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Quiapo’s ‘Believe it or not’: Of witch doctors and spells

The streets of Quiapo are paved with a precarious aura. The air reeks of a bygone era once Manila’s finest, but has since become home to an ineffable assortment of characters, obscurities, and gems unique to the historical district. It is ironic that the grounds, which the venerated Quiapo Church stands on, is also home to hawkers who are in the business of dark magic. These merchants sell a range of different potions and herbal cures from pseudo-religions–enough to cry “blasphemy” for some.

The outskirts of Quiapo Church hold just as many treasures and secrets as that of its courtyard, Plaza Miranda. Past aisles of street vendors selling local produce, lamps, and even accessories for gadgets, lays a busy side street to the left of the church, decked with a multifold of religious memorabilia.

As you venture deeper into the scanty alley, the more obscure items start to reveal themselves–from necklaces and vials of suspicious looking liquids, to oddly shaped woodcarvings and antiques. Scattered across random corners are people seated on stools, being massaged with exotic oils made from god-knows-what.

At the end of the road hangs a faded tarpaulin, beaten down by rains and the lurid secrets it has seen. Upon first glance, it seems to be hidden from view by a curtain of beads and dusty statues from the next-door kiosk. Looking closer, it turned out to be a menu of services, but it was unlike your usual boutique. Customers could select from a catalog, with choices that ranged from pampaswerte, panggamot sa sakit, and panghihilot, to name a few. Below, the fine print read: Brother Ariel, donation only.


Haring albularyo of Quiapo

The neighboring vendors call him the “haring albularyo ng Quiapo.” The Filipino term albularyo literally translates to “folk healer,” of which Brother Ariel has been for a good five years. But his family, he shares, has been in the alchemistic field for over 20 years in Quiapo.

Di ko rin sure kung bakit dito (sa Quiapo),” he confesses. “Pero siguro kasi maganda ang kita sa Quiapo. Malaking bagay ‘yan, kasi sentro ng Maynila. Nandito lahat ng tao, tapos may simbahan pa.

Brother Ariel’s knowledge on various unconventional herbs, potions, and methods were passed on to him by his uncle and grandfather, who were also folk healers. He speaks of it as something sacred, noting how it continues from generation to generation. “Ang nagturo sa akin ay yung kapatid ng tatay ko,” he recalls.

Yung lolo namin manggagamot, pinasa sa kapatid ng tatay ko. Tapos nung namatay siya, pinasa niya sa akin yung kaalaman.” For the respected albularyo, his task isn’t an easy feat, but involves complicated processes and steps.

Mahirap aralin para sa iba. Hindi nila nakakayanan, kaya nasisira ang ulo,” he shares, as he stares into blank space for a split second. “Pero madali lang sa akin. Basta pag ginusto mo, madali lang, walang imposible.”

He earned his renowned nickname for many reasons, beginning with his mentorship with other healers, both budding and established. “Ako ang nasa gitna,” he points at a photo of himself clothed in a red robe, seated between two men wearing white robes. “Principal ako. May mga nagpapaturo pa sa akin, ginagalang ako. Mahina pa ang mga kaalaman nila.” The other reason being that he charges his patients nothing for his services.


The common stigma against albularyos is they’re nothing but kooky witch doctors–a thing of fairytales and horror stories. But the case is far from that. Albularyos heal to banish evil. Much of their work runs on a belief system, the same way a religion and vocation functions. Their main mission is to do good and serve people who need their help. Often, their customers are those who have started to lose hope over failed attempts using more traditional methods.

Monica, a 70-year-old lady with a rare skin disease, sought the help of a provincial albularyo after visiting six doctors who all had the same prescription–they didn’t know what it was. The healer claimed she might have disrupted an enchanted dwarf’s home while she was cleaning out her garden.

It is said that interrupting with the invisible forces of nature would cause these mystical creatures to unleash their wrath on you, by casting evil spells that would result in misfortunes and tribulations. The albularyo required her to plead for forgiveness from the dwarves in order to be cured of her sickness.

Cheryl, on the other hand, noticed one day that her housekeeper was out of character–mumbling archaic words they could not understand. She would often be seen deep in grim thought, unable to go about her daily tasks. Concerned, they brought her to an albularyo for consultation, where they were told that she was possibly possessed by a demon.

After going through special rituals and prayers, in a span of a few days, she was back to normal. Whether you believe in their power or not is up to you, but albularyos would ask not to seek them with skepticism and distrust. “Gagana lang kapag maniniwala ka nang buong puso,” they were told.


An instrument of God

The distinct “donation only” sign of Brother Ariel’s kiosk stands out from the rest. Not many other albularyos are keen on the same payment (or lack thereof) scheme. He mentions that he is the only one established enough to get by with mere donations.

Hindi ako nagp-presyo, kasi bawal sa aking patakaran, sa layunin ko.” He then went on to say that being an albularyo is a duty – one that a higher power tasked him to do. “Donation lang kahit limang piso, sampung piso, bente pesos. Nasa sa inyo na lang kung magkano ibibigay niyo.”

Brother Ariel owes his materials, liquids, and stones to Mother Nature–his sole supplier. “Mas effective ang kalikasan. Isa lang naman pinanggalingan (ng kalikasan). Natural yan, Panginoon na ang may gawa niyan.”

Despite the peculiar and out-of-the-ordinary nature of his work, the medicine man has no complaints about his job. “Masaya ako sa ginagawa ko. Masaya ako pag meron akong natulungan at may nagpapasalamat sa akin.”

At the end of the day, he has the God above to thank for each passing day. “Malaking bagay na sa Panginoon ka kumukuha ng lakas.”

Audrey Giongco

By Audrey Giongco

Isabella Argosino

By Isabella Argosino

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