Celebrating Philippine fiestas
It’s quite hard to describe ourselves collectively as a people. But if there’s something that seems able to capture our essence as a people, it’s the fiesta. First of all, it’s the one experience that seems common to all of us—there are as many fiestas as there are many barangays and barrios in this country.
When I was growing up in a small town called Abuyog in the island of Leyte, summer meant the onset of fiesta season. The fiestas were scheduled like clockwork in the months of April and May, as if the elders of the various barrios of the town got together many scores ago to plot a timetable. A fiesta blended together religious fervor, unbridled merriment (including drunken revelry and lots of dancing), traditional games and contests, and needless to say, partaking of large quantities of food, glorious food. Nothing like a fiesta brings out our penchant to do things in the most bongga (over the top) way ever!
I think that years of experience have enabled us to bring the fiesta to the level of a science. In the past, fiestas were mainly about celebrating the feast day of a patron saint. Not anymore today. Most now adopt a specific cultural element that’s unique to the community and highlight this as the central theme of the celebration. For many, it’s a historical event such as the Sandugo festival of Bohol, which commemorates a blood compact. For others, it’s an indigenous tradition such as traditional practices of painting bodies and faces such as the Pintados of Leyte or the Boling Boling of Quezon, or a unique feature of the town such as the Ibon Ebun Festival of Candaba—a celebration of the migratory birds that flock to town’s swamps.
There’s still a religious element thrown into the picture, but for the most part, it’s almost like a token side bar to the celebration. The Sinulog of Cebu, the Dinagyang of Iloilo, the Ati-atihan of Kalibo, etc., are religious in origin, but the packaging of these festivals now reflect a unique cultural heritage of the specific locales.
Our fiestas reflect who and what we are as a people. Everything about us finds expression in the way we celebrate our fiestas, even the state of our community spirit. The value of bayanihan may be dead in other aspects of our life as a people, but it’s there—left, right and center stage—in a fiesta. Our inherent creativity, our natural artistry, even our flair for the superficial at the expense of substance—all these converge in that annual tradition that is the Philippine fiesta.
One simply had to be there last Saturday night at the Quirino Grandstand to experience how the fiesta is indeed an integral and wondrous element of our culture. The occasion was the 2009 Aliwan Festival. Dubbed as the “Festival of all festivals,” Aliwan is a courageous—and I must say highly commendable—annual project of the Manila Broadcasting Co.
This year, Aliwan drew 21 festivals from all over the country—from as far north as Laoag City (Pamulenawen Festival) to as far south as General Santos City (Kalilangan Festival). The major festivals were represented by a contingent of street dancers—from the Sinulog of Cebu, Dinagyang of Iloilo, Kadayawan of Davao, Penagbenga of Baguio City, Pamulenawen of Laoag, Pulang Angui of Bicol, etc.
It was a highly spirited competition of floats and street dancing that featured a riot of colors, an explosion of innovation and creativity, and a most importantly, the pulsating throb of national pride. Festivals like the Aliwan really deserve all the support it can get, as no other cultural event has been able to achieve what it has been able to successfully mount all these years, which is showcase the breathtaking breadth and depth of our culture. It is sad of course that government and other private organizations choose to mount their own little events instead of just pouring all our resources into what is already an established and successful venture. I was disheartened to note, for example, that the Department of Tourism still seemed happily oblivious to the Aliwan Festival. At least the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the city governments of Pasay and Manila were co-sponsors of the event.
Last Saturday’s Aliwan Festival was finally held at the Quirino Grandstand— a much bigger and more accessible venue compared to the Aliwan grounds at the CCP. I don’t want to take credit for the decision although I did suggest it last year in this column, and someone from MBC told me that my column was discussed by the organizers in one of their meetings. But the change of venue enabled more people to witness the once-a-year extravaganza, which should be the case.
This year, the judges of the Festival which included cultural luminaries such as prima ballerina Lisa Macuja and CCP president Nestor Jardin made it a point to stress their bias for more indigenous dance movements. This was an inspired decision as I have noted the seeming predilection of most festival choreographers to feature ballet and modern dance movements in street dancing entries. There’s also this rather annoying proclivity to insert gratuitous acrobatic acts into the street dancing, which as can be expected, gets the roaring attention of the crowd but which really comes across as superfluous. And of course, there’s this absurd and quite hilarious tendency to dress up dancers in glittery outfits that remind one of Christmas tree ornaments as if our indigenous costumes are not colorful enough.
Nevertheless, last Saturday’s festival was in general an extremely delightful experience. I have never seen such creativity particularly in the use of props and in theater staging. The contingents used handheld props that transformed into platforms and various contraptions that boggled the mind and took the audience’s breath away.
I must note with great pride that the grand champion this year was the Buyogan Festival of my very own hometown, Abuyog Leyte. The Festival has really gone a long way. What makes the festival unique is that it features not professional dancers but high school students and elementary pupils—from a very small town in the heart of Leyte. The kids traveled aboard several buses from Leyte and had very little resources to cover its participation. But what it lacked in resources, it more than made up for with sheer talent and determination.
I hope that government and other private organizations such as the media rally behind the annual Aliwan Festival so that it can become even grander than it already is, ennoble more festivals to participate, and enable more Filipinos to sit up and notice it. It’s a shame that not very many people know something we can all draw pride in exists.
In closing, I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks to Ellen Fullido, vice president for Human Resources and Eleanor Ebreo of the MBC who literally plucked me from the sidewalk where I was watching the festival and gave me access to the VIP section of the grandstand.
See you at the next Aliwan Festival where I am confident my hometown festival will successfully be able to defend its title as overall champion.