MANILA — Amulet vendor Ma. Melody Limon Ferreras believes the mystical power of the "anting-anting" brought the stroke of good fortune that allowed her eldest son to own a house after he joined a growing number of online lucky charm sellers during the COVID-19 crisis.
While Ferreras and her family were already selling amulets in Quiapo, Manila and on Facebook before the pandemic struck in 2020, she said e-commerce platforms Shopee and Lazada helped increase their sales. Business was so good that in just 2 years, her 25-year-old son bought a parcel of land and built a house in Quezon province, she said.
"Nakapagpatayo na siya ng bahay at lupa dahil lang sa mga lucky charm," Ferreras, 48, told ABS-CBN News while attending to customers at her anting-anting store near Quiapo Church, an area dotted by stalls selling religious items, good-luck pieces, and herbal products.
"Dati sa Facebook lang, marami ding nag-o-order sa Facebook, noong nilipat sa Lazada saka siya [lumakas]," she said.
(He has built a house just because of the lucky charms. Before it was only on Facebook, many people also ordered on Facebook. But when it was transferred to Lazada, it got stronger.)
The belief that magical objects can protect, bring prosperity and heal predated the arrival of Spanish colonizer who brought Catholicism to the Philippines, where about 80 percent of 110 million people subscribe to the faith today.
Religion and superstition mix in Quiapo's anting-anting stalls, where rosaries and wooden figurines of Christ are sold beside "healing" oils, beaded bracelets believed to bring luck, and pendants inscribed with corrupted Latin, images of angels, and other religious symbols.
To weather the worst of COVID closures in 2020, some anting-anting sellers joined many businesses which turned to e-commerce sites to boost sales. On Lazada and Shopee, some shops offer stones, animal fangs and bones, plants, and "miracle" powders to attract luck.
Arlene Bujactin Tabilon, who also owns anting-anting stores online, said she and other amulet vendors in Dolores, Quezon saw their sales double after the pandemic hit.
"Mas dumoble po 'yung kita ng mga taga-dito kaysa po no'ng hindi siya pandemic," Tabilon, 28, told ABS-CBN News, adding she was able to renovate her family home and buy a jeep and a motorcycle just from selling anting-anting.
"Kasi dito almost Holy Week lang sila kumikita nang malaki po talaga. Hindi katulad ngayon kahit ordinary day po basta online may kita na sila."
(The income of the people here doubled compared to before the pandemic. They used to earn a lot only during the Holy Week. But now even on ordinary days, as long as they're online, they still earn.)
But with newfound financial luck, Tabilon said some people are skeptical that the anting-antings work and "bash" sellers.
"Hindi namin pinapansin kasi mas lalo lang silang maeengganyong i-bash kami pag pinansin namin sila," she said.
(We just shrug them off because they will double down on bashing us if we give them attention.)
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said that anting-anting vendors are "not regulated through mandatory certification."
However, they are covered by guidelines of online selling, "particularly on deceptive, unconscionable, and unfair sales practices," said Jayzza Carreon, public relations chief of the DTI's Office of the Secretary.
Asked if consumers can complain if an anting-anting doesn't work, Carreon said, "Yes."
"But the complaint is not a guarantee they will win," she noted, quoting DTI's Consumer Protection and Advocacy Bureau chief Melquiades Marcus Valdez II.
"The case still has to undergo due process."
The anting-anting items Ferreras and Tabilon sell are believed to shoo evil spirits; ward off illnesses, calamities, and tragedies; and help grant wishes such as a new job, romance, and prosperity.
Historian Xiao Chua said Filipinos still believe in anting-anting because they want to improve their lives.
"If you go to anting-anting stores, you'll find anting-anting for all sorts of needs because that is the concept of Filipino kaginhawaan (relief)," he said in an interview with the Vibal Foundation.
According to a December 2022 survey by private pollster Social Weather Stations, some 12.9 million Filipino families rated themselves as "poor." This is slightly higher compared to 12.6 million in its October 2022 survey.
Anting-anting is also a "colorful manifestation" of the endurance of Philippine culture, Chua said.
"Napakalakas ng ating kultura na hanggang ngayon ito'y nagpapatuloy magmula noon hanggang ngayon," he said.
(Our culture is so strong that until now it continues.)
GOOD OR BAD?
Anting-anting patron Jazen Estrabo said she uses anting-anting to attract luck for her business.
"Dumodoble 'yung mga client ko," she said. "Totoo naman kasi, nararamdaman ko naman kung totoo o hindi. Mararamdaman mo sa tingin mo pa lang kung gumagana o hindi, kung may bisa ba o wala."
(My clients doubled. Because it's true, I can feel whether it's true or not. You can feel whether it works or not.)
Under the Catholic Church's teachings, the use of anting-anting is "sinful" because users "attribute to these materials the power and honor that is due to God alone," noted Fr. Emil Arbatin of the Archdiocese of Capiz.
He added that the faithful should reject "all forms of divination."
But Ferreras, the Quiapo vendor who is also a Black Nazarene devotee, said lucky charms only serve as a "guide."
"Hindi naman masama kung mag-ano ka ng pampasuwerte. Parang gabay lang naman 'yan. Di mo naman iaasa [lahat doon]," said Ferreras.
"Nasa sa iyo naman kung maniniwala ka," she said.
(It's not wrong to own lucky charms. Those are just guides. You don't depend on them for everything. It's up to you whether to believe in them or not.)