold tiled floor -- all seventy steps -- from the entrance to the High Altar and the Black Nazarene enshrined above it, in fervent prayers -- for a miracle, a promise, a favor, a deal, or simply to express gratitude.

Every January 9, millions of devotees flock to Quiapo to celebrate the Feast of the Black Nazarene, which commemorates the transfer of the miraculous image to the Basilica from nearby Rizal Park in the 1600s.

In January 2013, nine million devotees made up the sea of people, many of whom walked barefoot for 22 hours, enduring the scalding pavement and the mammoth crowd.

Outside the yearly feast, local authorities estimate the daily Quiapo crowd to be anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000, comprising largely of devotees of the Black Nazarene and the vendors who eke out of living from these multitudes of people.

The masses' unwavering devotion to the Black Nazarene has brought commerce to the area encircling the church and the surrounding streets and alleys.

There's a plethora of finds around the Basilica, with street vendors all over the place -- selling anything and everything -- from amulets to talisman knives; love potions and rosaries; miraculous oil and prayer beads; candles for your prayers and figurines of the Black Nazarene and Mother Mary. There are snake oils, sun-dried leaves and herbal medicines for whatever malady one is afflicted with, be it a spinning headache or a broken heart.

And while Mother Mary watches by, the same hawkers will sell abortifacients -- drugs that are illegal in this predominantly Catholic nation -- to anyone in need.

There are fortune-tellers in every corner, shuffling their tarot cards. Pay them the right price and you will meet the man of your dreams, "very, very soon," they'll tell you, after reading your palm.

A full version of the article will be in the Atlas that will be published this year