Most people have heard of El Nino, when the Pacific Ocean tides are warm and the weather is stormy.

But most discussions of El Nino merely translate it as “Boy”. or “the boy”. A typical explanation is found HERE:
El Nino is first noticed along the South American coast around Christmas (hence the origin from Peruvian fishermen of its Spanish name (“the child”)

Well, no, not exactly. You see, it’s not “the child”, but The Child. For El Nino is the Christ Child, and variations of the beloved celebration of Jesus as a young boy is embedded in folk Catholicism in Spanish, Latin American, and the Philippines. LINK

So today after Mass, the children were blessed, the statue of the Christ child was dressed up in his robe and crown, and….hmmm…something new to me. Men dressed in black, with black faces and feathers, beating a drum. What’s up? I asked my husband.

It was some Visayans dressed in their traditional AtiAtihan costumes joining in the fiesta.

A typical snobbish American description of such celebrations can be found HERE:
Notice the condescending superior attitude toward both Catholics and Filipinos. But as a doctor, I have been quite a few places, and know that understanding the ideas behind customs lets you understand how people feel and think.

So let’s go beyond the snobbery and see the meaning behind that smiling statue of the little boy you see in the back of the local SariSari shop.

You find him in offices and shops here, a chubby child of about six, often dressed by families in jeans or a tee shirt with a hat. People here love children, and the thought that Jesus was a child is a blessing on all children. But the meaning has a more subversive element few Americans seem to notice, for unlike the “prosperity” and self help gospels of the upper classes that come from the western elites, El Nino is a sly way of remembering that the meek, not the successful, will inherit the earth.

El Nino is celebrated here in Luzon, but it is not a major fiesta. The big one is in Panay
LINK (a sympathetic telling of the story of the Ati Atihan fiesta is told HERE).

The original festival goes back to 1300, and was by people fleeing from another island who were welcomed by local tribes. Later, when the harvest failed in the highlands, the Ati, a people with dark skin and kinky hair, traveled to the plains and begged and were given food by lowlanders. And so the Ati sang and danced in thanks.Hence the black faces at their fiesta.

Even later, the Spanish grafted the El Nino cult to the fiesta. After all, isn’t giving food to the poor a work approved by Christians?

Yes, the black faces are pre Christian, as is the alcohol. But the idea behind the fiesta is good. And if there is a slight fusion of the rain God with the Son of God, well, we’ll leave that worry to the big shots and theologians.

Religion in the United States tends to be a rigid, sour thing, full of rules and shalt nots.

Here in the rural Philippines, it is embedded in daily life. So God is part of the family, and the stories of the saints are mixed up with pre Christian fiestas. Fiestas celebrate many ideas, and often the symbolism of the fiesta has deeper roots, enabling children to painlessly learn stories of their past and of right and wrong.

And the roots of El Nino go far beyond the Philippines.

The original story behind El Nino was that of Spanish men held in prison by the Moors because they refused to deny their religion. The families begged the Virgin to send bread to their loved ones, and a child indeed brought the men food and drink. No one could identify the boy, so the story is that the Virgin sent her own child with the supplies.

Like most folk tales, the story has historical echoes and cultural offshoots. To the Spanish, it still has echoes of Dhimmitude that most in the West have ignored. It tells the story of loving families, and the story that God loves the lowest person. But then the story expands, and it becomes subversive: and so El Nino becomes the patron of all prisoners.

And so it was that when I first ran across the story of El Nino was while working in New Mexico. You see, our church had a small shrine in the back dedicated to those who died in the Philippines at Bataan and Corriegedor. Some were white, some Native America, and some from Mexican families that predated the founding of the United States.

The story can be found HERE
Some of the first American troops to see action in World War II were from the
New Mexico National Guard. They fought bravely on Corregidor, with its
underground tunnels and defenses. The Catholics remembered that the Santo Niño
de Atocha had long been considered a patron of all who were trapped or
of them made a vow that if they survived the war they would make a pilgrimage
from Santa Fe to Chimayo in Thanksgiving. At the end of the war two thousand
pilgrims, veterans of Corregidor, Bataan, and Japanese prison camps, together
with their families, walked the long and rough road from Santa Fe to Chimayo.
Some walked barefoot to the little adobe shrine.

So we have come full circle. From Spain to Mexico to the Philippines to the hills of New Mexico, where veterans families still pilgrimage to Chimayo for the safe return of their soldiers.

Yup, The Boy does get around.

Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines with her husband, six dogs, three cats, and a large extended family. Her webpage is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket and she sometimes posts essays on culture and religion on Boinkie’s Blog

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