The word “fiesta” is Spanish for party, and has been localized as “pista.” One word sums it up—extravagance. The mention of the word alone prompts a physical reaction in any Filipino—the mind smells the aroma of special dishes wafting from the kitchen, the stomach contracts at the thought of these culinary delights, the eyes conjure faces of family and friends from long ago.
Traditionally, the fiesta is celebrated in commemoration of the town’s patron saint. Yes, Virhinia, the fiesta is a religious festival. Somehow, between the time the procession left the church and the time it returned, the Filipino managed to transform the feast into a giant party. It is a fascinating way of mingling the secular with the sacred, as only the Filipino can.
May is the most popular month for the fiesta, and many scholars have surmised that this correlated with the agricultural cycle. It is the month of the harvest, when flowers bloom, grain is plentiful, and fruits abound. The heart of the summer months, May also inevitably assures the town officials of rain-free weather. The Feast of Our Lady of Good Voyage in Antipolo is celebrated on the first day of May. Already, on the eve of the feast, one can observe hordes of pilgrims walking along the roads leading to the hills of Antipolo. Another famous fiesta, celebrated on May 15, is the Pahiyas festival in Lucban, Quezon. On that day, the homes in the town are festooned with colorful kiping, thin translucent rice pancakes dried to a crisp and dyed in a multitude of colors–truly a feast for the eyes. Most popular, of course, is the month-long celebration of the Flores de Mayo, in honor of the Blessed Virgin. Each day, floral offerings are made at the foot of her statue by little girls dressed in white. The highlight of the festival is the Santacruzan. The feast commemorates the search for the Holy Cross by Queen Helena and her son Constantine. The Filipino has translated this into a procession of the loveliest ladies in town parading under arches decked with flowers, the biggest and most ornate arch belonging to the lady representing Reyna Elena.
Weeks before the big day, the excitement begins to percolate when the colorful buntings (locally known as banderitas or tiny flags) start making their appearance across the main streets and at the town plaza. It used to be that these were made out of colorful papel de japon pennants painstakingly pasted on miles and miles of Manila hemp. Then Big Corporation saw it as an opportunity to advertise, so now the usual sight is of plastic triangles printed with the corporate logo, an opportunity seized by the adman.
Along with the buntings comes the perya, our local version of the circus come to town. It sprouts up overnight at the plaza—a carnival-cum-theme-park-cum-flea-market. At its heart are the rides—the Ferris wheel, the caterpillar, the octopus—raggedy contraptions held together by spit and rope, yet guaranteed to bring thrills to the locals. Surrounding the rides are the various booths set up to part the locals from their money—dart booths decked out with balloons, with the enticing stuffed toys and plastic bric-a-brac prominently displayed on the side. My favorite is the karera ng daga. A giant wheel is placed horizontally in the middle of the booth, with tiny numbered boxes featuring a tiny entrance hole built along the rim. Suspended above the wheel’s hub is a a white mouse in a cage. The wheel is spun, and the spectators are to guess which numbered box the mouse will enter once it is set down on the wheel. The barker calls out to passersby, inviting them to inspect the priceless items to be won for a measly coin—sets of plates, crystal glasses, items that a home should not be without. Meanwhile, round and round the wheel is spun. When enough bets have been placed, the barker gently drops the cage on the spinning wheel and opens the gate. The bettors wait with bated breath, wishing, wishing that the mouse would choose their number. At last the wheel stops, the mouse runs hither and thither while the crowd cheers it on. Finally it makes a choice and enters one of the boxes. And the winner is announced, “NÚMERO VEINTE DOS!!!” A collective sigh emanates from the losers. The lucky bettor goes home with the new set of tableware for the misis. And the wheel spins once again for the hopeful crowd.
The freak shows are there, too, though I never had the courage to enter those booths. The girl with a third leg. The man who could decapitate a live chicken with his bare hands. The woman who could read your future.
Finally, on the fringes of the perya are booths selling anything from food and drinks to dry goods from the city—clothes, bags, footwear, household items.
As children, we were strictly prohibited by our teachers to loiter at the perya after class. For some reason, 3rd-grader me and a classmate decided to buck the warning and sneaked into the plaza after dismissal. We gawked at the rides, our allowance not even close to affording a ticket. We peeked into the freak shows but it was too early for the person to be on exhibit. We watched the bettors try their luck at the karera ng daga. But our coin was reserved for a piece of siopao at the edge of the perya. The seller had a special attraction. He would allow the buyer to drop his coin into a jar of water that had a small bottle in the middle. If the coin fell into the small bottle, one could get the siopao for free! My friend and I were hoping this would happen for us . . . to our extreme disappointment. Having no more money to spend, we trudged our way home.
The next day, our teacher asked the class to confess who had gone to the perya the day before. Obviously, someone had seen us and squealed. My friend and I raised our hands and readily confessed, for which we got our ears pinched by our teacher’s long, manicured nails. Oh, but the stories we regaled our classmates with during recess time surely made up for the pain and embarrassment!
The procession happens on the feast day of the patron saint itself. First to emerge from the church is the marching band, with the bevy of majorettes twirling their batons. Then come the old ladies, the town matriarchs dressed in their blue Catholic Women’s League uniforms, repeatedly chanting the prayers of the rosary. Behind them are the gallant men, the Knights of Columbus (whom we laughingly called the KFC) attempting to maintain a serious demeanor. The third wave are the students dressed in their uniforms. Last come the townspeople, hoi polloi bearing their candles, fervent in prayer. The highlight of the procession is the carroza, the elevated, wheeled, and well-lit float prominently displaying the figure of the patron saint dressed in its Sunday best, the attire probably costing enough to feed an entire family for a year.
On the afternoon of the fiesta comes the parade. Atop embellished truck beds are ensconced the Town Fiesta Queen, her Court of Princesses, and their escorts. The Queen is normally the highest contributor to the town fundraiser, and the Princesses are the runners-up. Their destination after the parade is the stage in the middle of the plaza, liberally decorated for the occasion. After the speeches of the Mayor and the special guest, the Court is crowned by town officials. In the old days, dancing followed the coronation ceremony—an opportunity for the townspeople to display their ballroom skills. A band was hired to provide the live music. Nowadays, it’s a disco for the younger people, with canned music played by the deejay.
Around town, the extravagance continues in the festivities that go on in the individual homes. It is de rigueur for the houses to be open to everyone, and for the food to be offered to anyone who enters one’s home. The fattened pig is slaughtered specifically for this purpose. Fiesta fare is lechon, morcon, afritada, dinuguan, lumpiang shanghai—a thousand and one variations of preparing pork. Even the humbler homes have their own spread, and the usual tale of woe is told about families falling into debt simply to keep up—the farm carabao is mortgaged, or the children working in faraway places are obligated to raise money to finance the fiesta expenses. One Senator, appalled by this phenomenon, actually tried to file a bill outlawing this “social evil.” It never got discussed on the Senate floor.
The fiesta is part of the warp and weft of Filipino culture. Returning to the hometown for fiesta is an integral part of our childhood and of growing up. It is the time to renew community, to trace one’s roots, to revel in the midst of family. Indeed, pity the Pinoy who has no fiesta memories to reminisce.
Written by Matet Granada-Santos
Illustration by Bernard Kenneth Peña