Once every year, as children, our mother would wake us up as early as 4am so we can make our way from our house in Quezon City to Manila. We would park our car across the Quiapo church and she would caution the four of us little girls to be careful and tell us to hold hands while we crossed the streets. With rosary in her hand, she whispered prayers as she guided us along the underpass that led to Quiapo Church.
The Eucharistic mass that early in the morning always appeared a blur to me— until it was time for the Lord’s Prayer. Recited in Filipino (“Ama Namin), it has always struck me, even as a child, as a moment. I have always been amazed by this union of people, their eyes closed and holding each other’s hands. For me, it meant that no matter our differences, we sing the same song and are united in prayer—the greatest act of hope.
Coming home from a morning spent in Quiapo, I remember the smell of lemongrass, ginger and garlic in the air. My mother would prepare a feast for the members of our family who would be spending the day in Quiapo. She would fish live crabs out of large bins, which she would place thereafter into pots. The day would end with the men coming back from the procession talking about the day that was, happily gnawing away at crab claws and mussels.
Quiapo means a lot to my father and our family because this is where he started to dream of a better life. Riding a jeepney, and looking at the mansions of Hidalgo Street then, he daydreamed of what life was like in the beautiful homes that lined the street. These thoughts would, of course, provide the seed for the birth many years after of his company New San Jose Builders, the company behind Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar.
My father is a self-made man who used to sell ice drop back in his hometown Bagac before he pursued his college studies in Manuel L Quezon University which is in Hidalgo. While in school, he would always look at the building across which had a Chinese tea house called Bulaklak Restaurant. It served pancit and fried chicken, a total luxury from his dormroom diet of dried fish and egg. The building, of course, is the historic Bellas Artes structure which, while already in disrepair during his student days, served as a symbol of a life outside of his means. Long story short, when he made his fortune, he bought the property, restored it, and kept it safe in Las Casas, a keepsake from his Quiapo days.
Over the years, our family would come to Quiapo to remind us of faith and its centrality to being. That no matter what point we are at in life, once you walk those streets you are no more and no less than the people walking beside you. The Black Nazarene, especially in this one day of the year, becomes the great equalizer. And in a country where there is a great divide between the privileged and the poor, equality is as elusive as the chance to pull the rope of the Nazarene’s carriage.
“The experience of the Nazareno goes beyond Catholicism,” my sister Jam notes. “In the sense that it creates the Quiapense identity, regardless of your religion. The Muslim community of Quiapo are not exempt as some join the procession arm in arm with Christians as they believe in the power of the Nazareno, thus paying homage to Jesus’ role as prophet in the Islamic faith.” For those unaware, Quiapense is how people from Quiapo call themselves.
When speaking to the debotos, my sister adds, many are praying for the same things, health and healing among them. Many are giving thanks. “Besides the healing power of faith, it brings light to what most Filipinos lack in social security—accessible health care. It is, in a manner of speaking, a force that pushes the Filipino to walk in faith during the Nazareno.”
The first time we witnessed the procession was from a balcony in one of the streets of Quiapo some years ago. White towels flew backwards and forwards, flying in arches across the procession as candles and lights brighten the otherwise darkened road. The hum of prayers and wishes filled the air and somehow all your senses are enveloped in the meaning of that moment. There was nowhere else to be but in that present. And you are more alive than ever, bearing witness to what is happening.
Several carriages passed by first, and when the carriage of the Black Nazarene arrived, somehow one is taken over by a profound solemnity that’s pretty hard to describe. It is what I imagine the experience of a soul being awakened would be similar to. To witness the diverse sea of people united in one goal, and at the same time looking out for each other—‘Kapatid,’ one deboto will warn another when things get a little dangerous—is nothing more than uplifting and puts one’s faith back in humanity.
On the Feast of the Nazarene, we bear witness to the truth that unity is possible. We vary in our rituals and jargon, but in Quiapo, our people answer God’s call to action and, like my father even up to now, walk in barefoot devotion. We pray for the things that were, are, and might be. Watching the man beside me walk with his eyes closed and his mouth filled with prayer gives me hope—perhaps the same hope my father carried as a young man in these streets: the hope that life can and will get better.