Magellan’s gift | Inquirer News
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Magellan’s gift

/ 07:42 AM January 17, 2013

There is little doubt that Humabon’s wife, who had days before been christened Juana, had been gifted by Magellan with the image of the Sto. Niño with the admonition to destroy all the idols and the shrines that were lining the seashore. This fact is undisputed in Relazione del Primo Viaggio Intorno al Mondo (Account of the First Circumnavigation of the World) published in 1524 by the expedition’s chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta.

The question that remains unanswered is why Juana so readily accepted this gift. Pigafetta writes that Juana, upon seeing the image (as well as an image of the Virgin Mary and a crucifix) for the first time, “was seized with contrition, and weeping, asked for baptism.”


There is one plausible answer to this question. The ease with which the image was accepted by Juana may have something to do with the Malay folkloric tradition of children as bearers of divinity or as manifestations of the divine itself. Even until today, Filipinos see children as devoid of the sin of the world or to a certain extent, innocent and devoid of evil until they reach a certain age.

In her seminal scholarly book on the Sinulog published in 1984, anthropologist Sally Ann Ness of the University of Washington posits that the many folkloric traditions that have been built up over the centuries about the Sto. Niño have “localized” what is otherwise a Spanish (Western) image. Such stories of children performing miracles were already in existence even before the coming of European colonizers to Southeast Asia. It is thus no wonder that there is very little in the traditions and practices revolving around this image that can now be called Western, well except for some parts of the Sinulog dance steps.


Note for example the miraculous healing of the “grand vizier” of Humabon, his unnamed uncle who comes down to us as Baladjay in folklore. While Pigafetta discusses this event devoid of what really transpired inside the house of Baladjay in the days in which Spaniards attempted to heal him (and quite successfully, I might add), local lore has it (and I wrote about this in this space about the same time last year) that the Sto. Niño had been teasing him, fencing with him as it were using a coconut midrib. Such a “humanizing” characterization of a religious image of the infant Jesus is not something one finds among European Catholics.

Such localizations even reach preposterous assertions that many see no problem believing in: the legend of the Sto. Niño reaching Cebu not as a gift from Magellan but as a burnt piece of wood (locally “agipo”) floating on the sea caught by a fisherman. Even the particular section of the Sinulog dance where the image of the Sto. Niño is carried aloft and moved sideways as if in gesticulation finds resonance with traditional ways of warding off spirits among some indigenous communities.

There is so much in the Sto. Niño that ought to fascinate the non-believer or the passive observer of what some see as nothing but an image used by the unscrupulous for commercial gain and profit.  Indeed, there is no doubt that the annual Sinulog festival that began in 1980 has now become a huge commercial success as the most attended festival in all of the Philippines.

But to the believer, that is one more miracle that the Sto. Niño has showered upon Cebu.

* * *

Yesterday I received this text message from a good friend of mine, an academician with a doctorate who has since retired but still teachers some courses at a local university: “Jo, why are mediamen putting Gwen down?”

As a consultant of Gov. Gwendolyn F. Garcia who, together with Ruel Rigor and other heritage practitioners, helped her actualize her desire to instill pride of place and a sense of identity among Cebuanos, I must admit that, for obvious reasons, I have been trying to avoid issuing a direct statement and impassioned plea concerning her plight because people would simply dismiss this as the rantings and ravings of a biased source. More importantly, however, I fear I might cross the ethical bounds of journalism that Sun Star columnist Bong Wenceslao so passionately writes about.


Make no mistake: I do have my own opinion about the very nature of her predicament. I just do not want to write it out loud in this column because I always believe that the role of writers and broadcasters is to educate people, to provide them with the facts so that they can form their own judgments. (My writings on this issue are therefore about recalling lessons in the past.)

Obviously, in the midst of the ongoing impasse at the Capitol, there are writers and broadcasters who do not share my view of the journalistic world. And so they keep on lambasting the governor, attacking her at a personal level, calling her “kapit-tuko” and “bagag nawong” without giving space to an intelligent discussion on the merits or demerits of the case she is in.

It is not incumbent upon me to pass judgment on these people.

It is going to be social scientists and scholars in the future who will scrutinize this singular event in Cebuano history and see how the mass media fared: whether it stood its ground and reported with objectivity or lost its favored independence and succumbed to narrow partisan political agendas. My only hope is that I will still be alive when the weighing happens and some will be surely found wanting.

Pit Señor to all of us!

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TAGS: Antonio Pigafetta, Cebu, Ferdinand Magellan, Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia, History, Media, Rajah Humabon, Relazione del Primo Viaggio Intorno al Mondo (Account of the First Circumnavigation of the World), Sinulog, Sinulog festival, Sto. Niño
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