Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A weekend with Higantes and Botong Francisco in Angono

Note:  This photo-essay appeared in the 21-27 November 2014 edition of FilAm Story, the weekly "newspaper for Filipinos in mainstream America" published in San Francisco, CA. This author/blogger is the Manila-based Special Photo/News Correspondent based of the paper.

A typical Angnuno figure in the Angono landscape.
The town’s name Angono is said to have been derived from “Angnuno” or “Ang nuno”, the mythical dwarf of Filipino folklore.  Thus, it does not surprise that sculptures of a small bearded man with a conical hat can be found all over the place as decorative pieces in buildings, yards and pedestals of barangay or street markers.

The higante (giant) is the other iconic Angono figure, which slightly derives from the fearsome towering creature of the Pinoy folkloric underworld.  The town’s higante though has human features.  The head is made of papier mache and the face is shaped to resemble a familiar character of the community, may be a neighbor, a government official, or even a National Artist like painter Carlos ‘Botong’ Francisco or musician Lucio San Pedro.

The body construct is of bamboo. The lower half is a cylinder around four to five feet in diameter made up of bamboo loops and strips, and curved at the top to make the waist. Thus, whether male or female, the higante is made to wear a colorful skirt, which hides the man inside who provides the higante’s feet.  The skirt has an inconspicuous peeping hole for the man to see where he is going.  

The ornate retablo altar of the Angono church
All in all, the higante may be as tall as twelve feet although some are now smaller and lighter for young boys to carry.

The higante has its bamboo hands built in akimbo, and the explanation is historical. According to town historians, Angono used to be a hacienda during the Spanish past. The giant effigy was crafted by the farmers as their satirical symbol of protest against the cruelty of their landlords. Thus, it was a caricature of the hacenderos or hacenderas who had their hands high up on their hips when they went around bossing the tillers of their farmlands. 

The tradition started with only a family of higantes – the trio of a bearded father, his wife with hair tied in a knot and wearing dangling earrings and their young son -- heading the procession honoring the town patron saint San Clemente during his fiesta day on November 23. 

The traditional higantes father, mother and son (top photo),
and the Jollibee tatay, nanay, ate and kuya (bottom).
Through the years, the number of higantes in the religious procession grew bringing more colorful fun to the fiesta celebration from the way they walk, dance, turn around, and bend or bow to each other or to the viewing public. It’s said that they used to scare the children too.

 They have ceased to be the old protest symbols. They are now artistic expressions of the Angono people. Popular accounts say that the Higantes Festival came about in the late 1980s upon the suggestion of one of the town artists, the late Perdigon Vocalan, who also put up the very well known Balaw-Balaw Specialty Restaurant where so called exotic dishes are the culinary centerpieces.

The Higantes Festival this year came a week earlier (November 16) than the town fiesta (November 22-23). The Festival was thus socio-civic, obviously designed to pursue Angono’s tourism agenda. 

Higantes with familiar faces: Mayor and
vice-mayor (top left), National Artists Botong
Francisco and Lucio San Pedro (bottom).
The religious celebration is a wet tradition. On San Clemente’s day, revelry includes dousing with water although people dressed up on their way to work may be spared the wet treatment as decreed in a municipal ordinance, which reportedly penalizes ‘offenders’.   Visitors are advised beforehand to get prepared for the wetting when they go around town, watch the street and fluvial processions, and also for getting a douse of muddy water from Laguna de Bay when the fluvial procession returns.

This water element could have been considered by the Angono tourism officials when they set the Festival apart from the fiesta proper. Most of the higantes population will still participate in the religious procession with the higante family still leading the way.  

In the old days, the higantes depicted the farmers, fishermen, vendors and other familiar characters that made up this rural town of Rizal. In the November16 festival this year, the characters we saw among the many tall and small higantes, many in traditional Filipino costumes and some in modern attire, included representations of the mayor and vice-mayor, and possibly other local officials, a Muslim effigy, a Jollibee higantes family comprising tatay, nanay, ate and kuya, and the National Artists Botong Francisco and Lucio San Pedro advertising a laundry soap.

Parade of higantes included Manny Pacquiao (top left) and a
Muslim representative (bottom right).
Our visit to Angono was completely memorable because of the visit to the house of the real artistic giant Carlos ‘Botong’ V. Francisco, proclaimed National Artist for Painting in 1973. The restored house cum studio is now a museum. Our fraternity brod Jay-r Pinpino arranged this Sunday visit with Carlos Francisco II, grandson of the National Artist, an artist himself, and ‘Totong’ to his friends.

We took a look at the various awards and citations that Botong received, reproductions of his famous mural paintings hanging in the National Museum, Manila City Hall, or in private collections, and pictures showing him at work on his “Bayanihan” mural, as a Boy Scout leader, among others. 

We were curious about the whereabouts of studies he made for his mural paintings, sketches of his set and costume designs for the classical Filipino movies like Siete Infantes de Lara, Ibong Adarna and the Juan Tamad series, etc.

Totong told us that when his grandfather died, his daughter who lived in America brought with her the collection of Botong’s works. Upon her death, her brother (Totong’s father) brought these back to the Philippines. They are now being evaluated and indexed before they go into a conservation depository. There are several companies interested to take custody of this collection of art works, and one of them is Iglesia ni Cristo. Good news is that a special exhibition is coming very soon. 

Relief sculptures on "The Art Gallery of the Streets" based on
Botong's illustrations in Serafin Lanot's book of poems (top
photo), and Lucio San Pedro's famous song "Sa Ugoy ng Duyan"
Botong and Lucio San Pedro lived on the same street: Doña Aurora in Barangay Poblacion Itaas. Parades and processions pass this way. It leads to the church.

The marker says that the barangay hosts “The Art Gallery on the Streets”, open for free viewing any time, comprising relief sculptures mounted on walls along streets, principally on Doña Aurora. These are all based on Botong’s drawings, paintings and murals executed by Angono artists Charlie Anorico, Gerry Bantang, Atoy Apostadero, Alex Villaluz and Edwin Moreno.

These relief sculptures translate Botong’s painterly interpretation of historical events such as the martyrdom of Rizal or the first mass at Limasawa to visitors. They also recreate tradition, customs and practices such as bayanihan, orasyon, harana and the fiesta in visible forms for the modern sightseer.

Sculptures based on Botong's 'History of Medicine'
 (top photo) and 'Juego de Prenda' (bottom).

This “Art Gallery on the Streets” is indeed a fitting tribute to the real higantes Botong and Lucio.

There’s a new term we learned as we went down Doña Aurora Street: endramada. Pairs of bamboo poles are planted on opposite sides of the street, and between each pair, across the street, an endramada is hanged bearing symbolic objects, may be representing the livelihood of the town, barangay or house owner.

We were looking at a fish between “Viva” proclamations of Cristo Rey and San Clemente, colorful shirts, big cut-outs of colorful muffins, a net with a mermaid and fish figures, jersey t-shirts of different colors, and, because Christmas is approaching, stars and Christmas lights.

This endramada tradition could have died with the changing times and lifestyles if not for the intervention of Botong Francisco. The story goes that he invoked the importance of Doña Aurora Street to their lives and he asked the men to pledge that they will keep this tradition alive even if the other streets would cease to do so.

Thus, if we dare wake up again so early in the morning to make the trip to Angono on November 23, fiesta day of San Clemente, we will pass under the canopy of endramadas, possibly soaking wet, in the company of the colorful higantes as the procession wends its way from the church to banks of Laguna de Bay.

Endramadas on Dona Aurora Street.

By the way, we’ve been warned too. It’s not only water that will keep flowing.  Shots of distilled spirits will come every which way.  Douse and souse!

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