SOME images are best captured by sight, not description.
On a busy Friday morning, at Legazpi corner P. Burgos Street, the traffic enforcer held up a hand to stop traffic for a couple pushing a cart.
While propelling with one hand, the man clutched to his waist two small figurines. These Sto. Niño images were unclothed.
Based on the red-and-gold images tottering with every jolt of their cart, I presumed the couple would later “dress up” the naked images for customers.
In the past two years that I’ve been unable to join the Sinulog, one of the sights I missed most were the busy stalls of vendors outside the Basilica.
In these stalls, as well as in nearby street corners and carts, perhaps the most lucrative enterprise next to the selling of Sto. Niño images during the January fiesta of the Holy Infant is the commerce involving miniature capes, crowns, scepters, orbs and even tiny pantaloons.
The dressing and accessorizing are part of many devotees’ preparations for the fiesta. In the same way that homeowners will order new curtains and bring out the best plates and silver for guests, the “bida (protagonist)” of the feast should also have new clothes.
My former teacher is a devotee who owns a towering Sto. Niño. She and her daughter carry this heavy and cumbersome image when they join the foot processions that open and close the novena leading to the fiesta. She has a “suki custorera (regular dressmaker)” to sew and fit the image’s garments, which are not renewed yearly but only when they show signs of wear. Moths are an irreligious lot and tinsel crowns quickly dent.
The refurbishment requires considerable expenses, specially as some images are bigger than dolls or real infants. As with any enterprise whose popularity and commerce intensifies with time, the Sto. Niño line, whether ready-to-wear or made-to- order, has diversified and specialized.
For instance, instead of a red-and-gold cape made of felt paper, gold rickrack and sequins, a customer can have a made-to-order fully lined cape in plush and thick velvet, embroidered by hand with gold and crystals. Genuine Sharobski, the vendor will tell one in all sincerity (she means these crystals were bought from Moro traders, not handmade in Austria).
The wealthy buy gold jewelry for their icon every fiesta. I have not seen any image dangle precious metal during processions, a sign that prevention of human avarice perhaps works better than petitions.
The practice of grooming one’s Sto. Niño turns off other devotees. Vainglory, they say. As with the emperor’s new clothes, the preoccupation with the corporeal reveals the frailties of faith, its susceptibility to spectacle and blindness to spirit.
Yet, strange is faith. Even in the tawdriest stall, a knock-kneed, pitted figurine is transformed from being a comical eunuch into the imperial and imposing “Patron”. Some of the vendors show skills beyond the artisanal, making what looks like stiff, bristling nylon flow and hang like real human hair, brushed a hundred times and one.
Watching vendor and customer attend to each image, I don’t think of children playing make-believe with dolls but of doting family members looking down on a favored child.
The impression is unshakable, glimpsed in a sea of hands waving at the replica of the Sto. Niño during the singing of the “gozos;” or in jeepneys, where the images are cradled by churchgoers or resting on laps; or in a driver who touches a dashboard image, its colors and features rubbed beyond recognition, for protection or luck on the road.
The red-and-gold image draws its power from crisscrossing narratives. Is it because an infant awakes protectiveness in the human? Or does the pull of the story stem from the hope stirred by God coming down to live with people? Faith is seeing, touching and believing, the myths aided by the Infant’s new clothes.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 12, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”