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Viva la Virgen


LAST Friday—and always on the second Friday of September—the tiny icon popularly known as Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia was carried by men called voyadores from her shrine near the riverbank of the Naga tributary of the Bikol River to the massive Naga Metropolitan Cathedral. There, the image lovingly addressed as “Ina” by all those who believe in her power of intercession will stay for nine days, the duration for the novena.

For the uninitiated, the procession appeared as a pagan ritual. The men, some of them drunk, and most of them unshod, are the ones bearing the Virgin, or pushing the carroza carrying her. There is no written rule that women cannot be there at the center of things but the unruliness and the physicality of it all marginalize their participation. There is a Saturday procession when women are allowed, yes, allowed, to carry the Virgin. Unshod, the women reclaim the presence of Ina within their territory.

Each year the institutional Church holds a retreat or formation meetings to remind the men or the devotees the proper way to show their respect and love for the Virgin of Peñafrancia. Many years back, the Translacion, as the land procession is called, was really a violent event. People pushed and shove and clambered up the andas, or float, of the Virgin. By the middle of the procession in those days, the flower-bedecked float would already have been stripped of its decorations. The devotees believe the flowers and votive offerings, in bits and pieces, could be efficacious instruments of healing. The cockfighters make sure they get those metallic edges of the manto, or cape, of the Virgin so they could feed them to their roosters, and win.

It was customary then to place ROTCs and student cadets along the route of the procession so they could push back to the center the male devotees and prevent them from crushing the women and children at the side of the road. Then certain changes were made.

During the years of martial law, the government did not like the notion of the disorder happening during the procession. The dictator then was trying to institutionalize a surface notion of order. The “Traslacion” was one of those events that made people remember the freedom that was not present under the Marcoses. The military were called in. The Bikolanos did not like the idea of order of the military kind be imposed on a ritual that belonged to another realm. For some reason, one sector blinked and the people in the region, in Naga particularly, just saw the military take over parts of the procession.

The procession traverses a 4-kilometer route. Years back, it took from six to seven hours to bring the Virgin to the cathedral. The people did not complain. There was the belief that the Virgin herself did not want to leave her shrine. That she was testing the devotees to make her journey complete. However flippant this reasoning may be, the people celebrated the long, arduous journey, the event a glorious metaphor for sacrifice, which is central to the devotion itself.

At present, the devotees are color-coded. Groups wear particular colors, with one color assigned to a particular length of the route. Generally, it works. The artifice, however, of the practice does not escape the devotee who affirms that the ritual is really a free, spirited and spontaneous display of faith.

One of the most recent responses to the problem of making possible a smooth transition or transfer—thus the name Translacion—is putting the icon on top of a globe-shaped carroza. Made of white metal-like material, the globe cannot allow any devotee to climb up to where the Virgin of Peñafrancia is. Besides, on top of the globe or around the area where the Virgin is are black-cassocked priests balancing as guards.

The fiesta is a spectacle. The Church has to remind the people always that the Peñafrancia fiesta is really a novena. The Church and the State, the latter represented by the local government unit of Naga, have reached agreements. One of these is to put the beauty pageants outside the nine-day festivities. Thus, for this year, before the Friday of the Translacion came, the beauty pageants called Miss Bicolandia and the other competitions for little macho boys were already held. Naga also holds the distinction of having the oldest gay beauty pageant in the country. This fabulous event had to be held also outside the boundary of the sacred.

I have always been in awe of this festival. Fascinosum et tremendum.The procession and the fluvial procession.

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