My sisters and I were only children when we first learned about the baby boy in church. I was about 7-years old, Jackie was about 5 years old, and the twins were only toddlers. We were living in Cavite City, Philippines at the time.
The baby boy in church wore elaborate and sequined gowns, and he was motionless in his mother’s arms. His outfit changed during the Christmas season. The gown became even more bedazzled and sequined. His face didn’t look at all like the Filipino babies my sisters and I were used to seeing. His nose was cute and dainty, his skin was the color of mango flesh, and his hair was red and curly. He may have been motionless every time we went to church, but his presence always loomed in the background of our lives.
Our nanny would often remind us that the Santo Nino, aka Baby Jesus, was watching our every move. Therefore, we must always behave and be respectful.
The nuns at the private catholic school I attended during my kindergarten year in Cavite City would often say, “for every sin you commit, the Santo Nino will place a black mark in your heart. If you commit a lot of sins, your heart will darken like Satan’s heart.” Such nuns were not the same versions as the ones depicted in “The Sound of Music.” These were the mean ass versions.
I was sure that the Santo Nino had flung a black mark in my heart (the way someone would when they’re flicking a booger at someone) when I took a box of raisins from the kitchen pantry without confessing to the nanny. I more than likely also got dinged with another black mark when I skipped ten rosary beads (that’s an entire section for those of you heathens) and jumped to the “Glory be to the father and to the son…” tidbit–which is the prayer that signals that you’re at the end of the lengthy as the road to hell rosary prayer.
When it comes to confessing of our sins during prayers, Jackie and I often found ourselves praying profusely to the Santo Nino in our first childhood home. We had to pray because it was our maternal grandmother’s version of time-out. American children were placed in a corner for time out sessions.
Not Filipino children.
Filipino grandmothers are far more inventive, strategic, and determined to teach us lessons as we acknowledge our sins in one shot:
We had to kneel and pray in front of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus holy statue and rosaries.
We had to dance in front of the Santo Nino–with both hands to heart, then hands gracefully to the Santo Nino–a motion that signals an offering of our sinful hearts. One time, dizzy from this dancing,I could have sworn I caught a glimpse of the Santo Nino’s face holding back vomit at the thought of receiving my heart.
When we moved to California, I watched one of our caucasian neighbors place her son in a corner for time-out. I looked at her with awe, and wondered how a Mom could be so kind. I asked her if I can join him so he wouldn’t be lonely. She looked at me as if I was the weirdest child in the universe, and nodded yes. I skipped to the corner and smiled at the little boy who looked at me the same way his mother did.
My saga with the Santo Nino didn’t end at the time out sessions–I had a co-conspirator. There was an unspoken understanding between my sister Jackie and I. We do not ever speak of the things that would get us into a deep load of trouble with our parents, and grandparents.
Therefore, it was no surprise that we often always landed on a great heap of trouble. There was this one summer when we were vacationing in San Diego, and this meant that we had to make the rounds of visiting the Filipino families that our grandparents have grown close to throughout the years. We’d drive down from Oakland in our Toyota van, and spend several weeks with family eating Filipino food and having to listen to all the “tsismis” (gossip) whispered among the aunts and uncles. There were also endless prayer gatherings along with more food and more tsismis–which also meant for us children–a time for more prayers, and acting as if we were well behaved children who will one day grow up and become nurses (true fact: only Jackie fulfilled this glorious dream, and I became the heathen who wrote about such stories).
“Ate Tina, why do they say that the Santo Nino can dance when we hold him in our palms?” I asked my cousin. We were at one of the prayer gatherings that was killing my soul with a dull knife called boredom. Jackie and I had to attend as it was a prayer virgil, and food was being served. Where there are prayers, there’s always food. I remembered that I always raised my hand each time my grandmother asked who wanted to go. I immediately regretted it midway while eating my second siopao (pork buns) as it dawned on me that I will be in for ten hours of non-stop rosary madness. Goddamnit, the siopao was good though.
We’ve all had cousins like Tina. They are the epitome of perfection, and one who our mothers never let us forget that God should have blessed her with a daughter just like Tina. Tina’s kindness, niceness, respectfulness, and neatness are what our mothers reminded us of who to emulate.
I remember I tried, but my bedroom always ended up being messy, my opinions always escaped my mouth before I realized that it did, and I couldn’t be kind to the bully who kept calling me names: chink, wetback, bowl hair cut girl. The only kindness that I extended to that little asshole was telling him that I’m not Chinese while I kicked him in the nuts with my Nike sneakers. I remember walking away from that with not one strand of hair being out of place on my bowl haircut head.
I knew then I could never be like Ate Tina, and that was alright–Ate Tina’s perfection made up for my hot mess.
“The Santo Nino is always happy, Jeng. When he dances, they say it’s a miracle. I’ll show you,” Tina said as she grabbed one of the 1 million Santo Ninos covered in sampaguita necklaces in the living room.
Tina held a tiny Santo Nino on the palm of her hand. Jackie and I stared in wonder as we watched the Santo Nino closely.
Santo Nino wiggled.
“See, it’s dancing! Here you try it while I go and help Mamang Goys (our grandmother),” Tina said as she placed the Santo Nino on my palm. Tina walked away and Jackie and I found ourselves alone with the saint who has placed several black marks in our hearts at this point (mostly for sisterly fighting, annoying each other-Jackie’s trait, talking back to our mother-that’s me). I stood there frozen.
“Is it starting to wiggle,” Jackie asked.
“Pssh, does it look like it’s dancing?” I asked.
“Ooh, did you say your prayers last night?” Jackie raised her eyebrows at me.
“I was reading Babysitter’s Club and forgot,” I said.
“Maybe the Santo Nino doesn’t like you,” Jackie said.
“I don’t want it to dance on my palm,” I told her.
“Why?” Jackie asked. “Because what if it starts dancing, and it won’t stop–and I’ll be stuck like this FOREVER!” I answered.
“But, what if it moonwalks?” Jackie asked. We both looked at each other wide eyed and thought of a little Santo Nino moonwalking on our bedroom floor as we both slept in our beds.
“That’s scary!!” we said at the same time.
“Ok, ok. We have to put the Santo Nino back,” I whispered.
“I think we’ll get some black marks for this,” Jackie said as we walked carefully to place the Santo Nino among its brothers–equally sequined, and perfumed of strong jasmine. Jackie and I ran off with a mission to find the first platter of puto (steamed rice bun–and not the bad word) or lumpia that we could find so that we were as far away from the one million prying Santo Nino eyes. It was then, as I was stuffing my face with puto when I heard someone yell, “a Santo Nino has turned its back!” and then the oohs and ahhhs followed. Still with a mouthful of puto, I turned around and realized that in our rush to put the baby Jesus back, I didn’t bother to turn it around so that it can face the masses of aunts, uncles, grandmas, and grandpas already in their 15th hour of rosary prayers. Oops.
It wasn’t until years later, when watching a Filipino comedy movie where Jackie and I encountered the Santo Nino again. The heroine of the movie had to work as a dancer in a nightclub because she had seven children to support. In one scene, she was getting into a heated argument with her fellow dancers, and one of them happened to be a little person. The little person made a smart comment about her, and she retorted that he should wear a costume that resembles the Santo Nino.
Jackie and I looked at each other and with no control–laughed our asses off. We couldn’t stop laughing.
Our hearts probably earned us several black marks that day and more than likely lost our way back to heaven.
As I write this essay, I am sure as day that my grandmothers are looking down upon me from heaven wondering where they may have lacked in cultivating a certain spirituality within me. There’s no need to worry as I completely believe that spirituality isn’t a thing that needs demonstration.
It’s a private matter within one who seeks to evolve. I am not one to profess my spiritually out loud just to illustrate that I have a soul. What I do believe in is expressing kindness, empathy, graciousness, thoughtfulness, understanding, compassion, and most of all love. I’m speculating that such belief may be enough to rid myself of the black marks that I’ve acquired from my childhood.
In her recent trip to Guam, Jackie who grew up to become a registered nurse in the Navy decided to include a surprise in a package she sent me this past holiday season.
Beneath the cosmetic items, and Korean facial masks–she decided to include a little Santo Nino still wrapped and suffocating in plastic.
We both earned a black mark from laughing.
Spiritual evolution still in progress, and to be determined.