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Dr. Julius Batista

The Santo Nino as a physical manifestation of Filipino devotion

Dr. Julius Batista’s research is centered around the religious practices and material culture in Southeast Asia, especially in the Philippines and Timor-Leste. Over the past few years, he has also worked on education and church-state relations in the region.

In addition to numerous articles, he has already published three remarkable books on Christianity in Asia thus becoming the most productive social scientist on Catholicism in Asia.

His book, “Figuring Catholicism: An Ethnohistory of the Santo Niño de Cebu Quezon City” published in 2010 provides an in-depth analysis of the social and political history of the Santo Niño celebration in the Catholic-majority Philippines, where Christianity arrived 500 years ago.

The book also questions the processes by which an image of the child Jesus has become the miraculous image, which devout Filipinos call Santo Niño.

What brought you to study cultural anthropology?

The production of this book came about because I was reflecting on my upbringing as a Filipino-Australian.
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I was born in the Philippines, but my family and I migrated to Australia when I was a young adolescent. Since then I've lived in various places, including Singapore, and now Japan.

I would say that experiencing different cultures and being exposed to cultural diversity motivated my interest in anthropology, which I pursued at Sydney University.

Throughout my life, I've had an interest in cultural diversity.

But in the 1990s, when I was at university, that interest in anthropology coincided with a very tense period in Australian multicultural relations. That was when right-wing parties such as that led by Pauline Hanson, were gaining a lot of traction in the Australian political landscape.

To answer your question, Anthropology was a way for me to confront questions about displacement, heritage, identity, and belonging.

I think anthropology gave me a scholarly and institutional framework to understand and connect with people who have experienced marginality.

That's why I decided to become an anthropologist and I'm privileged to continue to practice as an anthropologist.

Why did you select Santo Niño as the subject of your study?

My focus on the Santo Niño emerges from my interest in issues of representation, multiculturalism, and race relations. These might not immediately demonstrate a connection. But basically, I felt that there was no institutional support for my interest in multiculturalism, at least in the way that I was thinking back then when I was at university in Sydney.

Australia was unlike the U.S. For example, the U.S. has many ethnic studies departments that evolved from the civil rights movements of the 1960s and the 1970s. But Australia was still under a ‘White Australia policy’ up to the 1970s. So there was no place for me to focus on the questions of multicultural identity.

However, I was advised that studying my heritage, studying my place, and my sense of belonging, did not necessarily have to involve multicultural-related topics.

I looked at my heritage and I saw that my birthplace, Cebu in the Philippines, was in many ways the location for the birth of Roman Catholicism in the Philippines, or at least its arrival. I made the connection that by studying the Santo Niño, I was also able to look into questions of my sense of belonging and my heritage, albeit not in a very direct way.

But looking at religion in the Philippines was a very effective way to examine questions of belonging in a multicultural society, such as Australia.

What was the main finding of your research?

The title itself – Figuring Catholicism: An Ethnohistory of the Santo Niño de Cebu Quezon City – reveals quite a bit about my intended contribution.

Firstly, I'm talking about a figure as an expression of materiality. The Santo Niño is an object and Filipino Roman Catholics think about the object as a physical manifestation of their devotion to God and Jesus Christ.

One of the contributions of my book is to think about the history of the object itself and its arrival in the Philippines in the 16th century.  The book also helps to think about the process of its preservation since that time and to think about how religious belief is figured through Santo Niño’s depiction in various ways.

This includes mediums such as art and popular culture, and also in terms of how devotees themselves represent their own identities through this figure. The first aspect of the book, the first main argument perhaps, would be to say that we're thinking about the Santo Niño and how materiality manifests religious devotion.

But I also think about figuring differently. I mean it in terms of how we are figuring out religiosity, or how devotees themselves are figuring out their ritual practices and their devotions.  A process by which religious objects are implicated in that human self-awareness is a major component of the book.

Santo Niño devotees have channeled their faith in dealing with different political, social, and economic circumstances in which they find themselves.

In another sense of figuring, I'm also talking about how Santo Niño has been a focal point of different kinds of identities, whether it's national, civilizational, or indeed religious. Overall, the contribution of my book is to think about materiality as more than just a tangible thing.

This materiality pervades aspects of life that can be seen in the way in which people express their religiosity.

Is it true that the Santo Niño icon also has been mobilized to mediate between the local people and their rulers?

One of the things I emphasize in my book is how the Santo Niño has been evoked in every major upheaval throughout the history of the Philippines -- from anti-colonial revolutions and wars against Spanish colonialism to the American-Philippine War at the turn of the century.

Filipino revolutionaries have mobilized themselves by utilizing the image toward their own social, political, and economic agendas. The Santo Niño is important as a way of expressing ideas of emancipation against colonial rule. That's an important part of the book and in the historical parts of the book.

In the first few chapters, I do focus on how Santo Niño encapsulated those ideals of liberation. But in more recent times Santo Niño has also been an important figure in revolutions against the political dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, which ended in 1986 with the People Power Revolution.

We see in that context that the Santo Niño had continued to be utilized as an icon of political liberation and freedom. Therefore the Santo Niño has been used throughout the history of the Philippines as a way to speak truth to power and to fight oppression even in the highest levels of governance.

Now this, of course, is not exclusive to the Philippines. Religious icons have emboldened large numbers of Catholics around the world to challenge intimidating and often dangerous circumstances in advocating for political liberation.

My contribution is to document and discuss how the Santo Niño devotees have also been involved in these kinds of processes.

What has been your methodological approach in this research?

My methodological approach is ethnohistorical, which I think is a combination of ethnographic and archival methodological approaches.

In the study of the Santo Niño, I prioritized long-term engaged ethnographic fieldwork, which basically means spending a lot of time in the communities that I am studying and engaging with interlocutors who are Santo Niño devotees in a way that allows me to get glimpses of how they live their devotional lives.

This does involve a great deal of participant observation. In terms of archival research, my focus has been to, of course, consult with colonial sources, Spanish colonial archives.

But in the book, I tried to also prioritize sources in the vernacular that are unpublished or that were at the time unpublished, primarily because they were not seen as part of official historical renditions and were relegated to the kind of periphery of the archival record.

I did consult a lot of Cebuano, even Tagalog archival resources to consider and discuss the ethnohistory of the Santo Niño.

There is another layer to my methodological approach though, and that connects with what I mentioned earlier as an expression of heritage scholarship.

This involves going to Cebu and conducting research in places that are familiar to me.  Not only because they are part of my upbringing as a child in Cebu, but it was also to try to bring a new and refreshed analytical perspective to places that I would have considered familiar. There might be a lot of things that one takes for granted when one circulates in a familiar space.

Part of the methodological approach that I brought as an ethnohistorian is to try to re-interrogate those aspects of my life in Cebu that I had not thought of as topics of scholarly investigation. I would say it's an ethnohistorical approach that's inflected with a kind of heritage scholarship, and I hope that that was something that came out in the book itself.

What has been the most challenging in this research?

Ethnographic work is inherently challenging because it is essentially an imposition into other people's lives. Anthropologists are always facing the challenge of finessing themselves into the lives of the people whom they seek to engage.

One challenge was a particular kind of indeterminacy in my research project. I didn't necessarily come in there with a particular set of questions and expecting a particular set of answers. In fact, in ethnographic research, you don't always know the questions that you want to ask beforehand.

Often, the questions become apparent while conducting your ethnographic research. So that is often the tricky part of ethnography or ethnographic research. But it becomes even more challenging when you're going into a place that you thought, or at least once thought, was familiar.

So I think the challenge for me was negotiating between this notion of familiarity and at the same time coming into it as an anthropologist.

There are other difficulties as well from the side of the people that I engaged with. Sometimes it was difficult for people in Cebu to categorize what my intentions were in conducting research on the Santo Niño, in contrast to, for example, a journalist or an investigative reporter.

People were not sure what exactly I was looking for and why I was spending so much time in that particular community. The process of explaining your presence to people as an anthropologist can be tricky and very, very interesting as well.

Logistical challenges were also part of the difficulties that I faced.

How did your research impact your understanding of Catholicism?

When I first started to think about Roman Catholicism in the Philippines, I was going into it with certain assumptions about the nature of religious dynamism or what did it mean for Catholicism to be a dynamic religion?

One assumption was that Catholic institutions are the arbiter of that dynamism. That Catholic institutions, in terms of doctrine and liturgy, were the determinants of the particular character of, say, Filipino Catholicism or Brazilian Catholicism, or any others. But throughout the course of my research, I've learned to de-center Catholic institutions as the exclusive arbiter of religious dynamism.

It led me to reconsider questions such as -- what does it mean for a religion to be syncretistic?  Syncretism, of course, in this context is the notion of people taking elements of two different faith traditions and bringing them together into one.

The Santo Niño devotion helped me question the premise of that concept. It also helped me to re-interrogate the notion of, for example, things like animism and other pre-existing belief systems before the introduction of Catholicism. More recently, I've been toying with the notion that animism never stopped being a feature of Filipino Catholicism.

Animism continues to be part of the way in which Filipino Roman Catholics express their religiosity, even through objects like the Santo Niño. Overall, I think that it has been a very valuable lesson for me in the course of researching Catholicism, and I'm still trying to work through those questions.  And, I found those very interesting.

* This is an edited version of a podcast interview that appeared on the webpage of the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics (ISAC). The initiative, hosted by the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is a global network of social scientists who develop new research projects to analyze live realities and the social contribution of Asian Catholics. It aims to deepen and promote academic research on Catholic life in contemporary Asia.

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