Dispatch from Bicol: The canceled feast

Not in my lifetime, I told myself. Not in my lifetime that the biggest, most important festival in the Bikol region would be canceled. When acquaintances asked some weeks back if it was possible for them to travel to Naga so they could attend the Peñafrancia fiesta, I had to tell them to wait. A day after those inquiries came flooding in, I had an initial update: travelling to Bikol will not be easy.

At the border of Quezon province and Camarines Sur, there are border guards. They make sure you have papers from where you came from. If the papers are not in order, you are sent back. There are groups that for some reason make it to the boundary between Milaor, the town before the bridge that crosses the Bikol River and then to the city of Naga, and are subjected to quarantine procedures.

Reading these reports is unreal until it happened to members of our household. My sister-in-law was travelling with my niece, her husband and their small son, to Daet, Camarines Norte. They left the city of Naga early in the morning but were back after lunch because at the boundary between Camarines Sur and Camarines Norte, a checkpoint was already set up.

It was, as they narrated, surreal to be in that area and not be allowed to travel through. Not in their lifetime. Not in anyone’s lifetime.

Boundaries materializing and the consciousness that one is not free to travel anymore are life-altering phenomena.

Still, nothing disturbs the Bikolanos more than the fact Marian devotion reputedly to be the only regional devotion—in that the entire region celebrates it—and the celebratory aspect of the same have been canceled. There are two ways of looking at this cancellation: one sector believes only the fiesta is affected by this decision, and that the devotion goes on. Another group looks at the devotion as a product of local histories and cultures; change the process and the whole event is altered.

The devotees know the scenario. There are two major events in the Peñafrancia. One is the Traslacion, which is the transfer of the icon or the “Ina” (Mother) from her shrine by the river by way of a land procession. The present-day Shrine bears the honorific title of a Basilica Minore, and is readily known for its physical size as well as its capacity to bestow graces. From that site, the Virgin is borne by male devotees known as voyadores (literally “voyagers” but also understood as “bearers”), until they reach the Metropolitan Cathedral.

The distance between the Shrine and the Cathedral is minimal. The whole process of moving the icon could take less than an hour. But the Traslacion is noted for its chaos rather than order as male devotees scramble to touch the hem of the manto or veil, which serves as a cape, of the Virgin. Women are not allowed to be in the immediate circle of the voyadores.

After nine days, the Virgin returns by way of the Naga River, a polluted body of water that appears cleaner, as it is deeper, on the day of the fluvial procession because of the rains. Usually, on the two or one day before the river procession, the city would be visited by strong rains. The old people would say “pinapano an salog” (the river is being filled up).

All this would not happen this year.

Last Friday, the second Friday of the month of September, the city was quiet. No buntings from softdrink and liquor companies adorned the streets of the city. No booths selling souvenirs were seen in the city’s two main parks, one to commemorate the region and its 15 Martyrs rising against the Spanish colonization and the other to celebrate the national hero.

There were announcements on the live-streaming of the novenas. Some rejoice at the idea that the celebration, which is really about praying, has regained its original, true, spiritual form. But there are those who, even as they affirm the novenas, insist it is not the same ritual at all. From this discourse arises the persistent notion that, while the institutional Church may run officially the devotion and the feasting that goes with it, the whole celebration is really a people’s entitlement to a faith they are making a sense of.

Protocols done in the name of health are enforced. Please stay in your parishes. Please do not come to Naga.

People will then be missing the journey of Ina not so much as a metaphor but as the gritty and earthbound indicator of a Shrine sharing its boon—or magic—with the rest of the population.

Shrines or those sites of what devotees believe to be the source of power are material and physical locations. They are not neither here nor there but a somewhere, a fixed origin from which mana, the life force energy, as the Pacific islanders call it, emanate and to which the fervent love and worship return.

What would have happened—as people quietly proposed—if the procession was conducted? Would the devotees observe spacing? Would no rope separating the Mother from Her children be respected? The tactility inherent in this September commemoration—would it be subverted or substituted by a longing gaze from afar?

As it is, there will be no updated photos of the awesome and the magnificently Instagrammable shots of the Virgin, her silver globe-carrosa so made to prevent ardent—and usually drunk—faithful to climb on it, as the globe carrying the image tossing wildly on a sea of men. There will be no barge majestic at twilight, the candles and torches blazing around, boisterously and unashamedly proclaiming the ardent faith.

There will be only memories and sadness, like the thoughts in this column and a writer making sense of an absence.


E-mail: titovaliente@yahoo.com

Image credits: Jimbo Albano


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