Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Virtual Ethnography 101: Eat, Pray, Love

As part of the weekly exercises of my graduate students in Anthropology 225: Philippine Society and Culture, I wanted my students to explore places and write ethnography using the method of participation-observation.

I am posting in my blog with the writer's consent selected ethnography penned creatively by my students to contribute to the emerging sub-discipline of anthropology called 'Virtual Ethnography'.

Basically, virtually ethnography is also referred to as Webnography. We cannot deny the fact that with increasing use of technology and the Internet, there is now a demand for online spaces on various ethnographic accounts.

By Lyra Athena Duaso

Back in college, we were asked to write a paper comparing the architecture of Quiapo church and to that of Sampaloc’s Sto. Domingo church. My observation was that whereas Sto. Domingo was high and imposing, and reminded people of heaven, Quiapo church was smaller and more grounded, and seemingly more accepting of people.

Quiapo church is located in an old part of Manila where the modern cityscape is interspersed with classical facades, and everywhere are people populating the labyrinthine streets and alleys. In an urban jungle increasingly characterized by walled subdivisions and exclusive villas, Quiapo remains to be a place of mainstream convergence where the swell of humanity is as much a feature of the place as the building themselves.

The smog I inhaled and the pollution I accumulated on the way to the church was enough to make anyone pray. Through the side doors that plainly read “Pasukan” and “Labasan,” I immediately spotted a group of people standing to the side, reading a print advertisement on the evils of abortion. Women and kids sitting on stools were on the rear end of the church, fanning themselves and looked to have been there all day. Off to an annexed hallway was the church’s payments area for church services like baptisms and weddings. One the sides were donation boxes that urged the churchgoers to give to the TV Maria Foundation, a Catholic Filipino TV channel.

It was a Saturday afternoon and the place was packed with people of all shapes, sizes, health conditions, and status quo. Quiapo is famed for the miracles of its holy figure, and for the overwhelming piety of its devotees, both rich and poor. That day, there were young men in uniform who, despite looking tough, were solemnly kneeling. There was a woman with goiter who strode to the front and left a while later. There was a man who looked like Jesus himself who walked up and down the aisle.

The whole are was abuzz with noise. No mass was ongoing at the time so the people had their own sessions by themselves. Amidst all the busy-ness, it was a wonder how the people who had their hands clasped together in supplication somehow managed to have personal bubbles of silence to pray unperturbed.

Most of the people who dropped by for short sessions averaged around five minutes of prayer time before leaving. Some who sat by the pews had their own private conversations with the walls as they just stared off into space. A number were also standing by and seemed to be content to merely gaze at the statues in front. With the church doors open, dozens of people passed by to exit into the cacophony of vendors on the other side, as though the church itself was just any ordinary hallway to cross. Some of these, though, thoughtfully stopped by the aisle to kneel in adoration before moving on. Some went straight to where the Holy Water was and promptly dipped their fingers and made the sign of the cross. Whether as token rituals or sincere gestures, it was unmissable how these practices were already so deeply ingrained in the people’s lives, that they had become a way of life.

Outside, the air was suffused with the fragrant smell of sampaguita. Vendors plied anything from the flowers, candles, rosaries, hand fans, to flying paper insects. Just a few ways off were the fortunetellers. Food establishments were spread out across the area.

I honestly cannot tell which came first, the church or the market that surrounds it. It could be that the church came first and the people attracted by its fame served as the first audience to the vendors that sprouted around it over the years, and who had recognized the demand for piety that could be helped with religious merchandise. It could be that the market was there long before and that the mainstream atmosphere of it prompted the creation of a church that served the needs of the masses perfectly. Either way, the two fed off of each other’s energy, depending on each other for sustenance.

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