Filipino faith reaches a violent climax on January 9, when millions gather to pay homage to the Black Nazarene, the extraordinary sight I once witnessed at Plaza Miranda.
A solid mass of humanity awaits the image. Able-bodied men in white T-shirts are positioned in two long files, holding back with linked arms a multitude of men in maroon, devotees (mamamasan or shoulder-bearers) determined to help pull the image. The PA system warns bystanders to get out of the way, asks that mamamasan discard shoes and sandals, belts, buckles and keys as lethal weapons in the coming crush.
Church doors burst open and the Nazarene emerges on its carro, greeted by fireworks, a waving sea of lighted candles and pieces of white cloth, and thousands of throats shouting, “Viva.”
A pair of thick abaca ropes some hundred meters long in large loops is tied to the carro, a stout bar on forward ends. The idea is for runners to rush up between the whites, playing the ropes out the length of Plaza Miranda towards Villalobos Street; for the whites to grab the ropes and be the first set of mamamasan (“unang salang” or first-on-the-fire); and for whites to then yield the ropes to maroons and be procession marshals.
The scheme immediately goes awry as determined maroons surge forward in savage waves. The next 15-30 minutes are the most dangerous, when men are sometimes strangled by the flailing ropes or trampled in the melée. So coveted is the privilege of helping move the holy image.
Marshalls shove, shoulder, kick the fighting throng in place—meaning men packed along the ropes, tighter than sardines in a can, barely able to breathe and pressed in by others mightily trying to dislodge those already in place.
Most can stand the ordeal only briefly. The brute strength needed to come close to the carro or the ropes, even just to stay in place, is so great that many look half-conscious, propped up only by the press of other bodies. Anyone who wants out signals with an upraised arm (or a desperate look if he can’t) and marshals yank him out by force. On their own, marshals drag out the flagging. Someone faints and is pushed up and out over heads and helped down at the crowd’s edge. Anyone who slips under is lost, trampled by the feet of the relentless throng.
Like a monstrous writhing centipede, the procession lurches forward, swings left and then right on countless feet, stops, only to move again. Propelled by the uncontrolled momentum of its bearers, the carro of the Black Nazarene is flung hither and yon as the procession disappears from sight.
It is difficult not to be moved by the intense devotion, the faith of the mamamasan, many in their twenties. One wonders what great misfortune they have already overcome at that tender age, for what terrible sins they seek forgiveness, what unattainable goal they desire, what dire fate they pray to avoid, through the mercy of the Nazarene.