By Juan L. Mercado

PILGRIMS, TOURISTS, politicians to pickpockets are flooding into Cebu for the centuries-old Santo Nino fiesta. Added come-on is the “Sinulog”: street dances, concerts and programs that explode in music, light and color.

This year’s rites drew 51 dance groups, including one from Cambodia. The well-to-do jam hotels. A “Devotees City,” consisting of containers, stacked together, houses indigent pilgrims.

“This is not a Mardi Gras,” the Organizing Committee stressed. This distance a basically religious festival from the bacchanalian carnivals, like Rio de Janeiro’s pre-Ash Wednesday carnival.

Bikinis are verboten. In a flowing gown, 21-year old Sian Elizabeth Maynard was picked Miss Cebu 2008. “Oh to be 70 again.” the 84-year old Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes sighed as young girls tripped by.

Over a hundred boats trailed the launch that sailed up polluted Mactan Channel with the Nino. In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan’s vessels carried this, the revered Flemish icon vessels up this then-pristine strait.

The rites recall how Magellan gave the Nino to Sugbu’s rulers then, predecessors of today’s Mayor Tomas Osmena and Governor Gwendolyn Garcia – who’ll honor the Child by dancing, in sea goddess regalia, with a fishing town contingent.

After shelling of Cebu in 1565, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and his men re-discovered the Nino. It is enshrined in today’s basilica where, over the centuries, it draws crowds. Some are curious. Others are passers-by. Many go for a culture bash. And scores pray for help and healing.

Affection for the Child wells up from below. One glimpses as crowds surge forward. No organizing committee can jerry-rig such gut reaction. And myths abound.

Some nights, an old tale goes: the Child slips away from his altar. He walks the streets: comforting, blessing, curing. Dawn, the Nino’s cloak is sometimes studded with the weed: amor seco (Spanish for “dry love”). Some botanists shrug. Andropogan aciculatus merely proves deforested Cebu is semi arid..

So, why is the academic community absent in an enterprise where everybody else pitches? It’s not lack of scientific material. University of San Carlos published a compilation of ethno-historical studies on the Santo Nino in “Philippine Quarterly of Culture & Society” (Vol 34, No. 3)

What happened to “the image of a lady carved in wood, holding her child” which the historian Fr. Antonio Pigaffeta recorded was given to given the wife of Raja Humabon, after her baptism,” asks Anthropolgist Astrid Sala Boza. Using contrafactual methodology, she questions the claim this is the same icon now enshrined in Cebu’s Our Lady of Guadalupe basilica

In “Contested Site of the Finding,” Dr Sala-Boza’s research challenges claims that today’s San Nicols ( Cebu El Viejo ) was where the Nino’s image was found. Her exceptionally penetrating study of “chiefly power in Sugbu as protostate” is a rich lode for history professors and teachers.

Theologians and psychologists will be provoked by her use of Carl Jung’s “synchronicities” method to cast light on, for example, the Nino’s Philippine landing in April 1521 and the Protestant reformation in Europe.

But is worship sealed off, on a “split level”, from deeds, the Jesuit psychologist Jaime Bulatato often asked. Indeed, popular devotion “continues to animate the life of the people”, The Third Pastoral Assembly said earlier. “But there is, in fact a marked dichotomy between faith and life, between worship and activity.”

An official who attends Sunday Mass, honoring the Child, buys on Monday 683 lamps, overpriced P89, 315 each for the Asean Summit. And some who held lighted tapers, in the Nino’s procession, ushered in Cebu’s “hot car miracle”: registrations vaulted from only two in 2006 to 3,906 last year.

The litmus test for devotion to the Nino is how Filipino children fare here. Chronic hunger reduces one out of three into a puny underweight. That’s 9.31 million kids. Another 3.8 are stunted. They don’t starve to death. But debilitating – and preventable — diseases like TB, anemia, diarrhea take their toll.

An 11-year comparative study, by last Nutrition National Survey found that, by 2003, improvement inched forward by only five percent “At this rate, it will take maybe half a century before we can eradicate the problem of malnutrition”

Kids can’t wait. “Their name is today”. The British medical journal “The Lancet” released, this Sto Nino week, a study of the Philippines and 19 other countries. “Undernutrition is to blame for 3.5 million deaths among children aged under five each year — more than a third of child deaths worldwide,” it concluded. Most fatalities “occur in 20 countries, where targeted aid programs could swiftly address the problem.”
Majority of deaths are “inflicted indirectly by stunting and poor resistance to disease. And two of the biggest culprits are lack of vitamin A and zinc during the mother’s pregnancy and the child’s first two years of life”

Striking a child in anger may be pardoned, George Bernard Shaw once said. “But a blow, against a child in cold blood,” as in the continued tolerance of malnutrition, is an obscenity. “Let the little children come to Me,” the Nino said.

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