MANILA, Philippines - Close-knit families, extended clans and entire bloodlines dig up their well-kept inherited bauls, empty their grandmothers’ aparadores, unlatch their cabinets and unbolt their dusty storerooms – some even their seldom visited, almost-forgotten warehouses – to retrieve their precious ivory/porcelain faces and heads of the Christ, the Virgin Mary and other ever-so-present Biblical personages. These have, through the years, been handled with loving care and safekeeping.
Now they are dusted off, polished up, finishing touches put on the facial details and then attached on to body-shaped wooden frames, to breathe life to these treasured personages yet again. And this is just the beginning of a time-honored annual ritual.
Like so many barangays in the archipelago, the bustling urban municipality of Baliuag in Bulacan, founded by Augustinian friars in the 17th century, 55 kilometers north of Manila, commemorates two special spiritual traditions. This bustling major center for commerce, transportation, entertainment and education in the Northern Greater Metro Manila area, suddenly tones down to a quiet hush come Semana Santa, as the whole community works towards a united cause, which is to prepare for the grand processions during the Holy Week.
The yearly palabas – one on Holy Wednesday and the other on Good Friday – follows a fixed route, which twists and turns through commercial areas and residential enclaves, eventually returning to where it all begins, back to the Catholic church, for more ceremonies. To enable all the residents to witness the procession, the designated paths alternate with each iteration.
The passed-down-through-generations relics – all obra maestras of mostly unknown yet talented artisans of long ago – showcased throughout the human-powered procession all highlight the beautiful faces; even in their visible sorrow and grief, the details are oh-so refined.
But of course these dearly loved statues would never be complete without their equally-attractive, masterfully embroidered slew of clothes, sewn out of taffeta, satin and even silk, complete with lace and veils. Attention-grabbing garments, some more like glaring costumes reminiscent of Victorian-era fashion, could also be spotted amongst the mobile collection.
The carrozas (carriages) which carry the images are likewise dressed up. The dull wash of the podiums – some more intricate than others – transform into a definite feast for the eyes, with colorful and verdant multi-layered beds of flowers and greens, clearly the best that money could buy, with no plastic fakes mind you, for as the most senior ones would claim, Lo mejor para el Señor – nothing but the best for the Lord.
Some are brightly lit by elaborate candelabras, while others are illuminated by candles – nothing but candles – flickering in the fathering dusk, exuding a surreal and enchanting aura.
One hundred thirty life-sized carriages depict several scenes from the various stages of the Passion of the Christ – Stations of the Cross, Sorrowful Mysteries or the Seven Last Words, assorted versions of Our Madonna, the grieving Mother of Jesus. Some scenes are bound to be repeated – the same event, but with different renditions, be it with minimalist or revamped elements, delicate zen-like simplistic decorations or all-out extravagant add-ons.
The carrozas are pulled by local male disciples, flanked by vigilant men who use long sticks to untangle an unsnag electrical cables to ensure smooth progress through the narrow streets. And at the end of it all, built-in generators power the whole display, with its ever-present droning, continuously sweeping low buzz competing with the chants of the devotees.
People praying the rosary follow the carrozas, with candle-bearing women chanting melancholic – sometimes wailing – hymns. Then come the owners, along with what seems to be their entire lineage, attired in made-to-order t-shirts bearing their family’s name.
When I attended the event last year, I decided to abandon my vantage point on a veranda – complete with ice-cold water and buri fan – to join the advocates walking the procession route. I was immediately taken aback by the number of onlookers throughout the appointed course of the procession.
Families atop their transportation and even home rooftops, teenagers crowded onto pedicabs and tricycles, daring streetwise kids on tree branches and even children balancing on piled-up culverts all intently observing, wide-eyed, as they likewise paid their respects. And crowded as it may be, folks always adjusted their space in the sidewalks to fit in just one more body.
There were absolutely no selfies taken – all photos were on and about the tableau in front of them.
At the Baliuag processions, faith and fraternity certainly were hallmarks which the whole community emphasized, adopted and lived by. Gated houses were open to everyone, as the aroma of traditional family-recipe fiesta fare wafted throughout the place, amidst long-planned reunions. There was an overwhelming sense of genuine provincial hospitality, where everyone was certainly welcome, even tourists. Especially tourists.
As the summer’s night descended upon us on our way to our host’s home, we could still hear murmurs of invocations and supplications, made even more real by their earnest tones of total devotion, permeating into the streets, and clearly up into the heavens. Photos by EDU JARQUE