Friday, September 02, 2005

THE SANTO Niño (Holy Child) is a quintessential Filipino Catholic icon, much loved and venerated, a little boy vested with the most extraordinary of powers. To be able to heal, many faith healers go into trances, their voices transformed into that of a little child to signify that the Santo Niño has taken over. Mothers pin Santo Niño medals on babies to protect them from illnesses and from harm in general. And what Filipino Catholic home would be complete without at least one image of the Santo Niño?
I know there's an entire coffee-table book produced on the Santo Niño in the Philippines but I haven't been able to get a copy, so I don't know how they explain this image's popularity. My hunch is that God, as God the Father, and Jesus still remain distant for many Filipinos. Too alien (especially God the Father, who looks too much like the Spanish friars), too male. When the Filipino needs succor and comfort, the gentle Virgin Mary and the innocent Santo Niño are so much more approachable. Note how Filipino mothers instill this love for the Santo Niño early in life, instructing children to pray to "Baby Jesus."
A plethora of Santo Niños
The Santo Niño comes in many versions: fair-skinned or dark-skinned, in simple or elaborate clothes. Perhaps reflecting my own personality and lifestyle, my favorite is the "Santo Niñong Gala," the vagabond Santo Niño looking like a hobo, complete with a stick and a bundle of clothes, always on the road.
Gay couturiers love the Santo Niño, designing the most elaborate costumes for their statues, which are then paraded with other images when there are neighborhood religious activities, in a kind of fashion show.
The Santo Niño's popularity stems in part from its ability to be "adopted" by anyone, simply by changing its clothes. It's not just gay couturiers who love the Santo Niño, your epitome of machismo, soldiers and police, also have their Santo Niños perched on an altar and looking over their shoulders, decked out of course in the proper uniform.
Government offices also constantly violate the constitutional separation of Church and State by displaying their own versions of Santo Niños, although I have to say I have not seen these Santo Niños decked out according to the agency's work (e.g., dressed as a doctor for the Department of Health).
I've noticed Santo Niños are also very popular in beerhouses, bars and, well, what have been referred to euphemistically as "bahay aliwan" [houses of pleasure]. No, those Santo Niños aren't dressed, or undressed, for the occasion.
In several church courtyards here in Manila, vendors hawk a "Santo Niñong Hubad" -- yes, a naked Santo Niño, anatomically correct but physiologically not quite right. Let me explain that for lay people: yes, the anatomy can be correct, but what they tried to get the correct anatomy to do, for an infant, wasn't exactly possible.
Mind you, this naked Santo Niño now comes in different versions. I've seen at least four different ones. A tiny one, about 1-1/2 centimeters high, which you can carry in your wallet or put under your tongue (more on this later). This image has two other larger versions. Then there's also one where Baby Jesus is on the palm of a hand.
Custom-made functions
What powers does the Santo Niñong Hubad have?
I've always felt religious beliefs and practices are very malleable, adjusting to people's needs. Ask the Santo Niñong Hubad vendors what the little statues do and they'll tailor their answers according to who's asking.
If it's a woman who inquires, they'll say the image brings good luck, especially the Santo Niño on a palm. If it's an older woman asking, the vendor is likely to suggest that carrying the Santo Niño around helps to keep a marriage intact.
Now if the prospective buyer is a male, vendors will give you that inscrutable smile. To me, they gave the standard generic reply, "Suerte" [Good luck]. I'd heard of other more powerful functions of the Santo Niñong Hubad and asked if it is a "gayuma," a love charm. The vendors were mum. I guess I just looked too academic to need such talismans.The first time I heard about the Santo Niñong Hubad, I did ask Tita Gilda Cordero Fernando, an authority on Filipino popular culture, about it and she scoffed, "Goodness, that's been around for many years. You're supposed to swallow it."
Swallow? Maybe the earlier versions were, well, edible but the ones they sell now are metal ones, and I'd definitely advise against swallowing it. It can be quite awkward explaining to the doctors in the emergency room what they need to fish out of your gut.
Anyway, the mystery of the Santo Niñong Hubad persisted. I bought a few, distributed them to my mother and aunts (one of whom brought it to her parish priest to bless, which he declined) and continued to ask around.
Until one day I showed it to the father of my partner, a crusty working-class super-macho male if there ever was one. He smiled and said it was "mabisa," very effective. A man of few words, he elaborated a bit about putting the image under your tongue and thus armed, anyone you whisper sweet nothings to would not be able to say no.
The next week when we met, he slipped a piece of paper into my hand and told me to follow the instructions carefully. "Buhayin mo," he grunted.
It was chilling: He was telling me to bring the image to life first, before it could work, and he had just passed on prayers and incantations to use for nine Fridays in a row.
Bared, dared
Our many Santo Niños, not just the Santo Niñong Hubad, tell us so much about Philippine society. I've mentioned how maybe the child Jesus is so much more approachable. Maybe, too, that's why the Santo Niño is so popular in government offices, displayed to radiate some kind of continuous absolution. I once had to go through Customs to claim a shipment of books and was struck by the many Santo Niño statues in the offices. Why, nearly every desk had one. Then it occurred to me, as I ran the gauntlet of numerous Customs officials signing clearances, that their desk drawers were all open, presumably to receive bribes, oops, I meant heaven's blessings... and the Santo Niño's forgiveness.
And the Santo Niñong Hubad? Who knows? My partner's mother claims, tongue in cheek, she was a "victim" of this Santo Niño and her husband's lethal whisper while my partner's father, when he gave me the piece of paper, warned me, "Don't ever teach this to my son. He knows too much already."
I don't believe in the occult so I've filed the spells away, together with the Santo Niñong Hubad images. We get the partners we deserve and whether they stay or not depends not so much on naked Santo Niños under our tongue, than on how we use our hearts and our minds.
The naked Santo Niño bares Philippine society, daring us to think about all our existential anxieties around love and marriage and life itself.

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