By GEMMA CRUZ ARANETA
Every year, the Black Nazarene “flaunts” the unassailable power of religion over the lives of Fr. Damaso’s wards. There are no signs that the Feast of the Nazareno and its accompanying rituals like the “traslacion” and ”pahalik ”are waning. On the contrary, the feast continues to transmogrify. Now, there are dozens of replicas of all sizes, some hand-carried, but all elaborately dressed like the original, installed on their own over-decorated “andas.” The Nazareno of Quiapo is a miraculous icon, the replicas are not, not yet anyway. Frankly, I am alarmed that fanaticism is on the rise among young people who have formed groups around the replicas and behave exactly like their idolatrous elders. Yet, to Luis Cardinal Tagle, it is a strong manifestation of faith.
During the colonial period, the clergy In Spain’s colonies in Central and South America connected the color black to idolatrous practices; they were convinced that dark colors, black especially, kindled and perpetuated idolatry. As a result, there were ludicrous attempts to whiten the Cristos Negros.
In Guatemala, a town called Tila is famous for a Cristo Negro, the Cristo de Tila. Significantly, in the native Indian language of the area, Tila means “lugar Negro,” a black place. Spanish Bishop Francisco Nuñez de la Vega visited the town in 1687 and publicly destroyed the idols natives had secretly tucked in under the altar of the Catholic church of Oxchuc. His Eminence gave a stern sermon comparing local deities to the blackened idols hidden in the caves of Israel. Tila has many caves, some considered sacred.
Shortly after the bishop’s iconoclastic rage, a black Santo Cristo arrived in Tila from an unknown source. According to rumors it was commissioned by someone who had seen an apparition of Jesus Christ in the caves of Tila. A stalactite marks the exact place where Christ was supposed to have appeared and to this day pilgrims go there to offer flowers, votive candles, and lighted ocote twigs. Beside the cave, there is a clay deposit where devotees scoop the “tierra del señor” (soil or earth of the Lord) believed to heal all ailments when ingested. This habit of eating earth with curative powers is also common in other towns where the Cristo Negro is worshipped.
The Cristo de Tila is also the object of devotion of the Christianized Chontales Indians who inhabit the coastal plains of Tobasco state in Mexico. Multlitudes of pilgrims from all over Mexico and Central America trek to Tila during Holy Week and on May 13, the Day of the Cross.
In 1694, the same Bishop Nuñez de la Vega– who seven years earlier went on an iconoclastic rampage in Tila—announced that the Cristo Negro had suddenly turned white, “without human intervention.” He claimed that a group of prestigious theologians confirmed the miracle. However, the “whitening” of the Cristo de Tila was far from flawless; despite claims of divine intervention, some parts remained persistently dark simply because the image was made of a dark wood, similar to our kamagong. In the context of “syncretismo religioso,” black evokes the bruised and darkened skin of a tortured, tormented Jesus Christ who died in order to save the Indian population, darkened by their bruised and harrowing existence under harsh colonial rule.
For indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America, black, the color of the mystical stone obsidian, conjures images of blood and sacrifice that symbolize their deep longing for lost ancestral lands, depleted water sources, and the ancient cycle of life.
According to tradition, the Black Nazarene of Quiapo was supposed to have come from Mexico, via one of those galleons that intrepidly plied the trans-Pacific route some four hundred years ago. One wonders if the Black Nazarene is the Filipino version of the Señor de Otatitlan, the Cristo de Esquipulas, or the Cristo de Tila. Whoever the Black Nazarene may be under that thick velvet robe and frizzy wig, the image is the object of idolatrous yet sincere devotion as it is paraded and heaved around the narrow streets of the city of Manila by hundreds of thousands of believers of all ages, mostly male, every 9th day of January.