Wednesday, July 11, 2007

(UPDATED) Quiapo: A place of miracles

by Erika Tapalla

QUIAPO, Philippines--- “We need to see miracles,” says Aling Seling Pineras, a regular at Plaza Miranda. It is a cloudy Friday afternoon and hundreds of people have gathered around Plaza Miranda, in Quiapo. Their arms and hands shield their most private parts from the subtle shoving and elbowing of the crowd.

An inexperienced spectator would think either someone important died or a local celebrity was in the area for self-promotion. But no one important died and there are no celebrities. Fridays at Plaza Miranda are just always jam-packed with thousands of people from all walks of life carrying some cash in one pocket and hope for a miracle in the other.

Miracles come in different forms and in Quiapo, a district in the Manila capital, there are three main customs of obtaining them. Some choose faith in touching the feet of the miraculous dark, wooden, life-size statue of Christ placed high above the altar of the Church; some invest in their fate in the cards disclosed by the dozens of fortune tellers lined in the shade; and some turn to the alternative medicinal concoctions claimed to cure everything from headaches to unwanted pregnancies.

Hustling about in Plaza Miranda - Photograph by: Hub Pacheco

Seling turns to all three customs in times of difficulty. “Everyone in Quiapo can give you miracles,” Seling says. She claims it’s hard to leave the important decisions and troubles in life solely to prayer, to fortune told, or to the concoctions sold at a cheap price.

Whenever Seling is in limbo, she seeks Madam Cecil, “the very best of the fortune tellers.” Clad in a leopard-print blouse, Madam Cecil, an aged woman with a misleading red dot of lipstick on her forehead meant to ward off evil, fans herself as she talks about her occupation. She has been a fortune teller since 23, a job inherited from her grandmother. Unlike others who claim to have a third eye or blessed with psychic abilities, Madam Cecil secretly admits she is just a good judge of character.

“To tell you the truth, I just read the expressions on their faces and their eyes. Sometimes, I don’t even need to interpret the cards,” she says. “I already know what to say from their questions.” By trying to be a confidant and adviser to the client, Madam Cecil gives them the strength they need to make difficult decisions in life. This is precisely why Seling needs Madam Cecil.

When Seling was impregnated twice, she was fully aware she could not keep the child so she chose to drink the “pamparegla” or menstruation inducer.

In Quiapo, abortion isn’t so much a sin or nearly as shameful when the sidewalks are paved with vendors waving corked, emerald bottles of menstruation inducers. The vendors’ helpers lure people with signs reading “1 or 2 months late?”

“A lot of people buy it because having a child is costly,” Seling says. “I know you think I’m a bad person but Lord knows I did a good thing. He has forgiven me.”

An array of medicinal concoctions - Photograph by: Lauren D.

Interestingly, Seling picked Thursdays for both her abortions so she could spend Fridays seeking redemption and forgiveness from God, falling in line to touch the 400-year-old Black Nazarene statue to cleanse her sins. Seeing past the irony of these menstruation inducers lining the Church façade, these concoctions meet the hopes of hundreds of women not wanting to become mothers.

While other people hustle about on the streets bargaining for the cheapest menstruation inducers, DVDs, used and maybe even stolen technological gadgets, an extensive echo of voices is heard howling the “Ama Namin” or “The Lord’s prayer”. The whimpers are solemnly strong they are nearly terrifying.

From a distance, Seling points behind the Church where prayer warriors sitting on their plastic stools wait for someone to approach them for a prayer on their behalf. Usually, clients or customers just give them loose change.

Sometimes it’s hard to take notice of the little miracles in a life full of misery or in a world that does not stop for you, which is why Seling says: “Quiapo gives miracles.” Although it is a place filled with moral irony and almost apathetic people, miracles resonate from every inch of Quiapo.

“Everything is a miracle if you look close enough,” as Madam Cecil says.

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