Dela Cruz is a Pinoy painter who won the Juror’s Choice prize at the 1998 Philip Morris Philippine Art Awards. Since then, he has had his paintings exhibited in galleries around Asia and in the USA. Recently, he was commissioned to paint a mural for the Muntinlupa City Government building. Not bad for a self-taught artist.
In Dela Cruz’s four feet by eight feet painting, we see what used to be a common sight in the Philippine countryside during the Lenten season—9 to 13-year-old boys anxiously waiting for their genitals to be (without anesthesia!) slashed with a razor and cut by a pair of scissors wielded by the manunuli—the, um, circumciser.
Every Black Saturday (never on Good Friday for superstitious reasons), shorts come off and shirts are lifted all over the Philippines as boys queue up to face their ultimate fear. In what may be the most chilling aspect of the entire ritual: The boys must watch how the manunuli cleans his blade and scissors by wiping off the blood with tissue paper and spritzing the blades with rubbing alcohol. As the boys get nearer the front, they will begin to see more clearly the blood specks on the cutting board. Oh mommy!
This circumcision ritual is something like a nightmarish episode of Fear Factor as dreamed up by a crazed Freudian analyst with a phallic-mutilation fantasy. It's terrifying, but when the procedure is done and the wound is healed, everyone gets to laugh about it.
Make no mistake, circumcision is darn painful. The mere thought of a razor blade near your privates is enough to make one squirm. Eons of evolutions have chiseled a basic commandment onto our mammalian brains: genitals and sharp objects don't go together. One of the boys in the queue has a bottle of gin to dull the pain. Another one has peed over himself. And of course, there’s always the oldest one in the bunch, and the butt of jokes among those gathered.
Pinoy society cruelly demands that no matter how old you are, you are not a man until you are circumcised, and the proud fighting cock at the manunuli’s feet tells us this.
Across the cock is a Flintstones doll which perhaps symbolizes that it is through the measured application of pain and humiliation that boys are turned into men and savages become civilized. The falling leaves bring to mind the guava leaves which were traditionally chewed and applied to the wound as a disinfectant.
Lastly, the sign which say "Libreng Tule" is a comic touch. While this sign is welcomed by cash-strapped parents, it brings sheer terror to boys around the country. Whenever the sign "Free Circumcision" appears in town, it means that soon a group of mortified boys will make that transition to manhood. Whether they like it or not. Ouch!
I’m not sure how the funny connotations of Pinoy male ritual circumcision will be received in more politically-correct quarters of the globe given the uproar over ritual female circumcision in some parts of Africa.
But Pinoys, especially those who grew up in the barrios and were circumcised old school-style with no anesthesia will certainly respond to Dela Cruz's painting with wide grins: Been There, Done That (accompanied by a slight squirming in the groin while thinking, Thank God I Don't Have To Go Through That Again!).
[Much thanks to Keng-Hock Pwee and Reynold Dela Cruz for their generosity of spirit]