The Mary Month of May
by Abe Florendo
In the Philippines, in earlier days, Maytime meant above all else the Antipolo pilgrimage. People from up north to down south of the islands made the pilgrimage to the black image of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage in Antipolo, Rizal, some 20 miles east of Manila, about a thousand feet above sea level, in the wind-swept Sierra Madre mountain ranges. Here the pilgrims cooled their feet in the streams formed by the roaring waterfalls of Hinulugang Taktak, a few kilometers downhill from the shrine, and braved the hordes of devotees in the crowded shrine of the Virgin. Men were handsomely dressed in the prescribed barong Tagalog or camisa de chino and the women were pretty in balintawak or in mestiza dress with garlands of sampaguita round their necks. Vendors peddled puto biñan, balut, kuchinta, and young coconuts whose sweet water slaked the thirst of the sweltering throng. There were dances in the evenings as well. It was a religious pilgrimage as much as a much-awaited pleasure jaunt. In much earlier days, the pilgrimage was made on foot, with the ladies reclining in hammocks carried on the shoulders of sturdy young men.
Dr. Jose Rizal, in his novel Noli Me Tangere, quoted by Roces in his book Fiesta, wrote about the Antipolo pilgrimage in nostalgic terms with a sardonic edge:
“By the end of the first day of May when the sun begins to send off its most burning fires; when the continuous rains put a respite on their course and waters; when the people of the neighboring provinces come down to Manila to sell their goods or make purchases with the earnings of the year, the feared and venerated sanctuary of Antipolo
opens to begin the long series of novenas; the 36 days of feasts, High Masses, the continuous coming and going, stirring, praying, amusements—36 days of faith, religious fervor, and of pilgrimage. The first Tuesday of May, the image of the Virgin, lavishly attired with rich garments, diamonds, silver staff and embroidered mantle, is exhibited for the veneration of the faithful who can tell by the varying coloration of her face the stae of her mind, if joy enlivens it or some irregularity irritates it. She is brown in the latter case and fair in the first [a fanciful folk belief].”
In the evening, a Santacruzan for each day of the novena was held by the light of a thousand torches and with the singing of hymns, ending at the house of the hermana or hermano where drinks and food were served to the participants. A sponsor was assigned for each night of the novena, each one vying with each other for the best Sagala (movie stars were always in demand, although a daughter, no matter her looks, often got stellar billing), the best refreshments, the most fire works, and the merriest pabitin.
Today the pilgrimage to Antipolo, once the most popular fiesta honoring the Virgin Mary in the country, is gone; the waterfalls have dried up and the town itself has lost its rustic image, having gone the way of monotonous housing projects and tacky resort developments.
But while Hinulugang Taktak is steadily trickling away, the Maytime devotion to the Virgin continues to thrive in many other parts of the country. Below are the popular and some little known but important Marian icons venerated in May.
- The Virgin of the Salambao is honored on the 19th of May in Obando, a town in Bulacan on the banks of the Angat River, during the famous fertility rites that also honor the two other patron saints: San Pascual Baylon on the 17th and Santa Clara on the 18th. The Image of the Virgin of the Salambao, actually represented here by the image of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, is said to have been fished out of the waters by a fisherman with his salambao (net). The Virgin, San Pascual Baylon, and Santa Clara are believed to be the miracle workers for childless couples who, in the procession along the town’s streets from the church and then back, perform a dance that one writer described as “a combination of the American Charleston and the Spanish Fandango.” (Maria Clara, the heroine in Dr. Jose P. Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, was conceived by her mother after dancing in Obando, although she kept secret the significant contribution of the lustful Father Damaso. In Dr. Rizal’s time, obviously, the Obando fertility rites already flourished.)
- Nuestra Señora De Los Desemparados (Our Lady of the Abandoned), venerated in the church of Santa Ana, Manila, draws vast throngs of devotees on her feastday on May 12. Patterned after the famous original venerated at the metropolitan cathedral of Valencia in Spain, she holds a golden scepter in her right hand, said to be a gift in 1720 by the archbishop of Manila who was also governor general at the time.
Two little-known Marian images whose feasts are celebrated in May are the Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia, enshrined in a small and ancient chapel in the populous district of Santa Ana in Manila, brought out in procession on the Sunday after May 14; and the Nuestra Señora de la Rosa in the poblacion of Makati, whose fiesta features a procession of dancing girls in flower-decorated hoop skirts, Mexican-style. Jaime Laya, in Prusisyon, tells of a curious belief among the parishioners that rain will pour if a young woman with a questionable reputation succeeds in sneaking past the watchful marshals and joins the dancing virgins.
1. Young men and women, wearing the prescribed balintawak and barong, cool their heels in a stream in Antipolo (The Sunday Times Tribune) (Sagala: the Queen of Philippine Festivals, p. 54)
2. Tayo Na Sa Antipolo: The endless stream of pilgrims to Antipolo (The Sunday Times Tribune) (Sagala: the Queen of Philippine Festivals, p. 54)
3. Dancers at Obando, Bulacan, circa 1907. (Retrato Photo Archive)
4. Image of Our Lady of the Abandoned, circa 1977. (Retrato Photo Archive)
Source: Sagala: the Queen of Philippine Festivals, pp. 55-57