Tuesday, April 21, 2015
This article first came out 47 years ago this month, in the April 20, 1968, issue of the Philippines Free Press weekly magazine. In the article as published, the above-the-title tag (I'm having a senior moment and can't remember the exact journalistic term for that) is "Cabra-adabra," but in the article itself, I used "Cabra-cadabra" (retaining the second C in the pun on abracadabra), so I'll go with the latter spelling in this blog reprint.
Not long after this article came out, film director Lamberto V. "Bert" Avellana got in touch with me and suggested that we work together on a script inspired by the events on Cabra. During one Manila Film Festival parade (this was before the filmfest became the Metro Manila Film Festival), he even had a float showing a picture of the Blessed Virgin. I think he already had a title for the movie on his mind, amd it appeared on the float, but I don't remember what that working title was.
Unfortunately, that film never got made. I guess I wasn't ready yet to go into screenwriting, although I was certainly interested in the Bert Avellana project. Several years later, in 1982, Ishmael Bernal came out with the film Himala, scripted by Ricardo "Ricky" Lee, my co-writer in the 1979 Lino Brocka film Jaguar. Ishmael and Ricky's Himala was obviously inspired by the events on Cabra island. As you will notice, the title of that film also appears as the last word in the subhead of this article.
The article "Strange Happenings on Goat Island" (cabra is the Spanish word for "goat") was reprinted in the following year's anniversary issue of the Philippines Free Press, on August 30, 1969.
Strange Happenings On Goat Island
Our Lady of Cabra—Hoax, Hallucination Or Himala?
by Jose F. Lacaba
Philippines Free Press
April 20, 1968
(Reprinted August 30, 1969)
“RURAL POLICE,” growls the burly constabulary officer in a Tagalog whose accent betrays Visayan origins, “that is what you need here. Rural police. That is why the President, through General Bulan, sent us here. This is a recon party—reconnaissance. I have come to look into the conditions of the pilgrimage, I must make sure of the safety of pilgrimage.” He keeps saying pilgrimage but obviously means pilgrims. “We must take care of them, the pilgrimage. Pickpockets from Manila, they will come here. Pirates—they might attack you. That is why we must organize a rural police. We have already set up radio communications, connecting you with Lubang, and through Lubang, with San Jose, Calapan, Camp Vicente Lim. We have detailed two men here. But they cannot always be here. We are very busy now. In the anti-crime drive, the President needs us. We must help in civic action also. The PC has many things to do. So these soldiers here with you, they cannot always be here. That is why you need rural police. I know—the residents of Cabra, you do not have to bother about them. You are good people. If it is you only, what need for rural police? But the President is worried about the pilgrimage.”
Capt. Manuel Valley, a headquarters commandant of the Second PC Zone, volunteers the information that he is the brother of the ACA administrator, besides being the recipient of the distinguished service cross for his single-handed capture, as guerrilla leader during the war, of a Japanese patrol boat. What this war hero thinks of his present assignment, he does not say, but his gruff, authoritative manner, his magisterial tone, his white T-shirt with the name and insignia of his company gloriously emblazoned on the chest, and his sheer imposing bulk clearly impress the barrio council he is now addressing. He is in the house of the barrio captain, Inocencio Tesalona, who has brought out a bottle of scotch (Black and White, a gift from a newspaper publisher; the barrio captain does not drink), several bottles of Avenue sarsaparilla, as mixer, and fresh fish roasted over coal. The barrio captain, too, is visibly impressed. This must be the first time the island of Cabra has been visited by a captain of the constabulary, a representative of the President yet.
But the captain, this military adviser from a Gobierno that had always been as faraway as the moon, is a minor dignitary compared with the other visitors Cabra has had this year. The President’s mother has been here, and the Senate President, and the wife of the Manila mayor, and the publisher of The Manila Times, and the governor of Mindoro Occidental, all disgorged by a wondrous machine called the helicopter. By more lowly motor bancas, the Common People have come, and the not so common: soldiers, pilgrims, tourists, curiosity-seekers, cursillistas, schoolteachers, businessmen, reporters, photographers, the lame, the halt, the blind, the deaf and dumb, the bedridden and the wheelchaired, young and old, men in Dante Ferrari shirts and Burlington pants, coiffed women with shadowed eyes masked by dark glasses and shapely legs hugged by stretch pants. The glamour and the grime of the Big City have been wafted by the sea breeze into Cabra.
Yet who, a month ago, had heard of this tiny island-barrio in the island-town of Lubang, Mindoro Occidental?
Not too long ago, Cabra was an obscure barrio—quiet, peaceful, somnolent, idyllic, dull. It got its name from the Spanish word for goat, but it is a long time since goats have been seen on the island. There are old folk who can remember that when the lighthouse on the island’s northwestern shore was built, sometime at the turn of the century, the goats were still plentiful, and were the objects of periodic visits by seafaring merchants from mainland Mindoro and nearby Batangas. A livestock buyer from Nasugbu named Doming still comes around regularly, but for the pigs and chickens the islanders raise: either through lack of proper care or breeding, or perhaps because the demand for caldereta in prewar times was inordinately great, the goats simply disappeared from the island, as irrevocably as the dodo from the face of the earth. When, during the war, the Japanese made one of their infrequent forays on the island, the barrio folk had no need to worry about where and how to hide frisky goats; they had none. Until recently, as a matter of fact, few inhabitants knew what their island was named after, and even these seldom called it by the name. To most, Cabra was Pulo, meaning island, except that they stressed the word on the first syllable, not on the second, as the generic Tagalog word for island is properly pronounced. The pronunciation may have something to do with the Tagalog of the place, which sounds like a cross between Batangueño and Ilonggo; anyway, on Cabra and in all the other barrios of Lubang, when you say Pulo, accenting the first syllable, you don’t mean just any island, you mean Cabra.
Life on Pulo is difficult, but no more difficult than life in any Philippine barrio you can name, except, of course, Forbes Park and the like. It has a population of about 2,000, all related somehow or other, by blood or affinity. There is an elementary school in the east, near the old tin-roofed chapel. The only road rises uphill from the east shore; it is a narrow dirt road, lined on both sides with hip-high walls of coral rocks, built an administration ago with EEA funds a schoolteacher had managed to obtain. In summer the ricefields lie idle, the earth is dull brown, but the seas are ever fertile: any time of the year, fish and all manner of seafoods abound in the surrounding waters, and if you’re lucky, for less than two pesos you can get a lobster fatter than Shakespeare’s Complete Works, enough to feed a famished family of four—no kidding. Giant squid, baby octopi, flying fish (imalik) and swordfish (malasugin) are not exotic fare to the islanders, though corned beef is.
The main problem is fresh water. The annual rainfall is insufficient for the island’s needs. The harvest is always lean and, with no irrigation system, cannot be more than once a year. No stream, pond, swamp, brook, river, or mud puddle exists on Cabra, a predicament that has given rise to an amusing practice: where else, the islanders ask with a wry grin, are carabaos bathed by their human masters? After the rains, the water must be drawn from the wells, and the system is primitive, manual; the barrio captain has a force pump, but no one has invented the pulley. Before the war, only four wells could be found in the whole place: two for human consumption, two for the animals. Back then, it is said, a man who lived more than five kilometers from the existing wells had to leave his house early in the morning to be able to come home, with two kerosene cans full of water, in time for supper. Several wells have been dug since. Most of them are in the sitio of Libis, in the east; the residents of Mahangkig, Kaysimeon, Buli, and Kalsada must still walk miles of sandy, coral-strewn road for their supply. Though in some of the newly dug wells the water is a bit salty, unfit for drinking, it is believed that there are many underground pockets of really fresh water just waiting to be discovered.
Otherwise, life on the isle of vanished goats gives its inhabitants little reason for severe discontent. If there should be a new revolution in this country, Cabra may not be part of it. Apparently, neither Spanish conquistador nor American GI altered the inhabitants’ Malay constitution with their blood; the Japanese did not bother to occupy the island (though it is said there are still stragglers in the mountains of Lubang); present-day pirates have yet to invade it; crime is practically unheard of. The very difficulties of the place have been a blessing. The only times in the past when strangers came to Cabra were during election year, when provincial and municipal candidates felt obliged to pay it a visit, and during the fiesta, which, though the barrio’s patron is St. Joseph, is celebrated on the last week of April, when the sea is calm and the Lubang parish priest has no other engagements. The islanders’ only permanent contact with the Outside World was through the transistor radio.
All in all, an ordinary Philippine barrio—typically, incorrigibly rural.
And then, strange things started to happen on Cabra.
That was when the island came alive. The closed society, self-sufficient, self-supporting, self-perpetuating, cracked open, and the Outside World pushed its way through the opening. Civilization was all of a sudden at Cabra’s door.
THE EVENTS that brought civilization around, however, were of the sort that the civilized mind finds repugnant. On Cabra these days, the word himala is bandied about very lightly. Himala, and milagro, miraculo, miracle, even apparition, which so many like to pronounce “appareytion.” It all smacks of superstition. In Manila, one’s immediate impulse is to think of the unusual occurrences reported as fraudulent, a kind of Cabra-cadabra, hocus-pocus engineered by hijos de cabra to delude the gullible and, maybe, make a fast buck, or just make headlines. If one finally rejects the idea of hoax or headline-hunting, there is still another explanation in psychology.
For those who do not believe in the supernatural, or who will not admit the presence of the supernatural until the evidence is conclusive and irrefutable, psychology will have to do. For this much is clear: Cabra did not deliberately seek out publicity, nor did it make an organized effort to exploit the unasked-for publicity that came its way. If publicity or profit was all it wanted, it could have had either back in 1966, when the “extraordinary” phenomena began to call on the island.
Of these, the most fantastic, of course, to the rationalist, is the Blessed Virgin’s alleged apparitions to eight young schoolgirls. But there are other stories coming out of Cabra—of a revolving sun, mysterious lights, a cross that sways sideways when there is no wind, fallen hair that continues to grow. What has made these strange happenings subject to ridicule is the spate of front-page true-experience accounts given by seemingly excitable people who have been to the island and have come back with colorful descriptions straight out of hagiographical books about Lourdes and Fatima. And what finally seems to destroy credibility altogether is that report of a miraculous cure, a deaf-mute regaining her power of speech, that has turned out to be an imposture, a hoax.
The paradoxical effect of all these newspaper stories has been to deepen skepticism; there seems to be more mystery on another island, Corregidor, than on Cabra. Autosuggestion, mass hallucination, mass hypnosis, hysteria—the explanations seem so obvious. Until one arrives on Cabra. Until one talks to the islanders, to the eight “visionaries” and, particularly, to Belinda Villas, the central figure in these strange goings-on.
A round-trip ticket to Lubang costs P30. From the airstrip, jeepneys will take the traveler to the beach, a less-than-five-minute ride, for a peso: “Nagmilagro na pati presyo dito,” a driver unblushingly admits. One must then walk about 15 meters of thigh-high sea to the Cabra-bound motor bancas; the water is too shallow for them to dock on the beach.
Should the bancas land on the east shore, in Libis, it is only about a kilometer to the hill where the apparitions are supposed to have taken place. There, some well-meaning, history-conscious soul has put up cardboard markers on which are written, with blue Pentel pens, such neat ungrammatical signs as:
DEC. 6, 1966
ON THIS SPOT THE
FIRST APPEARED TO AND
WHOM BELINDA THOUGHT
WAS A “MADRE.”
The signs arouse suspicion: are they obvious signs of a gigantic put-on? An Association for the Development (Religious, Educational) of Cabra Island has even been established, and its headquarters is a cogon-roofed, sawali-walled, bamboo-floored shack on one side of the lot where the Blessed Virgin has more than once allegedly appeared. On the lot stands a makeshift sawali chapel with an altar chock-full of plaster statues, of all sizes and shapes, of the Virgin. A 21-foot-high aluminium cross stands in front of the chapel. Across the road, facing cross and chapel, are two newly built stores selling candles, oil, canned food, biscuits, and soft drinks.
But such mundane manifestations as these are common after supernatural or pseudo-supernatural events. If there is a syndicate behind all this, which is unlikely, it is either very discreet or extremely confident. No attempt is even made to direct the girls and guide them in their utterances. Belinda Villas is available for an interview, alone.
Belinda, Baby to family and friends, turned 12 last February 6. She’s a small, dark, pretty girl with long hair that curls over her forehead; is in her sixth grade now, a bright, alert student who is going to graduate valedictorian this year. Her favorite subject in school is good manners and right conduct, and her deportment in class is indeed exemplary, according to her teachers. Yet she is also fond of play: ekisan (the local word for piko), hipanlastik (a game with rubber bands), and a bahay-bahayan without dolls, for Belinda says she has never owned a doll in her whole life. At home, she is a model daughter; the elder of two girls (a brother and a sister have died), she helps with the household chores, cleans the house with isis leaves, occasionally feeds the pig and the chickens her father raises, occasionally helps her mother wash clothes. She is shy with strangers, but among friends, she is inclined to be pilya—and can be the life of the party, as one observes, one evening after the nightly rosary and procession on the hill, when she regales her companions with jokes and bilingual riddles (translation of pipisuhin: “Nakita ni Pepe ang inahin”; Pepe saw hen), and stumps them all with this equation: “One plus one equals two, minus one equals three” (answer: a man and a woman get married and beget a child). She claims she was never particularly religious, and learned to pray the rosary only after the “apparitions.” To this unpracticed eye, she looks perfectly normal; nothing neurotic about her. Belinda could be an extraordinarily accomplished actress, but there is something about her, something in the clear, candid gaze, that almost—almost—invites belief.
Her story is admittedly incredible, but she tells it in a disarming, matter-of-fact way, with no exclamation points and no fanciful embellishments, recounting nothing but the bare facts, if facts they are, never revealing her emotions. If she is truly a visionary, she seems singularly unecstatic; if she has had an ineffable experience, she seems not in the least impressed by it.
On December 6, 1966, at noon, she was, Belinda says, on her way home from school with Mercilita Cajayon, a classmate, neighbor, and cousin. Not too far from the campus is a small store owned by a Mamang Leon, and here Belinda bought five centavos’ worth of chocolate candy, which she shared with Mercilita. So there they were, eating candy, walking up Cabra’s only road, on the way to sitio Buli, where they both live, and indulging, as little girls are wont to do, in wishes they knew were impossible of fulfillment. Would that two sacks of chocolate dropped from the skies, said Mercilita; and Belinda, a little less concerned with her stomach, said she wanted all the stones in their path to turn into gold. Halfway up the hill, as Belinda later wrote in a statement submitted to the parish priest of Lubang, “ako ay naihi.” (The word-construction is as in Batangas; the action described is voluntary, in the definite past tense.) Mercilita went on ahead while Belinda relieved herself by the road.
Belinda was standing up when, she claims, she felt a tug at her dress. When she turned, she saw a beautiful woman, fair-skinned, golden-haired, a blue veil over her head, a long red rosary in her hand, dressed in a voluminous white robe that made Belinda jump to the conclusion that she was looking at a nun, her story goes. Make what you will of this detail, but for some strange reason the girl did not even for a moment wonder what a nun was doing on the island. She called to Mercilita to come back, here was a madre who could give them plenty of chocolates. Then the mysterious lady allegedly said, “Tromono,” and when Belinda replied, “Hindi ko po naiintindihan,” the lady told her to put her palms together before her breasts in an attitude of prayer. Again, the surprising (suspicious?) thing is Belinda’s utter self-assurance: she says she obeyed without question and remembers feeling no terror, not even when she noticed that the lady’s unshod feet did not touch the ground, not even when the lady slowly rose up and gradually vanished from sight. Belinda says she kept silent on that day, telling nobody but Mercilita of what she had seen.
The following day, again after the morning classes, Belinda walked home with Mercilita and six other girls—Glorita Tulaylay, Mindadelia Tulaylay, Edna Villas, Erlita Villas, Matilda Sumintac, and Dalisay Tameta. All the eight girls live in the same sitio, Buli; four were in Grade V then, the other four in Grade VI; four are Belinda’s first cousins, but the others are all relatives, too. Atop the hill, not far from where Belinda is supposed to have seen the madre the first time, there is a two-hectare lot owned by one Conrado Villamar, who lives in Libis. The eight girls say they noticed, inside the lot, a small rectangular bottle, about four inches long, with a ball of crystal for cover, like a bottle of perfume. It glittered in the sun. One of the girls suggested that they take the bottle, but Belinda reminded them that they had been taught by their teachers not to take what did not belong to them.
It was then, the girls claim, that they saw the madre Belinda had allegedly seen the day before. This time, she was standing by an alamag tree, which grows abundantly on the island; it is a relatively short tree, a little more than ten feet tall at the highest, with a thin trunk and thin leaves that grow in clusters. Edna, Matilda, and Belinda approached the alamag and asked the lady what she wanted; instead of answering, the lady disappeared. So goes the girls’ story. Again, it must be noted, none of the girls acted as if they had seen anything unusual; only one, Matilda Sumintac, reported the matter when she got home, and was reprimanded by her mother for making up stories.
The girls were together again on their way back to school that day. When they looked into the Villamar lot again, the glittering bottle was gone. Belinda, however, saw the mysterious lady once again, and she claims that the lady told her: “Magpakabait ka at bibigyan kita ng gantimpala.” For the first time, Belinda thought of asking who the lady was. She must know the story of Lourdes or Fatima because her question was not “Who are you?” but: “Kayo po ba ang ina ni Jesus na pinag-aaralan namin sa religion?”
“Oo, nene,” the lady replied, according to Belinda, who then asked for the lady’s name. As in Fatima, the lady answered that she would give her name at some future time.
In school, the girls finally told their story to Mrs. Juana Torreliza, their home economics teacher and the headteacher of Cabra Elementary School. Mrs. Torreliza says she doubted the story at first, and warned the girls not to tell lies. “Hindi po kami nagbubulaan,” the girls said as one, “mamatay man kami.” Mrs. Torreliza, after further questioning, concluded that what the girls saw was not a fairy and became immediately excited. She called everybody in school, all the students and teachers present, including Mr. Romeo Puli, then the Grade V adviser, and Mrs. Paraluman Roque, the catechist (paid by the Lubang parish), and led them in a shapeless, improvised procession up the hill. Outside the Villamar lot, they all knelt to pray—and for the third time in a single day, Belinda says she saw the mysterious lady.
“Bakit maraming tao?” the lady asked.
“Nadalo po sa inyo,” said Belinda.
And the lady said, before she made another vanishing act: “Hindi ako magpapakita sa maraming tao at marami ang may kasalanan.”
The final “apparitions” of the year occurred the next day, December 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Once again, the lady allegedly came a few minutes after 12 noon, but this time did a strange thing. On her way home, Belinda says, she suddenly felt soft palms covering her eyes, felt soft cloth wrapping her body. This lasted for some minutes, and Belinda wrote later: “Ako ay napaiyak dahil ako ay nainip.” The other girls apparently did not know what was going on, but they noticed Belinda crying, and Glorita told Belinda not to cry, she was probably being tempted (“baka ka nadadala ng tukso”).
After lunch, the school-bound Belinda saw, she claims, the lady for the second time that day by another alamag tree in the Villamar lot. After instructing Belinda to make the sign of the cross, the lady gave her first command: “Magpagawa kayo ng simbahang malaki, at kung di makakaya’y kahit na maliit.” Finally, the lady made it known that her next appearance would be on March 25, 1967, Feast of the Annunciation.
The girls’ stories, meanwhile, had begun to spread. Most of the islanders were frankly skeptical in the beginning. Belinda’s parents, who only heard the story from their neighbors, could not help worrying. “Mapepreso ka kung ikaw’y nagkukulang-kulangan,” her father, Felipe, warned Belinda. “Baka namamaligno,” opined her mother, Belen. When they could not make the girl change her story, they decided to observe her carefully. They saw nothing peculiar in her behavior. “Masarap namang kumain, masarap namang matulog,” says her father. “Normal pa rin ang isip.” What finally convinced Felipe Villas, who until then had not been a practicing Catholic, to believe his daughter’s story was an incident which may be perfectly natural but which, under the circumstances, he could only see as miraculous.
In Mahangkig one day, Felipe Villas accidentally stepped on some broken alamag branches. The splinters that pierced his foot, unnoticed, made it swell a few days later. About the same time, his wife felt some abdominal pains she could not account for. Now, a cousin of Mrs. Villas who lives in Manila had heard of the goings-on on the island and, more prone to belief, had requested for some leaves from one of the alamag trees in the Villamar lot. These leaves were in the house when Belinda’s mother complained of abdominal pains. More out of curiosity than anything else, since alamag leaves had never been used for medicinal purposes, Felipe Villas rubbed his wife’s stomach with oil and plastered it with alamag leaves. Perhaps alamag leaves do have therapeutic value, or they had a psychological effect; at any rate, in a few hours Belen Villas felt well. Felipe, surprised but still skeptical, used on his foot the same leaves that he thought had cured his wife. Before the day was out, he felt the pain of swelling stop, and he was able to pull out the splinters he could not remove before. “Noon ako napasigaw na mabait sa akin ang Mahal na Birhen,” he says.
The cure can be explained naturally, that seems certain, but it certainly made Felipe devout. He had soon memorized the prayers he had never bothered to learn. And all the while, other strange occurrences on the island were beginning to convert the confirmed skeptics. Barrio Councilman Simeon Tamayosa, all of Cabra will testify to this, was the barrio atheist in those days. “Dinidiyos ko lang talaga,” he says, “e ang mga magulang ko. ’Ka ko e niloloko lang kami ng pare diyan sa diyos-diyos nila.” Then, three nights in a row, he says, he saw bright lights flashing, thrice each night, in the skies, moving from the west toward the hill. The lights—“parang Coleman ang liwanag” (Coleman being a kerosene-lamp brand name)—could not have come from the lighthouse, Tamayosa says: its light is not visible from his house. The third night he ran toward the hill and saw the lights turning from yellow to red to blue. Comets? UFOs? Whatever it was, the sight was enough to strike fear in him, and it did to him what the Cursillo does to certain people. He now counts himself among the most fervent believers.
Most of the islanders, too, had witnessed strange sights, mysterious lights. The Doubting Thomases began to dwindle in number. Before 1966, the inhabitants of Cabra had built a makeshift sawali chapel a few meters from the site of the last alleged apparition. Sometime in February of 1967, a 21-foot-high aluminium cross, donated by one Perfecto Alegre, a native of Cabra who now resides in Quezon City, rose in front of the chapel. And on March 25 last year, as was to be expected, the hill was filled with Cabra folk and with visitors, mostly from Mindoro and Batangas, but a few from Manila, all waiting for an apparition, for a miracle.
Father Bernardo Puez, SVD, the German parish priest of Lubang, had been informed of the odd occurrences in his parish. He was inclined to disbelieve everything, but there was something about the girls, when he talked to them, something that stopped him from simply dismissing their story. He therefore decided to look into the matter, and to this end prepared a list of four miracles he wanted performed as proof of the authenticity of the apparitions. He asked the Virgin, if indeed it was the Virgin the girls saw, to produce a spring on Cabra, cure a cancer patient he knew, grant the powers of speech and hearing to the deaf-mute son of one of his catechists, and make a farmer see who had been blind for seven years.
These requests were written down on a piece of paper Belinda held in her hand about noon of March 25, 1967, as she and her seven friends, all dressed in white for the occasion, prayed the rosary with the rest of the crowd. During the third decade of the rosary, the eight girls claim, the Blessed Virgin appeared to them by an alamag tree at the western end of the Villamar lot. Nobody else saw a thing, but the girls approached the tree one by one. When Belinda’s turn came, she says, she asked about a cousin of hers, Amando Ingreso, a lighthouse keeper on Apo Island west of Mindoro, who had been kidnapped some years back and had never been heard from again. The lady allegedly told her that Amando was alive, that he was still somewhere in the Philippines. According to Belinda, the lady also made herself known (“Ako ang Imaculada Concepcion”) and gave a command (“Manggamot kayo”).
And Father Puez’s four requests? The alleged reply to this was as vague as a horoscope entry. “Balang araw,” the lady reportedly said, someday, she would perform a miracle that would make people believe. But she said nothing about the miracles the priest wanted her to perform—and, obviously, neither did she do anything about them. The cancer patient has since died, the deaf-mute and the blind have yet to be cured, and no spring has appeared on the island.
BELIEF dies hard, however. Though no miracles were performed, the island’s erstwhile skeptics did not revert to skepticism. During the alleged apparition, the man who donated the aluminium cross, Perfecto Alegre, took a picture of the girls. He saw nothing, but when the picture was developed, so Alegre claims, a hazy image resembling the shape of the standing Virgin was found on the color photograph. Alegre has copyrighted the photo and sells postcards of it at a peso each. Father Puez does not hesitate to say that the photo is a fake, and advises against buying the postcard. Yet he cannot be as unequivocal about the alleged apparition. “I’m not sure if the apparition is true or not,” he says, smiling only when reminded of his four unfulfilled wishes. “There are signs that it could be true, but I have also reasons to make me believe it is not true at all.”
The swaying of the 21-foot-high aluminum cross is one of these reasons. The swaying was first noticed on March 29, 1967, the day members of an obscure sect called Iglesia de Corazon de Jesus came to the island and attempted to take possession of cross and chapel on the “apparition” site. According to the islanders, the cross moved violently then, though no wind ruffled the leaves of the surrounding trees; and the swaying brought the islanders to their knees, drove the invaders away. The unusual behavior of the cross has been noticed fairly often since then—Father Puez has seen it; I saw it, though on a day when the vibration was slight. You would expect it to move forward and backward, but no: it moves sideways. The motion is not particularly awe-inspiring, but it does baffle. The reason? Maybe a high wind that is not felt on the ground and does not affect the low trees? Maybe some hidden electrical device? Does the PAF’s radar installation on the Lubang mountains have something to do with it? Father Puez would like to replace the hollow, aluminum cross with a massive molave cross; and if that swayed sideways, perhaps he would consider the movement miraculous.
After March 25, 1967, Belinda reported seeing and experiencing other strange things. The Blessed Virgin continued to appear to her, she says; once told her: “Salamat sa ginagawa ninyong kabutihan.” On April 24, last year, Belinda says, inexplicable words formed by clouds appeared in the sky: “Sccisior Villas EVER.” At other times, she says, a hand holding a consecrated host would appear in the air and then she would feel the host on her tongue. The story becomes more fantastic every moment, but Belinda does not tell this particular story to people; she only wrote it in her statement to the parish priest. Then, on December 6, 1967, a year after the first alleged apparition, the Virgin allegedly appeared again and told Belinda to be in the sawali chapel on February 13, this year, and to go to Manila to buy a big statue of the Virgin.
Belinda came to Manila last December with Mrs. Torreliza. They went to the Catholic Trade School on Oroquieta, but not one of the Virgin’s plaster statues there seemed to interest the girl. They moved on to Italian Trading, then in Quiapo, and there Belinda saw an old statue in a corner; she chose it without hesitation, then had it repainted: blue veil, white robe, red rosary.
On February 13, the alleged apparition apparently changed her schedule: instead of at noon, she came at midnight. The girls say they asked the lady to bless rosaries owned by some people they knew. And, Belinda says, the lady told her: “Ito ang aking himala: magpapagaling ako ng me sakit na nananampalataya… Sa ikadalawampu’t pito ng Marso, umpisahan ang paggawa ng simbahan.” She also allegedly promised to appear on the next Feast of the Annunciation.
Father Puez was informed of all these developments.
A sad-eyed, soft-voiced, gentle German, the 57-year-old Father Bernardo Puez is pained by all the publicity Cabra has been getting. He would be in his twelfth year as a parish priest of Lubang this year, had he not been relieved of his duties sometime ago, for alleged propagandizing of the Cabra “miracle.” Another SVD priest came to replace him, but has since left. “The situation changed in such a way that it was not advisable to remove me,” says Father Puez, with utmost tact. It seems the townspeople were hostile to the proposed replacement.
The German priest says his bishop had reason to worry about the Cabra happenings. “He feared Cabra might be a second Lipa, or like that Biñan incident.” In Biñan, Laguna, in 1947, the body of a woman dead seven years was found uncorrupted when dug up and became the object of veneration as “Sta. Filomena.” Two years later, in Lipa, Batangas, a postulant in the Carmelite convent there claimed she had a vision of Our Lady, Mediatrix of All Graces; and a shower of rose petals, on some of which the Virgin’s image was imprinted, allegedly fell on the convent. Neither event was miraculous, Church authorities eventually declared, but in both cases the Church was accused of spreading superstition. Which is why Father Puez now takes pains to dissociate the Church from the Cabra “miracle.”
“I warn the people not to believe unless there is enough proof,” he says. “If they go to Cabra, they go on their own responsibility. And if anything happens to them there, the Church, the parish priest, should not be blamed, nor the bishop.”
This warning, delivered in sermon after sermon in Lubang, went unheeded, because heard by none but the townspeople. All this time, the fame of Cabra was spreading, by word of mouth. Before The Manila Times began its daily series, says Mrs. Juana Torreliza, reporters from at least two other newspapers had come to the island, but she had requested them not to publicize the strange goings-on until the authenticity of the apparition was verified; she says she had not been able to confer with the Times people.
The Times played up the milagro. After the Times story, the deluge.
On March 25, the Villamar lot and the road beyond it was bursting with about 2,000 people, sitting, standing, kneeling, squatting, saying the rosary or just looking idly around. Some men with microphones were barking out directions: “Pray! Kneel! Make way!” Armed constabulary men stood at the ready, as did the mass media representatives. The President’s mother wanted to talk to Belinda, and Belinda, again dressed in white, came—reluctantly, it is said. It is also said that she resented the fact that the VIPs were given a special place, a ringside seat, as it were, from which to view the mundane proceedings and the promised miracle; but she only smiles shyly when asked about this, and even more shyly admits that she did weep on that day, because the people were so noisy, so disorderly.
Belinda and the seven other “visionaries” claim they saw the Virgin that day. Did the crowd see what they saw?
Several visitors from the Big City have come forward, to newspaper offices, saying they saw the Virgin. There is a woman who claims she has obtained, as if by magic, some strands of short, curly, blonde hair that lengthens day by day. Most of those who were on Cabra when dawn broke on March 25, however, agree on this: the rising sun appeared to revolve, and seemed to approach its watchers. It was a benign sun; you could stare at it without blinking—“hindi masakit sa mata kung tingnan,” says one observer. Most of those who tell this story have never seen the sun rise from an island; what they saw may have been an entirely natural phenomenon. But a 90-year-old woman who has lived all her life on Cabra, Modesta Tamares Villas, Belinda’s paternal grandmother, claims the “dance of the sun” was entirely new to her: “Puti na ang ulo ko e ngayon ko lang nakita iyan.”
Now, there are people who also claim that, when they stared at the sun that morning, they saw the sun encircled by changing colors, or they saw the Virgin’s shape in the sun, or the image of the crucified Christ, or the image of the Infant Jesus of Prague, or the Virgin with three bearded men beside her. Different people staring at the same sun saw different things, as, on Pentecost, people of different nationalities listening to St. Peter all heard him talking in their own tongues—the analogy is Father Puez’s, and he hastens to add that the analogy would hold only if there really was a miracle on March 25. Were the visions of the visitors to Cabra products of overwrought imaginations? True, they expected to see the Virgin, not the dance of the sun, and therefore it cannot be said that they saw what they wanted to see. But then, maybe they knew the story of Fatima, and, in the charged atmosphere of Cabra, their memory of that story became a vivid picture before their eyes.
This interpretation is not implausible—but who can really say what the truth is? There is in men a hunger for belief, the will to believe. Religion is the opium of the masses? But if the masses turn to opium, it may be because they can no longer find in human institutions anything that can give them ground to hope for happiness. The desire to believe in miracles may be a symptom of a growing despair, among those who have ceased to expect any help from a government of human beings; or merely the terrified, desperate search for salvation of those who have nightmares about the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle.
If faith can move mountains, the hunger for faith can conjure up visions.
In the meantime, the practical people of Cabra, acting on instructions, are beginning to organize a rural police force to protect themselves against unbelievers.