Talking about devotional images for the home, it is surprising that, growing up, I never saw heirloom santos in our family altar. Not even one. What we had were plaster cast saints from the 1950s, a handful of which survived—Virgen de los Remedios, Fatima, Lourdes, and a headless escayola figure of a Sacred Heart of Jesus. But old, wooden tabletop santos? Never. The only thing close was a small Nazareno that my Apung Tiri bought after the war, perhaps from one of those stalls in Quiapo church, and which is now in the possession of my 95 year old aunt.
Perhaps that’s what excites me when I visit my other distant Castro relatives and discover antique family santos in their home altar. In one such visit to my second cousins, I saw a couple of folk santos on a table, not so finely carved, but antique nevertheless. Of course, my cousins—who knew of my penchant for collecting them—would tell me stories behind the santos—how this particular San Isidro Labrador was often beseeched for good rice harvest by their Apu. Or how this San Jose was prized by the mother, until termites gobbled him up. These santos, however, would be stored for good, when, one by one, my cousins left for the U.S., and I thought I would never see them again.
But a day before the last of my cousins departed for the U.S., I was in for a big surprise. When I got home from work, I found this San Jose with a Child Jesus on my living room table, brought there by my cousin in the hope that I can adopt it and have it restored for my collection. I was grateful and thrilled at the same time, and I promised to take care of their San Jose, no matter what shape he was in.
I have seen similar santos of this make, possibly one of the earliest,--and cheapest-- types of commercial, mass produced wooden figures, all with uniformed sizes, same manikin body construction, same bases, and even same facial features.
The same goes true for the globe-holding generic Niño, made to be held by these generic santos and santas, then clothed with different vestments and outfitted with accessories, to finally define them and their titles.
True, there may be nothing remarkable about this San Jose, but its special-ness comes from the fact that it once was the center of a family devotion, sharing home and hearth with my Castro forebears.
The wooden head of San Jose was in a terribly bad shape. The wood had been eaten by termites, with half of the head gone—just a thin shell---no nose, right cheek gone, the base, ridden with holes.
Surprisingly, the wooden body was in good condition, the hands complete; even San Jose’s original rattan staff was intact. He was wearing well-worn robes on his shapeless body, most likely sewn by another cousin, an expert sastre (tailor), as well as an old abaca wig.
The Niño was in better shape, as it was carved in one piece. Its paint has long faded and it came to me clothed in a white eyelet tunic, several sizes bigger.
My biggest problem was San Jose’s heavily damaged head. My first impulse was to discard the head, have a new one made, and that would have solved my problem. It also means destroying the integrity of the image, no matter how plain and folksy it looks. I decided to see if I could restore it myself , and so, armed with perseverance and prayer, I embarked on this restoration project.
To fill the gaping hole on San Jose’s head, I had to buy a can of plastic filler, some sort of a wood putty, that sets in an hour, then dries in a day or two. My patience was tested when I started filling the hole, as I had to do put the filler in one layer at a time, wait for it to set until it achieves a clay-like consistency.
Then you build on this layer, poured more filler, wait for half a day or so, and begin the process again until you build up the filler all the way to the surface are of the santo’s skin. Only then can I mold and shape facial features—like the nose, nostrils, the beard, the missing cheek and forehead--using all sorts of spatulas, ice cream sticks and even my hands. Sometimes, I was always in a rush; I would begin molding, only to realize that the putty had not fully settled yet. After a day, the cheek and forehead would cave in as the putty seeped through the crevices of the hole-ridden head.
Meanwhile, I tried replacing the missing eye with a glass eye I cut from a broken bulb. When that did not fit, I made another eye using clear plastic, from an empty mineral water bottle. The fit was better! Finally, after two week of filling, shaping, sculpting and sanding--- I declared my finished santo head a success.
The next step was painting both the San Jose head and the Nino. I was just too lazy to do this, so I just brought it to an art gallery in Angeles and convinced the artist-owner to paint them, even though he paint only on flat canvasses.
When I put the San Jose head on the cleaned-up manikin body, I was pleased with the result, although it could have been better. I could still detect a dent on one side of the head—the result of my impatience, of not waiting longer for the putty to set. I could also have done a better job with sanding the piece, as, despite the paint job, I could still see areas where the wood and the putty meet.
For San Jose’s vestments, I retained the original green tunic and had a full velvet cape made so that his clothes would have more volume and body. I also spruced up the undershirt with lace.
The Niño had to contend with His old clothes, which I altered to make it smaller. I smooched a wig from one of my old santas, and had his metal halo re-wired (it is still with the latero, so you don’t see him wearing it here).
The final results of my San Jose restoration project are on this page. I have signified my intention to donate this image to our chapel—on behalf of my generous cousins-- as soon as I have a glass-fronted urna or cabinet made.
When I told my cousins of this plan, they were elated and touched, of course, at the thought that their San Jose—once their padre de familia—would now be a Great Father to a whole barangay who would only be happy to have him in their midst.