Xavier L. Olin,S.J.
When all Bikol-bound buses, trains, and planes are fully booked and countless crowds still queue up in the terminals hoping to get even the last jump seat or any little space available, it can only mean one thing: It is September. Bikol’s month of months has come.
Whatever business they have, the Bikolnon shelve it for the moment. They must be home for Ina, the Lady of Penafrancia, who is every Bikolnon’s Patron, Queen, and Mother. Thus, whether to the Heart of Bikol, the city of Naga, where Ina is enshrined, or the Bikol in their hearts where Ina is forever enshrined, they head for home. What grateful children, after all, will not remember their Mother on her feast day?
As thousands converge in the city, Naga becomes a mecca of pligrims and tourists: the religious, the semi-religious, the adventurous, the business-minded, and the simply curious. On the second Friday of September, the six-hour Traslacion procession transfers Ina’s image from the small, old shrine to the bigger, newly renovated cathedral. The cathedral soon overflows with a steady stream of people praying before her sanctuary, and kissing and touching her image. From all walks of life, they make their way to her altar on foot, as access by both private and public transport becomes virtually impossible. Such an endearing sight only proclaims how, varied their backgrounds may be, all Ina’s children are one and equal in approaching her, their Mother. It thus becomes a truly family affair, a time when the Bikolnon family gathers together, renews ties, and bonds, forgetting for the moment whatever differences that may stand between and among them.
The cathedral’s puerta mayor is wide open, greeting the ‘homecoming’ son or daughter with a warm embrace and with the loving gaze of the Mother from where she stands at the altar. A father, carrying his little boy on his shoulder, takes out his handkerchief, touches the image with it, and applies it on the boy’s forehead. Old women saying their rosaries or reciting the novena create a chorus of murmurs which are all but a refrain, the children’s clamor or yearning for the Mother. By the cathedral’s side doors and corners and on makeshift (sack or carton) beds, or on the pews, out-of-towners take a respite from their long journey, content that they are now in her presence. To be there in the sight of the Mother of All – of the barefoot, the wearied, the shabby, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, as we all are – is enough. Outside, the patio glows with candles endlessly burning through the night like hearts on fire, the hearts of Ina’s children.
Although the fiesta officially starts with the Traslacion, excitement kicks off and colors explode weeks before it. Bazaars mushroom on the streets, offering anything from the cheapest clothes to the latest toys to the best of street fare. Abaca, pili sweets, santan, buri hats and mats, shellcraft, bamboo furniture, clay jars, and knives from Tabaco, Albay (reputedly made of PNR steel and from some skillful steal!) sell like pancakes. Quite interestingly, in the recent years, products from other regions have lent a national flavor to the occasion: Cordillera weave, Maranao brassware, Pampanga sculpture, tribal trinkets, malong, and batik.
The kiosko and the plaza bustle with activities – senior citizens’ pabayle, singing contest, beauty pageant, painting exhibits, parlor games, Isarog Garden Society sale, or variety show by artistas from Manila. Platoons of PMT and ROTC cadets in full regalia pass in review in the military parade, trying to ‘outmarch’ one another as the best among Bikol’s finest.
Even before the break of dawn, the libod, the all-purpose backyard (playground-garden-watering hole-et al) wakes up to the choral agony of pigs being slaughtered. The neighborhood simmers all day with endless cooking. Large pots sit forever in makeshift stoves in the libod that has become an open-air kitchen. The kusineros, usually relatives from nearby towns, never fail to prepare the best rice cake in a hundred different ways: ibos, latik, suman, aroyo, binotong, binamban, and puto. Homes welcome visitors with familiar warmth and a kingly feast. The table is a cornucopia of fiesta fare: lechon, crabs, prawns, embutido, lumpia, fried chicken, gulay na natong, gulay na sili, chop suey, buko salad, maja blanca, buko salad, and leche flan. And the host family, forever glad and grateful that the visitors have enjoyed their time, gives them a patos or pabalon of choice food to take home. This, after all, is all for Ina; whatever ‘little’ that can be prepared must be prepared, so that ‘a little something can be offered to visitors’ who are, in the first place, Ina’s visitors.
The Bikolnon do all this for Ina. Anything for her they will do, even if this means using up all their savings or borrowing money from friends. As patiently as they fill up their bamboo or coconut shell banks to save for the fiesta, so do they inch their way through the crowds of the almost month-long festivities, if only to catch a glimpse of their Ina and fall upon her loving gaze.
Toward the end of the festivities, at a dawn procession, an all-female retinue carries the image around the city streets. Barefoot, they take time to be with this one blessed among them, and who, otherwise, is carried only by the all-male voyadores. Later in the afternoon, the great bells of the cathedral announce the procession bringing Ina back to her shrine. The voyadores, now drunk to numb themselves from the scorching street heat and the human odor, lift her up on their shoulders. As they move out and head toward the Naga river, they become a wave – or waves – in the sea of humanity. Fulfilling a panata, begging for some grace, or doing penance for their sins, they jostle their way to the carroza, as close as possible to their Ina, to touch even just the helm of her garment or grab a piece of the adornments now made sacred by her presence.
Finally, just in time for the high tide, the procession reaches the riverbank. The pagoda, the brightly festooned barge, receives Ina for the Sakay. Amid the shouts of Viva la Virgen! Viva! and the strains of …Patrona del Bicol Gran Madre de Dios/ Se siempre la Reina de nuestra region…, the voyadores row the bancas that lead the fluvial parade upriver. With every Viva la Virgen!, each man, woman, and child seems to cry out with all his heart Mother! Mother! The river becomes a sea of colorful tapestry as confetti falls, banners and blue and white balloons fly, and handkerchiefs wave when Ina passes by. Mothers, as if by instinct, dip the young ones in the river or wash them with the now-sacred – or ‘re-sanctified’ – water. What a moving expression of faith indeed!
As dusk sets in, the lighted candles along the riverbanks float like tongues of fire in the growing darkness. As the pagoda docks by the basilica, the jubilant pealing of bells greets Ina back to her home. Her children, now gathered for Mass, intone the Angelus in a thousand voices that have become one.
Another fiesta is over. Having celebrated, and thanked her for a bountiful harvest, safety from visiting typhoons, and blessings for the family, Ina’s sons and daughters go back to the bigger world, the world of the everyday, assured of a Mother’s ever-present hand.
Inang mamomoton ika ang buhay
Ako rangahon mo sa kamunduan
Ina burabod ka ning kaogmahan
Sa taid mo kaginhawahan
Ina kung ako man parakasala
Sa Dios hagada man ang pagkaherak
Kaya dakula man ang kasakitan
Ogma ang puso ko ngonyan
Kaya daing ibang inaasahan
Kundi ika Inang Mahal
Typhoons may come and go but Ina will always be there as her children’s paraampon, parasurog, and pararanga. She will be there to listen to their joys and pains, and hopes and worries. She will be there to stand by them in their dreams and failings. She will be there to assure them of her motherly presence. Thus, the young man asking for the ‘right woman’ -- or for strength in his chosen vocation in the seminary – will continue to pray at her altar. The seriously ill patient will be cured of his malady as he sleeps on Ina’s sacred manto generously loaned to his family by the good nuns at the shrine and carefully spread on his hospital bed. Pilgrims from afar will continue to flock to her altar on Saturdays, murmuring prayers, burning candles, and dipping their fingers in the oil lamps: children coming home to their Mother, eager to tell her their stories.
And this is the grace that Bikol enjoys: the glory of the Son whom the Mother carries in her arms and offers to every Bikolnon shines forth on the land, keeping it safe from typhoons of every kind.
Resuene vibrante el himno de amor
Que entona tu pueblo congrata emocion
Patrona del Bicol Gran Madre de Dios
Se siempre la Reina de nuestra region
Written as final paper for the Philippine Culture Class under Dr Doreen Fernandez, Loyola House of Studies, Ateneo de Manila, October 1999.