‘Miracle children’ join parents in Black Nazarene devotions ahead of Traslacion

JC Gotinga
‘Miracle children’ join parents in Black Nazarene devotions ahead of Traslacion
Their very lives an answered prayer, these children join their parents in the Pahalik and replica procession that precede the yearly Traslacion of the enigmatic Catholic icon

MANILA, Philippines – Angelo Uchi, 6 years old, lies slumped on the leatherette roof of his father Ariel’s tricycle. Beside him, about the same size as he is, a wooden Jesus Christ bends under the weight of his equally wooden cross.

Except for the golden embroidery on the icon’s velveteen tunic, Angelo wears the same colors as this wooden Jesus: a maroon shirt and sun-kissed brown skin.

Theirs is among the first of hundreds of other wooden Jesus Christs lined up along Villalobos Street, all dressed in ornate finery that contrasts with the anguished expression on their thorn-pierced faces.

It’s Tuesday, January 7, two days ahead of the yearly Traslacion of the Black Nazarene icon in Quiapo, Manila, and devotees from all over have begun to descend upon its basilica that opens to the historic Plaza Miranda.

Resounding from the plaza’s loudspeakers, an impassioned baritone sings, “Nuestro Padre, Jesus Nazareno,” Spanish for “Our Father, Jesus Nazarene,” the hymn dedicated to the deity after whom the icon was fashioned.

Here and there around the plaza, hundreds of police officers stand guard in half-dozen clumps, chatting casually with one another, now and then turning to a passerby asking for directions.

All through Villalobos Street, across the plaza from the basilica’s doors, the Black Nazarene replicas and their entourage of devotees await the traditional blessing and procession that serves as a precursor to the Traslacion itself. The queue spans 6 blocks, turning left at Palanca Street up all the way across the bridge on Estero de San Miguel, then left again at P. Casal Street up to the corner of Arlegui Street.

YOUNG DEVOTEE. Angelo Uchi guards his family's replica of the Black Nazarene atop his father's tricycle during the replica procession in Quiapo, Manila, on January 7, 2020. Photo by JC Gotinga/Rappler

Rather bored, Angelo watches the goings on with his sister Abril, 10, who’s also on the tricycle’s roof on the other side of their Black Nazarene replica. On the ground by another tricycle in front of theirs, Angelo’s brother MJ, 13, cracks jokes with other lads from their neighborhood in Morong, Rizal.

On their tricycle’s driver seat, Ariel Uchi takes advantage of the lull to rest from the long drive. It will be a long procession, too. In the passenger seat, his wife Melanie cradles 4-year-old Maria Sofia, their youngest, who is fast asleep despite the noise all around.

“It makes me quite happy that we hardly ever get sick. Just very few times,” Ariel tells Rappler, in Tagalog, of the reason he’s here with half of his family. His 3 older children, with work or chores to do yet, are to join them for the Traslacion itself.

With 7 children, 4 of them in school and one still nursing, Ariel makes sure not to ask too much from the Black Nazarene, or God. Three square meals a day, no one sick in the family, and no harm upon any of them – just these and he’s eternally grateful.

He splits his time between working as a barangay tanod (patrol) in Sta. Cruz, Quezon City, from 10 pm to 6 am on weekdays for which he earns P5,100 a month, and driving his tricycle taking passengers around the Frisco Market from noon until his night patrol shift starts again. He makes about P250 a day from the tricycle.

The whole family used to live together in Sta. Cruz, but ever since their shanty was demolished during a drive against informal settlers in 2018, Melanie and the children have had to live in Morong, Rizal, where the government relocated them.

FAMILY AFFAIR. The Uchi family takes their Black Nazarene icon onboard their tricycle to join the procession of replicas in Quiapo, Manila, every year. Photo by JC Gotinga/Rappler

Ariel only sees his family on weekends, when there is time to make the 2-, sometimes 3-hour journey between Quezon City and Morong.

He hardly gets to spend time with his children, and he sometimes mixes up their names and ages when asked to enumerate them.

“Each time I leave the house, I always pray that he would guide them and not let anything happen to them,” Ariel says of his family’s Black Nazarene replica, which occupies a shrine by the door of their home in Morong.

“You never know with these times. There are locos (crazies) out there. But by God’s mercy, even when I’m not there, even when the kids are by themselves, nothing wrong happens,” and that, Ariel says, is what the Black Nazarene does for him and his family.

“Oh but we had an accident!” Melanie interrupts. How could her husband forget?

“We had an accident and the Lord Nazarene saved us!” Melanie volunteers the story, her best evidence of the Black Nazarene’s power.

One day in August 2013, she and Ariel were driving their tricycle along Quezon Avenue when a car hit them just as they were passing by the Pegasus night club.

The tricycle reeled from the impact. It knocked Melanie off the passenger seat. Ariel sustained a minor fracture on his back, which had to be bandaged for weeks.

But here’s the miracle, Melanie says: she was 8 months pregnant with Angelo when the accident happened. It was quite a crash but she was unscathed, and the baby in her womb, unharmed.

Convinced it was the Black Nazarene’s protection that saved them, Melanie says she and Ariel refused the car driver’s offer of money to compensate them, save for the cost of medicines for Ariel’s back.

“Because it was nothing, really. I don’t know how. There wasn’t a single scratch on me.”

The car driver even offered to pay the hospital bill when Melanie gave birth to Angelo a month later, but still she refused it. How could one exact payment for a miracle?

DEVOTEES. Ariel Uchi (2nd from right), his family, and their neighbors wait in line to join a procession of Black Nazarene replicas in Quiapo, Manila, on January 7, 2020. Photo by JC Gotinga/Rappler

Maybe a daughter

Across the Pasig River from Quiapo, at the Quirino Grandstand at the Luneta, devotees have begun queuing up for the Pahalik (to kiss), another tradition that precedes the Traslacion.

The official traveling icon of the Black Nazarene, which contains a portion of the original sculpture transported by galleon from Acapulco in Mexico to Manila in 1606, sits on the main stage in front of a wood-and-tarp backdrop. The tail of its cross and the foot of its kneeling leg poke backstage through holes on the backdrop, where a steady stream of devotees plant a kiss and wipe a towel on these portions of the icon.

It is this Black Nazarene that will be pulled through the streets and alleys of downtown Manila on Thursday, January 9, by millions of its devotees to bring it home to Quiapo Church.

It’s a warm, sunny afternoon, and the people filing through Quirino Grandstand to kiss the object of their devotion are sweating. Good thing the queue moves along quickly. Plant your kiss and wipe your towel and go, no drama or long prayers during your moment with the icon. Other supplicants are waiting.

In her few seconds with the Black Nazarene, Jovilyn Ampolitud, a young mother, remembers to pray for world peace, the country’s protection from calamities, the healing of every sick person, the forgiveness of sins – hers and her loved ones’ – and guidance for her family, especially her son, 5-year-old Jael Ace.

She tells Rappler all this in a single breath, perhaps the way she did as she kissed the much-venerated foot and cross.

Little Jael Ace holds Jovilyn’s hand with one of his, and his father Junjun’s with the other, as they emerge from the Pahalik. It’s a quick, quiet affair.

BACKSTAGE PASS. Devotees line up for the traditional Pahalik on the image of the Black Nazarene at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila on January 7, 2019. Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

Having grown up in San Andres, Manila, Jovilyn and Junjun were raised as devotees of the Black Nazarene.

Junjun recalls joining the Traslacion at 5 years old – the same age as Jael Ace now – and beams with pride.

“They used to hurl me at the Nazareno,” he chuckles, aware of how crazy the idea seems. But he had never been hurt in the Traslacion all these years, he says, and any ache or pain one gets from all that jostling with other devotees goes away upon touching or even just seeing the icon.

Now a factory worker for a beer company, Junjun rushes from work every January 9 to jump into the frenzy around the Andas, the icon’s carriage, wherever it is by the time he arrives downtown.

Junjun and Jovilyn do not usually ask for anything big from the Black Nazarene during the Traslacion beyond the good health and well-being of their loved ones, and world peace. But in 2014, when they had been lovers for 10 years and married for 3, they came to the feast with a special request.

They wanted a child. They had been trying to conceive, but it just wouldn’t happen. So they prayed to the Black Nazarene for it.

“Sure enough, that year, he came to us,” Jovilyn says, gazing at Jael Ace. The boy, embarrassed, buries his face in his mother’s waist.

That was the biggest blessing they have received from the Nazarene so far, the young couple says. It’s been 5 years since then, and they’ve returned with another special request.

“Perhaps he can grant us one more,” Junjun smiles and places a hand on his child’s head.

“Maybe a daughter,” Junjun adds, glancing shyly at Jovilyn, whose eyes fill with love. Then the Ampolituds go off to enjoy their afternoon at the Luneta. – Rappler.com

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.