One of my earliest memories involves kneeling next to my Filipino mother at her home altar. Her altar has two Virgin Mary statues, one of sterling silver and the other of porcelain, and a Santo Nino. Santo Nino is clothed in velvet robes and wears a gold crown on his head. There is a small stack of prayer books and an electric tealight candle on the altar as well.
My mother has had this altar in her home since I was a little baby. I don’t remember it ever not being there. Now that I am older, I see that this altar was her connection to a land and a people she left behind in favor of the American dream. Her altar is a source of solace in times of despair, a source of comfort in time of loss, and a source of joy in times of happiness.
The statues on her altar hold an interesting history for the Filipino people. They were introduced 500 years ago when the Spanish colonists landed on the Philippine Islands for “God, gold, and glory.” Their expeditions to the Philippines led to the gradual erasure of a multitude of indigenous, animist spiritualities, and with the erasure of these practices came the erasure of an older way of living and being in the world. Polytheism was exchanged for Jesus.
On March 14, Pope Francis held a celebratory Mass at the Vatican to mark the 500-year anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. Many Filipinos were overjoyed with the commemoration. Others were angered. They knew that Catholicism came with conquest and sometimes violence for their ancestors.
My mother has said many Hail Marys at her altar over the years. For some, the Virgin Mary is a symbol of Spanish conquest, but for Catholics like my mother, it is also a symbol of hope.
Mama Mary and Santo Nino have held my mother tenderly through the rough patches of being a newly immigrated person in America, a country that also holds a history of anti-Asian violence and racism. Still, my mother keeps Virgin Mary and Santo Nino close.
Some may point at the foolishness of devout Filipino Catholics, foolish for holding a religion that was introduced to them through colonialism. But when the memories of ancestral and indigenous practices have been so erased from a people’s memory, what else can they cling to?
I applaud my mother and many Filipinos like her for still clinging, for still praying, for still believing.
The Philippines is one of the few Asian countries that is predominantly Christian. However, there are pockets of indigenous spiritualities that are vibrant throughout the Philippine Islands. Babaylans, also known as shamans and healers, are descendants of the spiritual lineage that existed before Spanish colonialism. Their beliefs are animistic and they see the divine in all of nature. They use an older set of knowledge to tend to the needs of the communities around them.
Many Filipinos—yes, even Filipino Catholics—visit them to cure ailments when they are unable to go to the mainstream hospitals and medical clinics. I visited one once.
I was 19 years old and I wasn’t feeling well. My cousin took me to a babaylan who lived on the outskirts of the town where my grandparents lived. The babaylan was an elderly woman in her 70s or 80s with a gentle demeanor and kind eyes. She made a homemade tonic for me and told me to drink it up. She said I would feel better if I did. Then she prayed for me in her dialect.
When we returned home, I was very hesitant to drink the tonic. All of the anti-indigenous narratives flooded my thoughts and kept me from placing my full faith in the ancestral wisdom which this elderly woman held, an ancestral wisdom which I held too, although it was dormant and suppressed within me.
If I drank the tonic, would I have been healed? Or would I have committed a mortal sin?
Did the Spaniards commit a mortal sin when they pillaged Filipino lands and people for the glories of Spain and the papacy?
I’ll let you decide.
Twenty-five years after that moment, I reverted to the Catholic faith. My cousin made a trip to the Philippines during my reversion. When she returned, she sent me a present from our homeland: a Santo Nino statue of my own, along with a perpetual novena booklet to Santo Nino. I proceeded to create an altar in my home, just like my mother did when I was a child.
Unlike my mother’s statue, my Santo Nino is brown-skinned, but he wears the same velvet robes and gold crown and scepter. Looking at my Santo Nino today, I see how the Catholicism which the Spaniards brought to the islands isn’t the same Catholicism which is practiced throughout the Philippines. Filipino Catholicism is uniquely Filipino. It’s infused with traditions and cultural practices which echo an ancient era where babaylans were central to the villages and communities.
Indigenous Filipino spirituality was transformed into the religious practices of many Filipino Catholics today. We have the Feast of the Black Nazarene where people play the role of Christ and flagellate and crucify themselves during Holy Week and Good Friday. However, the Philippines is also the place where people refuse to go directly home after a wake for fear that the spirit of the deceased follows them home.
For the Filipino people, spiritual and the superstitious blend together in a seamless cultural garment.