Wednesday, May 07, 2008

In the name of "bongga!"

This was my column last Monday, May 5.

Anyone in search of a metaphor to describe the state of the country would have found it Saturday night at the Cultural Center of the Philippines grounds where the Aliwan Fiesta was held.

The country may be going through various crises of huge proportions but these cannot and will not stop the Filipino from spending inordinate amounts of money to celebrate a fiesta. And in the most bongga way ever! Thus, traffic along Roxas Boulevard was hopelessly tangled last Saturday, as 25 of the most popular fiestas from all over the archipelago converged in Manila to outperform, outsmart, and outspend each other for the distinction of being hailed the best of the best.

Not even a heavy downpour could dampen the spirits of the tens of thousands of performers and spectators —from as far north as Isabela to as far south as Zamboanga—who all came in anticipation of a grand fiesta. They were not disappointed.

We do have this predilection to do celebrations in a magnified, grand, over-the-top scale, in line with our bongga mentality. And a fiesta—the communal orgy of dancing, eating, drinking and general splurging—fits perfectly as an occasion to let loose our bongga mentality.

A fiesta exemplifies the lengths to which we go through in an effort to showcase—supposedly—culture, religion, tradition, history and local color in the most bongga way ever. In every barrio in this country, people will hock the farmland or sell the last carabao to finance a fiesta and then subsist on practically nothing for the rest of the year. Local governments may not have money to pay the wages of their employees but will not spare any expense to mount a fiesta to end all others.

It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Since towns and cities need to have fiestas that are decidedly unique and different from all the others, local governments have indulged in various types of gimmickry to drumbeat their own fiestas. The prevailing trend is to pick something— anything—that’s supposed to be organic to the locality such as a product, a norm, or a historical fact, embellish it, and then turn it into some kind of a “festival.”

The result is a cornucopia of inspired madness. Some even attempt to land in the Guinness Book of Records by grilling the most number of vegetables in one location, or rolling the longest tobacco, or mounting the most number of people doing the same thing at a given hour.

In the past, fiestas were primarily in honor of the barrio’s or town’s patron saint. Some fiestas are still about saints and religious icons. The Sinulog of Cebu, the Ati-atihan of Kalibo, and the Moriones of Marinduque still celebrate religious piety. But other fiestas are not anymore about religion. Some fiestas now revolve around vegetables, animals, events, historical facts, produce, even virtues and ideals.

This unusual turn of events has turned our anthropologists and sociologists into a tizzy. But in the meantime, no amount of admonitions about a lingering rice crisis, dire warnings about committing sacrilege, even appeals about the need to be relevant, can stop us from mounting and enjoying a fiesta that is grander, more colorful and more spectacular than those of others. In other words, on with the bongga!

My own hometown, Abuyog, which lies along the fringes of the Pacific Ocean in the heart of Leyte, was picked to be one of the 25 contingents to the Aliwan Fiesta. My hometown happens to have a festival called Buyogan named in honor of bees (buyog), from which the town got its name. The festival pales in comparison to the grandeur or the popularity of the more established festivals such as the Sinulog or the Ati-atihan (which won the top plums, as expected). Obviously, we don’t have the resources or the decades-long experience of the festivals of the major cities.

But Buyogan thrives on an authentic and unique concept and is anchored strongly on the tenacity and community spirit of the townspeople. It’s a festival that highlights the convergence of history, culture, and environmental protection. So it came to pass that 300 schoolchildren from our town found their way to Manila to compete with the more established festivals. And naturally, it became an occasion for pride and bayanihan for all of us sons and daughters of our beloved town who all rallied in support of our own Buyogan.

The Aliwan Fiesta dangled a booty of a million pesos for the grand winner of the streetdancing competition. A million pesos sounds like a huge amount but in reality, it does not cover the amount needed to transport, feed, and clothe hundreds of performers and their coterie of chaperones and support staff. But as town Mayor Octavio Traya said, what was at stake was the town’s pride and honor so everyone pitched in to get the kids to Manila.

Buyogan won fifth place among a field of 25 contestants. Not a bad showing considering that, like I said, the others clearly had the edge in terms of resources and experience. Unlike other contingents that had the benefit of having professional dancers from major universities participating, the Buyogan participants were all schoolchildren most of which set foot in Manila for the very first time. Proof indeed that even little towns can be on equal footing with the rest in terms of talent and guts.

Let me in this piece say, by calling attention to the fact that while the organizers behind the Aliwan Festival should be commended for the inspired idea of bringing together the best festivals in the country in a spirit of friendly competition, that a lot more could have been done to ensure that the whole spectacle could be enjoyed by all. Commercial considerations dictate that the festival be held in front of the headquarters of the Manila Broadcasting Corp. which was the major sponsor of the event.

But the narrow and confined space was hardly the best place for such a huge spectacle. Most of the hundreds of thousands who converged on that narrow road between the CCP and Aliw Theatre had to contend with watching the proceedings from a handful of small projection screens which did not do justice to the pageantry of the streetdancing. So perhaps holding it at the Quirino Grandstand or the Rizal Memorial Stadium where more people can watch in comfort can be considered the next time around.

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