I will be blogging my memories of Cebu with accompanying sketch. This first personal essay is about the Santo Nino de Cebu.
These sketches are part of the book, Magical Years Memories & Sketches by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, available as a limited edition of 100 copies from email@example.com.
SANTO NINO DE CEBU
Copyrignt 2021 by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
I was born and raised in the island of Cebu where my mother’s people came from. My father and his family came from another part of the Philippines—the North, Laguna specifically, where people spoke another dialect and ate meat and vegetable dishes with strong flavors. Laguna used to fascinate me for the simple fact that my father was born and raised there. Otherwise, it looked like any other provincial town, with a city hall, old church, and Spanish colonial stone and wood houses. I never lived there and only heard secondhand stories about my father’s family, about how for instance they had owned huge tracks of land which my grandfather gambled away. Laguna was a kind of mythic place which I didn’t really know.
It is Cebu I know. The very first breath I took was in Cebu. My first words were those spoken by Cebuanos. Even though I’d gone on to live in other places in the world, it is as if I carry a part of it within me always and likewise I feel as if Cebu has a place for me always.
My mother was in the nearby island of Opon for the fiesta of the Birhen sa Regla (Virgin of the Rule), patroness of the place, when her birth pains came. This was in 1947, two and a half years after Liberation. She had to catch the ferry to hurry to St. Anthony’s Maternity Clinic in Cebu City. It was Doctora Ramona Fernandez who assisted her. She had to be summoned in the early morning. On November 21, at 8:30 a.m. I was born, the fifth child of my mother, although one had died during wartime and so I grew up with three siblings. I was a large baby, almost 10 lbs, but with beriberi, a disease caused by thiamine deficiency (B1 specifically) and characterized by edema, weakness, irritability, and more serious issues such as heart problems. I was always told this was because my mother was malnourished during the War, and I, her baby in her womb, was also malnourished.
Mama turned to the Santo Niño de Cebu, the Child Jesus patron of Cebu, famous for being miraculous. My mother danced her prayer to the Santo Nino so I would live. There in the old stone church, she shuffled to the left and to the right, as she prayed: Please miraculous Santo Nino, save this child. I already lost the boy during the war, save this little girl. She lit candles; she walked on her knees; she bargained with God.
In 1947, two years after end of World War II, my mother’s health was still fragile from their harsh war life in Mindanao where my father worked for the guerrilla movement. She was malnourished and still had bouts of malaria which she contracted in the hinterland. Her vitamin deficiency, thiamine in particular, caused my infantile beriberi. Family members said I had edema and my eyes were rolled up so only the whites could be seen. The symptoms of beriberi include these plus vomiting, diarrhea, ill temper, weight loss. Unchecked I would have had cardiac and neurology problems. Put simply I was close to dying, and while dying had become part of their lives from war days, they fought to keep me alive.
Doctora Fernandez pumped me full of thiamine, while my mother turned to the Santo Niño of Cebu, the wooden statue of the Child Jesus, which was said to be miraculous. People told fanciful stories of how He roamed at night so that in the morning his boots and robe were damp and dirty from his nocturnal walk. But people preferred talking about the miracles caused by the Santo Niño: diseases conquered, alcoholism stopped, lonely people finding their significant other, legal disputes solved, money flowing in abundance, lives saved. Like mine.
The statue had been brought to Cebu by the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan who led the Spanish expedition in 1521. The image of the Child Jesus was one of his gifts to Rajah Humabon and his chief consort Hara Humamay (later christened Juana). This first visit by the Europeans turned out disastrous with Magellan getting killed in the island of Mactan and the rest of his crew driven away. But the Spaniards returned in 1565. They attacked and burned the native settlement. In the midst of the destruction, a pine box with the statue of the Santo Nino was discovered. The Santo Nino was intact and this was taken as a miraculous sign. A church was built on the spot where the image was found, and from that time on, people have always turned to the Santo Nino for help, as my mother had.
All throughout my childhood and even later on as a grown woman visiting her, my mother brought me to the Santo Niño. She and I would stand in line and make our way to the back of the altar, climb some steps, and kiss the base of the statue. She made me understand I owed Him my life, that I was some kind of miracle. I did not know it but my birth, my survival, was a sign of hope to my parents. I signaled the sure beginning of a new life. A life unlike the one they had led for four years in the jungles of Mindanao.
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