Note: This photo-esssay in slightly different version was featured in the 30 May - 05 Jun 2014 issue of FilAm Star, 'the newspaper for Filipinos in mainstream America, published weekly in San Francisco, CA. The author/blogger is the paper's special photo/news correspondent in the Philippines.
Rafaela Evangelista, the popular Ka Pelang of Obando, is almost 80, and she may be the last of her generation who graced the procession of March 18, the feast day of St. Clare of Assisi (the Santa Clarang Pinung-pino of local folks). It seems she doesn’t have any more favors to ask. After all, she bore 13 children: 10 sons followed by three daughters, which she attributes to the patroness saint. The beautiful woman had been dancing most of her life.
I had the chance to talk to Ka Pelang before the start of the procession. She was with the group of relatives and friends who were all wearing her old Filipiniana costumes of various colors and designs. She said that she cannot dance anymore but she would walk in thanksgiving for all the blessings she has received. Her daughter-in-law Julie is four months pregnant. She has three daughters already but she came dressed up in one of Ka Pelang’s antique garments to dance for a son.
Santa Clara is one of the trinity of patron saints of Obando. According to the history of the parish, the Franciscans introduced the veneration of the saint to the village people in the 17th century when Catangalan (old name of Obando) was still a part of Polo (now Venezuela). San Pascual Baylon/Bailon joined Santa Clara as another patron in the 18th century when Obando was already a town of its own, and the church was being built. The coming of the Virgin of Salambao to Obando also in the 18th century is the subject of folklore about the image of the Immaculate Conception being caught in the net (salambao) of two fisherman brothers.
Popular town histories trace the evolution of the folk Catholic dancing tradition to the pre-Spanish rituals called kasilonawan presided by high priestesses, usually nine days of eating, drinking, singing and dancing at the residence of the village chief. The religious orders adapted these pagan rites as tools in their evangelization mission. In the case of Catangalan, the ancient house gods before whom women did fertility dancing was replaced by the image of Santa Clara.
That may explain how San Pascual Baylon, patron saint of Eucharistic congresses and associations, was absorbed into the town’s fertility dancing tradition. There’s a basis though for the married folks to include the Virgin of Salambao in their prayer dance for children, she is after all the image of the Immaculate Conception. The town has a term for this dancing: bayluhan, derived from the Spanish baile (dance) or from the Baylon or Bailon name of the patron saint.
The church history marker clearly delineates that the Obando fiesta of 17, 18 and 19 May honors the trinity of saints with dancing: San Pascual for child bearing, Santa Clara, patroness of the conceiving mother, Virgin of Salambao, patroness of fishermen and farmers. Throwbacks culled from literature though tell us that the bayluhan was done in various ways and covered other requests for saintly intercessions.
Throwback late 1800s. Jose Montero y Vidal (Cuentos Filipinos,1883) wrote that the “indios and mestizos” danced before the image of San Pascual for the healing of every kind of illness and for protection from other misfortunes. During fiesta days, men, women and children went to Obando “fancifully dressed, head adorned with feathers and provided with tambourines, guitarillas they call cinco-cinco and other instruments ... cheerfully dancing, not allowing a moment of rest, despite the fire of the sun falling on their heads.”
At the sight of the image of San Pascual during the procession, he wrote, “people of all classes, ages and conditions, jiggle, jump and dance incessantly to implore the holy healing of their ailments, pointing out the diseased part of the body; they swarm in all directions, pray, sing and never stop dancing, even in the church after the conclusion of the procession.”
One throwback is an aside, fictional, from Jose Rizal’s Noli me Tangere (1887) about Capitan Tiago who enshrined several images of saints including San Pascual Baylon in the small chapel in his house. He and his wife had long wished to have a child. Their pilgrimage to the shrines of the Virgin in Taal and Pakil had all been in vain. She danced for a son in Obando during the feast day of San Pascual Baylon; she bore a daughter instead who was given the name Maria Clara in honor of the Virgin of Salambao and Santa Clara.
Joseph Earle Stevens, an American, wrote in his ‘Yesterdays in the Philippines’ (1894) about taking the train to attend the three-day fiesta. He noted that many pilgrims went there on foot, and “[e]verybody seemed to think it his duty to dance, and men, women, old men and children, mothers with babies and papas with kids, shouted, jumped around, danced, joggled each other, and rumpussed about until they were blue in the face, dripping with heat, and covered with dust. Then they would stop and another crowd take up the play.” Apparently the frenzied activity lasted until sunset with tired groups sleeping under the shades around the church while other groups took over the dancing and shouting.
Throwback Peacetime. The accounts come from issues of the American Chamber of Commerce of Manila (AmCham) Journals several years before the Japanese invasion, when Obando was a short railway or motor vehicle ride away from Manila.
A 1932 account described that most of the pilgrims came from the lower classes who fastened to their clothing or hats pieces of colored paper cut in fanciful shapes. It appears that the focus of their devotion was San Pascual, and they went to pray for a child, for healing, or for protection.
There’s something incredible in the story: pilgrims dancing from “Tinajeros cemetery on the Manila North Road [later named MacArthur Highway]” all the way to the Obando Church. My research tells me that Tinajeros is in Malabon, but there was no cemetery there of that name. Malabon had a cemetery near the San Bartolome Church and one in Tugatog. The distance from any of them to Obando Church would be around seven kilometers! Still, the pilgrims “who still [had] sufficient strength [kept] on dancing and leaping until they [sunk] to the ground in exhaustion.”
Throwback 1940 describes the three-day fiesta as “characterized by dancing by couples [who may also merely be betrothed] whose prayers are that their union will be blessed with children.” The patron of devotion was San Pascual Bailon. The dance also named after this saint was one of the many religious dances in the country, wrote Lydia Villanueva-Arguilla, “consisting mainly of jogging and skipping, funny to the spectator but performed in all earnestness by the dancers.”
The Obando fiesta was disrupted by the second world war, and the centuries old images of the patron saints enshrined in the church were all destroyed by the bombs of 1945.
There was no fertility dancing after the war. The church abolished it because of its pagan origins. The tradition however was revived in 1972.
Back to the present. During the last pintakasi, I gathered that different groups of Obando folks from different barangays dance during the procession of the images of the three saints. There are groups dedicated only to one feast day or to one patron saint. The men and women wore different sets of Filipiniana costumes of different cuts and colors to distinguish their groupings. The group of Ka Pelang wore her antique garments for Santa Clara.
Yes, there were still pilgrims from other places who attended mass and may have joined the dancing inside the church after the service. It’s possible they were in the procession too and may have swayed with the crowd from the church down the main street and back to the same tune played over and over by the musikong bumbong and several brass bands: the ever popular Santa Clarang Pinung-Pino, although I did not hear anyone singing the song:
Santa Clara Pinung-Pino. I did not hear anyone singing though these popular lyrics: Santa Clarang pinung-pino, / Ang pangako ko ay ganito / Pagdating ko po sa Ubando, / Magsasayaw ng pandango. / Aruray, Araruray, Ang pangako’y tutuparin, / Aruray, Araruray, Ang pangako’y tutuparin.
[Santa Clara, Thou blessed one, / Solemn promise I have made to thee, / When I reach your shrine at Obando, / I will pray, then dance the Fandango. / Aruray, Araruray, Oh, Santa Clara, hear my vow. / Aruray, Araruray, Oh, Santa Clara, hear my vow. – Translation in the 1914 music book for primary grades]