Color and culture, behind Filipinos' devotion to the Black Nazarene

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 9) — Every year on January 9, millions of Filipino devotees troop to Quiapo in Manila to take part in the "Traslacion" or the procession of the Black Nazarene.

Some call it idolatry or fanaticism as devotees brave a sea of crowd, sometimes injuring themselves; walk barefoot for kilometers; stand and endure hours of waiting for the image to return to its home at the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene or Quiapo Church.

Theologian Monsignor Sabino Vengco Jr. told CNN Philippines' Newsroom Ngayon on Tuesday that there is one explanation for the Filipinos' obsessive devotion: the Nazarene's black shade.

He said when the image arrived in the country, Filipinos were submissive to Spanish colonizers and their teachings on Christianity.

"Huwag natin kalimutan na nung unang panahon, may color discrimination," Vengco said. "Sila'y mga puti, sila yung mga panginoon, sila ang makapangyarihan. White is beautiful. Kaya ito, have a Lord, yung imahe ng Panginoon na sinasampalatayanan ng mga puti at nating kayumanggi na kakulay natin. That was a very big push, kaya yung mga Pilipino, simula't sapul, dun pa lang sa Intramuros, ang debosyon sa Nazareno ay kumalat na," Vengco said.

[Translation: Let's not forget that in early times, there was color discrimination. They are white, they are the masters, they are powerful.  White is beautiful. So to have an image of God venerated by the whites and even the brown-skinned people like us. That was a very big push and so the Filipinos' devotion, from the start grew, in Intramuros."]

 

Augustinian Recollects brought the Black Nazarene to the Philippines in 1606.

They carried several other dark-colored images from Mexico, including the Nuestra Señora del Carmen de San Sebastian and Nuestra Señora de La Salud.

When Vengco did his research in Mexico, he found several old statues in dark color, said to have been made of mesquite wood.   

"Dun ko natulaksan meron sila mestize corazon de mestize. Itong core layer ng wood na ito ay talagang black, tulad ng kamagong natin sa Pilipinas… Hardwood ito at popular nung panahon ng Kastila, nung una silang dumating sila sa Mexico. Ito ang wood na tumutubo sa desyerto. Inumpisahan nilang gamitin sa ship-building because it's durable, at di nagtagal, natuklasan din na very usable para sa furniture and sculpture," he said.

[Translation: I discovered there that they have mestize corazon de mestize. The core layer of this wood is really black, much like the kamagong here in the Philippines. This was a popular hardwood during the Spanish era, when they first arrived in Mexico. This wood grows in the desert. They started using this in ship-building because it's durable and it didn't take long for them to discover that it is very usable for furniture and sculpture.]

But apart from the black icon, as devotion to the image grew over the years, Vengco said Filipinos adapted a way to venerate the image — through prayers, procession, "pahalik," walking barefoot, touching the image or even just the rope of the "Andas" or carriage of the Nazarene.

Vengco called this "inculturation," when Jesus' image and manifestation is appropriated into one's culture.    

Inculturation, he said, brought Filipinos even closer to the Nazarene, with his devotees growing more each year.

"Siya ay dumating sa Pilpinas na isang imahe na ka-kulay natin, na para bang identifying with us … Kanya-kanyang narrative, kung paanong sa buhay nila, sa gitna ng karukhaan… so many in pain and suffering. In that situation, that is so much ours, there is someone divine who is totally there for us," Vengco said.

[Translation: He arrived in the Philippines as an image of the same skin color as us, as if he were identifying with us. People made their own narrative of how in the midst of their difficult lives with so many in pain and suffering. In that situation, that is so much ours, there is someone divine who is totally there for us.]