Something about Mary

Deirdre de la Cruz is an anthropologist, and she talks about Mary—the Blessed Virgin. She not only talks about Mary but also documents what people say about apparitions and miracles.

Based in the United States and connected with Michigan University in Ann Arbor, de la Cruz came one day to Naga City to talk about her research on how people perceive, interpret and articulate their understanding of Mary. The city was an appropriate site for the topic, it being a pilgrim city with the presence of the Lady of Peñafrancia, one of the few if not the regional Marian devotion in the country. There was an audience, and they were all ready to listen anything about Mary.

Religion being contentious and faith not really for debates (much as we subject our beliefs or those of others to heavy discussion), an anthropologist survives any kind of evangelization s/he does not judge. An anthropologist listens.

Thaf afternoon, in the Madrigal Amphitheater, Bikolano believers and scholars, with some seminarians in the crowd, listened to what de la Cruz had been listening to.


She began her lecture by asking the audience any stories of apparitions or miracles that a relative had shared with them. The crowd was quite timid to share their thoughts, but you could feel that everyone has a story.

That afternoon, de la Cruz went through many narratives where Mary was a central figure. She talked about the Lady of Caysasay, a tiny image far from the main church around which a quaint story is built. She brought back the controversy of the Marian apparition in Lipa. The event, which became popular because of the famous shower of roses, triggered many questions about who decides whether Mary or any saint had indeed appeared before a human being. In the case of Lipa, a designated church authority had declared that nothing supernatural took place in that convent in the 1950s. The choir of Carmelite nuns were disbanded, and it would take years before a new group of nuns settled in the area. The belief, like all kinds of belief, persisted among believers.

The anthropologist spoke of where her interest in Marian devotions began. It was in New York some years back when a festival around the devotion to Mary was helt at Battery Park. Icons of Mary from different parts of the world were brought to the place. A fluvial procession was held on the Hudron River. The anthropologist recalled that Filipinos were behind the grand fiesta.

The story of conversion, according to de la Cruz, begins always with the arrival of the Spanish to the county in the 16th century. The strand of narrative about the introduction of the new religion generally placed the Filipino at the receiving end. But, for this anthropologist, the story of evangelization has only begun in that century. The Filipinos have gone on to nurture a set of beliefs that, while showing a link to its European origin or to its Mexican provenance, manifests something different. The native persuasion had made its mark and therein lies the tension between two or three civilizations. The evangelists or the institutional church can seek creativity in that appropriation; the local or the inhabitants can find solace in their native exegesis, in notions of the divine and the powerful that are rooted to territories that are singular.

The supernatural, even the transcendental, can find its sources of meanings in the people that try to define them, Mary, thus, is embraced as a metaphor, as a person with the role of mother or mediator, or as a woman so unique that she stands great and with ease together with the babaylan and the matriarchy of this land.

The lecture of de la Cruz was part of the Frank Lynch, SJ, lecture series organized by the Ateneo de Naga Institute of Bikol History and Culture and the Ateneo de Naga University Press. Lynch was a social scientist who set up the Institute of Philippine Culture in Ateneo de Manila and the Ateneo de Naga Social Survey Research Unit, which is now the Ateneo Social Science Research Center.

Lynch was one of the pioneers in the study of folk Catholicism. In her talk, de la Cruz paid tribute to this concept, from which she built her own study about Mary and the Filipino people.

De la Cruz has a book, Mother Figured: Marian Apparitions and the Making of a Filipino Universal, published by the University of Chicago Press.

E-mail: [email protected]


Image Credits: Jimbo Albano

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