MANILA, Philippines?Filipinos may be famous?or infamous?for leaving practically everything to chance or to fate. But that does not mean they are not trying everything they can to convince the cosmic forces of the universe and gods of all persuasions to act in their favor.
This is why even if many Filipinos are hard up financially, they would still spend part of their hard-earned money on lucky charms, amulets and trinkets that they wholeheartedly believe have the power to bring them fortune.
And chances are a good part of that money will find its way into the cramped side streets that lead into the Baroque-style Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in downtown Manila?more popularly known as the Quiapo church? where vendors sitting side by side in their makeshift stalls have been selling talismans to attract lady luck for decades.
Francisca Cam-ed, a member of the Kankana-ey tribe from Mountain Province in northern Philippines, peddles round ?sinag araw? (sun ray) wood chips from the native sinukuan tree about an inch in diameter that you are supposed to put in your pocket, wallet or purse ?para magaan ang pasok ng pera? (so money will easily come in).
Not a bad deal
For just P10 each, certainly not a bad deal, or so some Filipinos firmly believe.
The 50-year-old Cam-ed, who inherited her spot on the busy street from her mother, says that the ?kamay na kapit? (gripping hand)?a twig with what looks like a hand clasping a branch?is also quite popular among buyers.
The more defined the ?fingers? and the tighter the grip, the more powerful it is supposed to be. And you are expected to display the P10 twig in stores or place of business to unleash its ?powers? and attract money or customers through the door.
The more expensive and rare P50 ?bulaklak ng sinukuan? (sinukuan flower), which can be fashioned into a pendant, is also supposed to do the same trick. Some prefer this to the ?kamay na kapit? since they can bring it with them every day and it has the added power of repelling evil spirits.
Can?t decide which one to buy? Then you can always go for a combination pack costing P35 each that contains a sinukuan wood chip and a ?kamay na kapit.? Bing Abellon, a babaylan or native priestess, says she regularly goes to Quiapo to buy her charms like sinukuan chips and kamay na kapit because she needs them for ?religious? rituals in her native Antique.
Abellon says she buys even more in the days before Good Friday, one of the holiest days in the Roman Catholic calendar as it marks the death of Jesus Christ, saying that supernatural forces are extra powerful during the season of Lent.
She says that after she buys the charms from Quiapo, she will put them inside a jar filled with oil. She will then join other babaylans and head off on Holy Tuesday for a nice, quiet place in the mountains?most probably in nearby Montalban in Rodriguez, Rizal?where they say a Roman Catholic prayer (in archaic Latin no less) and then bury the jar with the charms.
Magic good for a year
They will unearth the jar three days later or on Good Friday, where predominantly Catholic Philippines almost comes to a standstill, when mystical powers are supposed to be at their height, thus imbuing the charms with the strength to repel evil and attract good fortune.
?That magic will be good for the rest of the year,? says Abellon, adding that she still gets a lot of clients looking for the charms despite the crisis because there will always be somebody looking for all the help they can get in their business and health, even their love life.
Other vendors, meanwhile, make do with just bringing their charms, amulets and trinkets to Quiapo church to have them ?blessed.?
Ate Glo, who has been manning her small fortune teller booth in another street near Quiapo church since 1965, also invokes basic Catholic prayers like Our Father and Hail Mary to help her give a more accurate reading of her tarot cards.
And like the vendors of amulets, charms and trinkets, Ate Glo does not expect her line of clients to be cut short anytime soon despite the global turmoil that has forced people to cut spending.
?Marami akong suki (I have a lot of loyal clients),? says makeup-wearing and cigarette-smoking Ate Glo, who reads cards for between P50 and P100 a session depending on the complexity of their questions and the kind of cards they want read.
Playing cards are cheaper than tarot cards, says Ate Glo in between long drags on her cigarette, explaining that they are also more accurate and more difficult to read hence the premium price.
Portly Ate Glo says most of the people who come to her ask her if the person they are seeing or married to would bring them luck, or if they would stay happy with them. Others, meanwhile, ask about how their contract will fare and if they will really get the chance to leave for abroad.
?Minsan talaga, walang suwerte (Sometimes, people really are not so lucky),? explains Ate Glo, but says she advises them to earnestly pray to God to help change their fortunes. ?Sinasabi ko sa kanila na magdasal sila araw araw ng rosary (I tell them to pray the rosary every day).?
Such an unusual melding of traditional folklore and Christian faith, best illustrated by the brisk trade in fortune telling and amulet-selling beside one of the most celebrated churches in the Philippines, where thousands flock to every day to see the 400-year-old life-size image of the Black Nazarene, is frowned upon by the Roman Catholic Church.
?Lucky charms, superstitions, horoscopes ? we call these non-Christian because they differ from catechism. People who believe in them give control of things not to Christ or God but in other forces,? explained Monsignor Pepe Quitorio, spokesperson and media director of the influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. ?Even evil spirits has some role to play.?
But Quitorio says the clergy admit that such a belief system is not necessarily unexpected given that centuries before the Spaniards came to the Philippines with their Roman Catholic faith in the 1500s, Filipinos already had a sophisticated religious system, one that revolved around the worship of nature?s treasures such as trees, rivers and mountains.
?The challenge then for us is to instill Christianity into the core of people so that they will know that the power over their life comes just from God,? Quitorio said.
But Ate Glo, who says many clients come back to her to say that her prediction came true, sees nothing wrong with mixing her professed Catholic faith with her fortune telling.
?Binabasa ko lang yung nasa mga baraha. Ano masama dun? (I just read the cards. What?s wrong with that?),? she says.
What, indeed. And in these days of uncertainty, people really need all the luck they can get.