Philippines 14 Sep 2014 00:00
Text by Vesna Vukoja, Photos by David Ozkoidi
Quiapo is both a neighborhood and a prominent city square in Manila. It is also a place where Catholocism and Islam have coexisted for decades after Americans arrived in 1901, and as waves of Muslims fled the ongoing conflict in Mindanao.
In the Philippines it is known as a center for religious and commercial activity. The name Quiapo comes from the kiyapo plant, a water cabbage (Pistia Stratiotes). The story goes as such: long before the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines, Quiapo was a farming community surrounded by canals from the Pasig River. Throughout the year, kiyapo plants would fill the canals to such an extent that the place came to be known as Kiyapo. In Tagalog, the name Kiyapo was changed to Quiapo at the behest of the Spanish. Before long, it was a prosperous part of the city where grand buildings, the Quiapo Church and numerous merchants could be found.
Quiapo was still an important district when the Americans arrived. Since the American colonial government wanted to make Manila the “business hub of the Orient,” it became even more prosperous with its preponderance of educational institutions and commercial establishments.
Catholicism and the Quiapo Church
The majority of the Filipino population is Christian, most of whom are Roman Catholic. As such, the Catholic Church exerts a powerful social and political influence over everyday life in the Philippines.
One of the most famous in Manila, the Quiapo Church was founded by Franciscan Missionaries in 1586 and made entirely of bamboo and Nipa palm. Located in the Plaza Miranda along the Quezon Boulevard, it is also known as “Church of the Black Nazarene” or the “Basílica Menor del Nazareno Negro” because it houses the “Black Nazarene,” a wooden sculpture of Christ believed to have been carved by a Mexican-Indian artist from Acapulco, Mexico and purchased with Spanish galleon.
Each Friday is known as Quiapo Day, when masses attend the church to visit Nuestro Señor Jesús Nazareno. Here they exhibit a traditional aspect of Filipino folk Catholicism: each of them climb the narrow stairs of the church to kiss Christ’s foot or wipe it with handkerchiefs kept specifically for this purpose. They believe this has a miraculous healing effect and will help them with their prayers.
The Muslim community in Quiapo
When asked about their Muslim neighbors, the current rector of Quiapo Church, Rev. Msgr. Jose Clemente Ignacio said, “The Muslim community is continuously growing. This population growth is accompanied by a growing tension between ethnolinguistic Moro tribes. The conflict in Mindanao is very complex, and is saturated with historical, economical, political and cultural issues. The government needs to include all stakeholders in order to find effective solutions to this problem, and these solutions should integrate all the aspects and issues mentioned.”
There is an Islamic Centre in the neighboring district of San Miguel. It was established in 1964 as a result of the exodus of Muslims from Southern Mindanao due to continued conflict between the government and various secessionist movements, first the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and later, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). San Miguel borders Quiapo to the east and south. However, its residents actually spend most of their time in Quiapo, since this is where their businesses have been established. That which unites the Quiapo and San Miguel communities is one of the biggest mosques in the country, the Golden Mosque.
The Golden Mosque, also known as the Masjid Al-Dahab, was built in 1978 by the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986) to honor the state visit of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. However, it was never able to fulfill its initial purpose, as Gaddafi’s visit to the Philippines was subsequently cancelled.
Nonetheless, the mosque eventually became one of Manila’s principal centers of Islamic culture, ensuring the vibrancy of the Muslim communities of Quiapo and San Miguel to this day.
Before the Spanish colonized the Philippines in the 15th century, Manila had been a wealthy kingdom effectively ruled by Muslims. Combined with an influx of Muslims from Southern Mindanao after the World War II, the presence of the Golden Mosque in the latter half of the 20th century made the Quiapo area an additionally desirable place to settle.
Asking the chief administrator of the Golden Mosque whether any interreligious confrontations had ever taken place between Muslims and Catholics, Mohammad Ershad replied: “We have never had nor desire to have any problems with our Catholic brothers, and anyone who wants to come is welcome in our little mosque.”
Plaza Miranda and the market
Plaza Miranda, in the heart of the Quiapo district, is a town square named after Jose Sandino y Miranda, secretary of the treasury of the Philippines from 1853 to 1863. It is located in front of the Quiapo Church and is a popular place for political rallies. On August 21, 1971, while the Liberal Party was holding a rally in the plaza, a bomb exploded, killing nine civilians and injuring nearly 100.
The first thing one notices when visiting Quiapo is the local vendors sitting side-by-side and selling religious accessories, herbal folk medicines and occult objects.
Of the folk medicine sold in Quiapo’s informal markets, the most (in)famous is the herbal preparation (pampa regla) used for abortions that is on sale just in front of the doors of the church. Although abortion is illegal in the Philippines, in Quiapo this illegal herbal remedy is readily available. In fact, it is individuals who cannot afford the actual surgical procedure that go to these vendors. The media often covers stories in which dead fetuses have been abandoned outside of the Quiapo Church.
Love potions are also common, in addition to herbal remedies for curing physical ailments, candles to petition for various needs, palm readers, tarot reading, astrology and other occult services – all just next to Quiapo Church. This amazing symbiosis of the religious and the occult can shock even local visitors, though it does leave an exotic impression upon everyone goes there. The extremely dense and busy nature of the place; the cacophony of music from people hawking pirated CDs and DVDs; the smell of local food being prepared on the sidewalk; from shoes to dresses, toys and household appliances, fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants, the presence of fortune tellers and sidewalk vendors contribute to the unique experience that awaits you in Quiapo.
Many might ask themselves how a country in which the Catholic Church exerts such a strong influence would allow these kinds of activities at the foot of the capital city’s church doors.
Yet a great many religious relics, amulets, prayer anecdotes, spiritual candles, etc. are also sold at the doors of the Quiapo Church. Similarly, itinerants near the Golden Mosque peddle black covering dresses, scarves and halal food to the Muslim community.
What’s more, the Plaza also provides a wide range of other services, such as street barbers and salons, electronic repairs and taga-dasal (someone who prays for your wishes).
An impoverished area where people get by on next to nothing, the Quiapo neighborhood is also full of beggars asking for alms and barefoot children persistently following people in the hope of procuring spare change, food, or something to drink. Anyone visiting the area will always be left with an indelible sight, sound and smell of poverty.
In the Philippines you can buy any manner of product wrapped in a small plastic bag, even shampoo, detergent and toothpaste are sold in small, individually wrapped plastic packs. This is because Filipinos live on subsistence-level wages – just enough to get them through the day. Hence their purchases are meant to suffice for one day at a time. By packaging products in small plastic sachets, they become affordable even to low income markets and those who are barely surviving, such as the homeless.
Though very difficult at times, many homeless families in Quiapo say they are generally happy with their conditions. To foreign observers, this might be described as the resilience of Filipinos, who constantly exude a positive attitude and a general sense of happiness. When the author asked a homeless single mother what her hopes for the future were, she said she hoped to still be there in the street, as happy as she is now.
A densely populated district with large concentrations of poverty, Quiapo immediately attracts all kinds of criminal activity, gang violence and large numbers of robberies.
Spikes in crime have been particularly noticeable on Fridays, when devoted Catholics flock to the Quiapo Church and their Muslim counterparts head to the Golden Mosque, providing criminals with far more moving targets that particular day of the week.
A nearby bridge that crosses a road with very heavy traffic and which connects Quiapo’s Catholic and Muslim communities has a security officer with a machine gun named Joseph Agnus, age 44. When asked what his main role is, he says he’s been contracted by a private company to protect a huge advertisement plastered across the bridge.
Aside from monitoring this criminally prone district around the clock, police also keep watch over the presumed illegal activities of old movie houses notorious for showing pornographic films and serving as brothels for male prostitutes.
In Quiapo’s golden days, American vaudeville, European opera and Tagalog zarzuela flourished here from the 1940s to the 1960s. Previously home to the music and theatre industries, it attracted the musically talented – composers, band and orchestra players, music teachers, instrument makers, opera costume designers and make-up artists, among others.
Seeing the glory of the neighborhood brought down by dirt and decay, it is only with a strong, sad sense of nostalgia that old timers remember Quiapo. One of them is Maria Santos-Viola, a granddaughter of Ariston Bautista and Perona Nakpil, two of Manila’s most prominent citizens in the first half of the 20th century. Today she runs the Nakpil-Bautista house as a museum showcasing items of the Katipunan, a movement that sought the independence from Spanish colonial rule and started the Philippine revolution in 1896.
According to Maria, one of the reasons behind Quiapo’s physical decay is the “rootlessness” of its people. The original wealthy and influential residents of Quiapo began moving to the suburbs of Quezon City and Makati in the 1970s. Without any particular attachment to Quiapo, the area’s new settlers are indifferent to the health of the neighborhood, seeing it only as a temporary place to live that has led to its current state of neglect.
One of the oldest houses in Quiapo, the Nakpil-Bautista House was built by the architect Arcadio Arellano for Dr. Ariston Bautista and his wife Perona Nakpil in 1914. Dr. Bautista was one of the first professors at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine and was widely know for having invented a medicine to combat cholera. Meanwhile, Perona was the sister of Julios Nakpil, a musician, composer and commander of the revolutionary Katipunan forces in the northern Philippines under Andrés Bonifacio. Andres Bonifacio, for his part, is known as being the “Father of the Philippine Revolution” for founding and subsequently leading the Katipunan movement.
But this was also house of Julio Nakpil and his wife Gregoria de Jesus, the latter of whom had first married to Andres Bonifacio at the age of 18 and joined him in the revolutionary struggle against Spain. When Bonifacio was executed, she fell in love with Julio Nakpil. As such, the museum gives some insight into the history of both the Ilustrados and the Katipunan revolutionary movement.
The Ilustrados was another term for the Filipino educated class during the 19th century. Initially, the Ilustrados preferred not to win independence from Spain, but instead petitioned for legal equality for both Peninsulares (Iberian-born Filipinos) and natives. Jose Rizal, an Ilustrado and national hero for his novels, Noli Me Tangere (“Touch Me Not”) and El filibusterismo (“The Subversive”), exposed the injustices imposed on Filipinos under the Spanish colonial regime to the rest of the world. Apart from these works, his eventual execution in 1896 would unite the Ilustrados with the Katipunan and eventually lead to the Philippine Revolution of 1896 and the Declaration of independence on 12 June 1898.
Surrounded by Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Malasia and Brunei, that later of which recently implemented Sharia Law, the Philippines is trying hard to suppress the rise of radical Islamism in its southern province of Mindanao. While much of the world burns with religious strife, the neighborhood of Quiapo in Manila is a welcome reminder that inter-religious coexistence is not only possible but also thriving in the Philippines.