Who kidnapped the Santo Niño?

Many years ago, I hosted “Krus na daan” (Crossroads), a daily radio program for DZRJ; Wednesdays were dedicated to Philippine history and Dr. Jaime Veneracion, an eminent Filipino historian from Bulacan was the regular guest. Every January, with the Sinulog Festival in mind, we talked about the Santo Niño of Cebu and listeners would call in to ask – Whatever happened to the statue that Magellan gave the queen of Cebu, wife of Rajah Humabon, when she was baptized Juana?

Dr. Veneracion would explain that 44 years later, in 1565, Adelantado Miguel Lopez de Legazpi came to conquer and, in the process, burned and pillaged coastal settlements in search of food and gold. One of his men found a small statue in a box in the palace of Tupas, the last rajah of Cebu, and turned it over to Legazpi. It was barely recognizable as it had become a kind of rain god; Cebuanos brought it out to sea and left it there until it rained, that is probably why we call a drought, El Niño.

Legazpi himself wrote a “relacion” to the King of Spain about that “miraculous” discovery, since he wanted to take sole credit for the find. He wrote in the third person, left the document unsigned, but with a slip of the pen he revealed the true author of the self-serving narrative. Legazpi wanted to be honored as the undisputed hero of Christianization in the Pacific, so did not credit the soldier who found the Santo Niño. Barely did he make mention of the Augustinian explorer, Fray Andres de Urdaneta, who told him that Guam and the Marianas were not the islands of his final destination. (Christina Lee, 2021)

As far as the natives were concerned, the Spaniards kidnapped their agipo or diwata (Santo Niño) who helped them during times of distress and necessity. Legazpi dramatically raised the image up high to kiss its feet and a procession was assembled to take the Santo Niño to a church the Spaniards were building. Unexpectedly, two principles (eminent natives) joined the procession with a retinue of 30, baffled at how their agipo was the subject of adoration by the foreign conquerors. They were amazed enough to stay through the incomprehensible sermon and until the end of Holy Mass. (Christina Lee, 2021)

Another story relates how Rajah Tupas himself arrived with an entourage of 100, demanding access to the gathering in a belligerent manner which concealed their fear and awe of the Spaniards who had kidnapped a native deity and made it their own.

Were there no survivors of the first Holy Mass, or the spectacle of baptisms by the hundreds? Were there no descendants who had the vaguest of recollections about Magellan’s gift to Queen Juana?

Dr. Veneracion mentioned contemporaneous primary sources that dealt with the “discovery” of the Santo Niño. One is the “Relación de las Islas Filipinas” (1604) by Padre Chirino, a missionary, the other by Antonio de Morga, oidor of the Royal Audiencia who spent eight years here and whose “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas” was published in Mexico, in 1609 and annotated by Rizal two centuries hence. The missionary wrote that Cebuanos had transformed the Christian deity into a divata or diwata with its own shrine where in times of necessity and danger natives offered sacrifices. With great reverence they would dip the image in fragrant oil, like they did with other idols. The Santo Niño/diwata also helped women during childbirth.

There is apocryphal information about the Santo Niño’s native origin; one says that a fisherman caught an agipo (charcoaled wood) in his net and no matter how many times he threw it back into the water, it would ap-pear in his net. The same fisherman took the agipo home, placed it on a mat where palay was being dried and it shooed birds away; then, the agipo became a little boy, just as he had dreamt. However, Cebuano historian, Dr. Resil Mojares (National Artist for Literature) belies its native origin. To the Spanish colonizers the Santo Niño was proof that these islands were predestined for Christianization; but the natives, the Santo Niño, even after it was kidnapped, remained connected to their pre-colonial beliefs.

No wonder there is something animistic about the Sinulog; I felt that was how pre-colonial festivals must have been like, no offense meant to the devout Cebuanos. The faithful chant “Pit, Señor! “Endlessly, a shortcut of  “Panangpit,” beseeching the Santo Niño miracles and favors. People bring their images of a robed Child Jesus with a crown and scepter, they cradle, rock and sway the icons as the procession snakes through streets, plazas and the church. There were no Spaniards, only the descendants of native principles with retinues and entourages who, yearly, ransom the kidnapped San-to Niño with bottomless love and adoration. (Source: Lee, Christina H. Saints of Resistance, ADEMU Press, 2021)