The sky was ashen gray on the afternoon of January 17, 2015. A storm was coming, Mekkhala (locally called Amang), which brought rains on Pope Francis’ visit to Leyte that day. But the strip of sky over F. Varona Street in Tondo was brightened with varicolored buntings, fluttering in the occasional cold gusts. Aside from the makeshift stores selling snacks, from deep-fried fish balls to repackaged J. Co donuts, the street was lined with statues of Santo Niño, the infant Jesus, a popular religious icon in the Philippines. The statues came in many sizes and dressed in every imaginable costumes—from the traditional princely attire in velvet and gilt embroidery to uniforms of different professions.
Every year, the residents of Tondo bring out their Santo Niño statues for his feast day, every third Sunday of January. The Santo Niños were already out on the streets on the bisperas, or eve of the feast day. Residents were already receiving guests, who partook of the food and were anticipating the Lakbayaw Festival parade, which was due to start at 1 p.m. starting at the Tondo Church. It was slated to go through the streets of Ylaya, Claro M. Recto, Asuncion, Zaragosa, Wagas, J. Luna, Pritil, Herbosa, Velasquez, Ugbo, F. Varona, Perla, Santa Maria and J. Nolasco. The route only minimally changes every year, and every year it passes through F. Varona. What if it doesn’t?
“Magpoprotesta ang mga tao. Pupunta sa simbahan, lalo na ang mga matatanda (The people will protest. They will got the church, especially the old ones),” said literature professor and long-time resident Ferdinand Lopez.
At past five, the parade did arrive, bearing a multitude of Santo Niño statues in karosas or other vehicles, some made to dance as a sign of devotion, and full of dancing groups. In recent years, the fiesta has imbibed the festival elements, especially the street dancing, that have been in trend in the country. They dispensed though with the gaudy costumes and opted for uniform T-shirts and modern, popular Western dances and music, perhaps befitting the vibe of the Manila district, the most densely populated in the country. Most of the participants were young people, who have the endurance to dance and parade for more than five hours. Recently, the all-male group from Willie’s Gym has become popular for taking off their shirts to show their chiselled bodies while dancing. The parade was perhaps one of the longest in the country, ending at about past midnight. In the early days, the fluvial procession was the one that attracted many visitors.
On L. Chacon Street, Tondo Church began celebrating masses when the parade ended. Its present structure was built in the mid-nineteenth century. This is where the old Santo Niño statue is housed. It is said that the statue came from came from Acapulco, Mexico. A rich merchant gave it to the Archbishop of Manila, who later gave it over to the parish priest of Tondo in 1572. There are several folk stories about the image. One of the most popular is the account of its theft. The image was stolen on July 14, 1972. During this time, people say it rained incessantly, flooding most parts of Tondo. Three days later, the statue was found but dismembered. It is partly made of ivory with gold and silver embellishments. The image was brought to the Malacañan Palace to be repaired and was returned to Tondo on Aug. 2 via a procession led by then First Lady Imelda Marcos. Upon its return, the rain stopped and the floods subsided. The procession on January 18 was more solemn and traditional. Karosas and makeshift floats bearing the Santo Niños assembled by the church as early as four in the morning. The procession went through a more circuitous route, going to more streets as the sky slowly began to light up.
|Along F. Varona Street|
|Willie's Gym contingent|
|The Santo Nino de Tondo Church|
|The Santo Nino de Tondo|
All photographs by Roel Hoang Manipon