Friday, March 14, 2008

Holy Week reflections on culture

by Robbie Tantingco

Once again, all roads lead to San Pedro Cutud next week. There will be thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, crowding the long and narrow path leading to the hill of crucifixion, like a scene from a Cecil B. De Mille movie. When you have a crowd like that descending upon your town or village, their safety and comfort becomes your responsibility, whether you like it or not and whether you invited them or not.

Which is why local government units are now scrambling to cope with the situation. I’m sure it’s still going to be a nightmare out there, no matter how the organizers try, because Cutud simply attracts more visitors than it can take.

But the more important problem to solve is really the cultural authenticity of the Holy Week practices, not just in Cutud but in many other places in Pampanga. There is no other region in the country during Holy Week where so many things happen in so many different places at the same time. In fact, Lent in Pampanga is more festive than Christmas.

In their excitement to cash in on the arrival of so many tourists and media people, local officials and organizers should prioritize the authenticity of a tradition more than its tourism value. The reason for this is simple: Tourists come to see folk traditions in their original, unadulterated form, not stylized or updated versions. You lose their authenticity, you lose the tourists.

For example, tourists prefer seeing penitents who carry crosses made from banana trunks or logs from their own backyard, rather than mass-produced crosses donated by a local official or businessman. In Cutud, I’ve always wondered why someone has to use a microphone to annotate the proceedings for the benefit of the crowd, unless the organizers treat the whole thing as a show instead of a religious ritual that the crowd is only privileged to witness.

Tourists come to Pampanga during Holy Week because Kapampangan penitents perform their acts of penitence—and not Kapampangan penitents perform because tourists come to Pampanga.
What our penitents do is a very personal and sacred act, and we should protect them from media who sensationalize, and tourists who trivialize, this act. When a man has himself nailed to a cross, I am sure he does it not for show or for money, but because he is fulfilling a vow, or asking God a favor, or expressing his gratitude for a favor already granted—any motive that I’m sure is private and definitely not for a reporter, interviewer or cameraman to want to know, record and broadcast to the world.

Tourists should be treated as, well, tourists, to be accorded the usual courtesy and hospitality and given the necessary amenities. But tourists should not be allowed to distract or interact with the penitents; they should merely watch and observe, with as much distance from, and reverence for, the penitents as possible. I’ve seen cameramen calling out to a man who was nailed on a cross to turn his head and face the camera, and I did hear some people in the crowd actually poke fun at one crucified man.

I have nothing but compassion for the men and women who flagellate themselves or allow themselves to be nailed to the cross every year. What they do is a continuation of a long tradition that’s found nowhere else but in the Kapampangan Region. You know that it’s unique here because our word for it is as original as it is beautiful: “magdarame.” It comes from an ancient Kapampangan word “dame,” which is defined in Bergaño’s 1732 dictionary as “to voluntarily take part in someone else’s situation or predicament.” Thus, when a Kapampangan picks up a cross or flagellates himself on Good Friday, he is doing it not just in imitation of Christ, but in fellowship with Him—it’s a mystical relationship in which the penitent, believing that Christ still relives His Passion every Good Friday, offers to alleviate His suffering by imposing on himself, or trying to approximate, or at least taking part in, Christ’s own suffering.

Flagellation as a religious ritual started in medieval Germany and may have been brought here by the Spaniards, because even Mexicans still do it. But then so do Hindu mystics in parts of south and southeast Asia, so it’s possible that we got the practice from our prehistoric ancestors and the colonizers merely Christianized it.

It really amazes me that of all the people in the Philippines, it is the Kapampangans—known for their vanity and love for the good life—who still cling to this tradition. It also amazes me that instead of vanishing, like what’s happening to most other cultural practices in Pampanga, the tradition of flagellation continues to thrive and even prosper. Last year, there were more Kapampangan boys and men who carried crosses and mutilated their bodies than there were in the previous years, and I’m sure next week the number will increase again.

This, despite the continuing Archdiocesan ban on flagellation, which goes against the Church doctrine that God’s forgiveness is readily available through the sacrament of confession alone. You ought to see the multitude of flagellants converge in Mabalacat at sunrise on Good Friday. It’s a sight that will make your jaw drop to the ground, and it would make you wonder what overwhelming social stress, trauma or dysfunction is driving all these Kapampangan boys and men to self-mutilation.

Yes, there are other destinations in Pampanga other than San Pedro Cutud and yes, we want tourists and media to discover them. But let’s remind ourselves that culture should never be sacrificed on the altar of tourism.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Holy Angel is forever

by Robby Tantingco

I love my alma mater, St. Louis University, dearly and with all the affection and nostalgia that an alumnus holds for the school that nurtured him, but there’s another school in my life that has my equal devotion.

Still, despite serving Holy Angel University for 23 long years—practically all the best working years of my life—I have no right to call myself an HAU alumnus. When you’ve worked that long for a certain school, cared for it and grown old with it, you sometimes begin to feel like an alumnus yourself, until you go home and see another diploma hanging on your wall.

This week, as Holy Angel University opens its Diamond Jubilee Year, I would like to cheer the thousands upon thousands of HAU alumni out there, those who carry their alumni card proudly and those who take it for granted, those who know how lucky they are and those who don’t realize it. As an administrator, I can only join in the celebration as a worker in the background, but the party belongs to all the students, past and present, who can claim that their lives have been molded and their destinies shaped by this great institution.

St. Louis University and Holy Angel University are actually alike in many ways: both are the biggest in their respective regions, both charge relatively low tuition fees, both aren’t contented with just being big—they risk their enrolments by upgrading their academic standards. As a result, both SLU and HAU are now recognized as the most prestigious universities in their areas, being the only private schools north of Manila with most of their programs given Level III accredited status by PAASCU.

Many schools in the country find it difficult to balance low tuition fees (to attract students) with high salaries (to attract faculty and administrators). Some schools sacrifice one for the other, and as a result, they become big but poor quality, or they get good quality but small population. SLU and HAU are successful in both.

But it is no secret to the community that Holy Angel has struggled with this in the past. The social unrest after World War II, followed by the ravages of the Marcos dictatorship, followed by the eruption of Pinatubo, followed by the relentless lahar devastation, wreaked havoc on the school. Faculty and students alternately and sometimes simultaneously held strikes and boycotts. I remember seeing Vice President Noli de Castro, then still a TV newscaster, walking in to interview administrators and student leaders during one particularly nasty boycott, and I remember wondering how a campus issue would interest him and the rest of the nation.

Well, with 15,000 students and nearly 1000 employees, multiplied by the number of their families and friends and the people in their respective neighborhoods, plus the thousands of alumni again multiplied by the number of their relatives and acquaintances—indeed, anything that happens on campus has the potential of becoming the topic of conversation in practically every household in the region.

I can even go farther and say that with all the government officials, businessmen, educators, civic leaders, artists, etc. as well as ordinary citizens acquiring their values and their education from HAU, not to mention the thousands whose present and future livelihoods directly depend on the school—the University’s ups and downs actually help shape the destiny of the whole region.

When I first joined the school in 1985 as an employee, the new President, S. Josefina Nepomuceno, OSB was just beginning to undertake the sweeping reforms that would ultimately take it to where it is today. She is a member of the great Juan D. Nepomuceno branch of the Nepomuceno family tree, the same branch that built the electric plant, the ice plant, the shopping complex, the premier subdivision, and of course, Holy Angel University.

The founding of the school is credited to Don Juan and the parish priest at the time, Fr. Pedro P. Santos, but two other people played equally crucial roles in the story. Don Juan’s eldest son, Javier, who convinced his father to open a new school after he and his classmates had decided not to reenroll in their old school (they didn’t like some school policies), and Ricardo Flores, a teacher at Javier’s old school who had also quit along with other teachers (same reason). Flores, in fact, had already returned to his hometown in Laguna and started a new job with the government when Don Juan and Javier wrote and convinced him to return to Angeles. His role cannot be underestimated because it was really the laymen like him and Don Juan who managed the initial years of the school, which prompted historian Dr. Luciano Santiago to call Holy Angel “the country’s first Catholic school run by laypersons.”

On Saturday, March 8, Angelites all over the world will join the Holy Angel University community, in person or in spirit, in opening the school’s Diamond Jubilee Year. I know many in your own family, in your company and in your neighborhood are graduates of HAU, and they probably don’t think much of their alma mater.

Well, tell them about this billionaire software developer from Silicon Valley who has a Holy Angel diploma in his room, or this alumnus who helped build the Ayala empire, or the Dean of the Ateneo School of Law, or the former Secretary of Trade and Industry, or those Catholic bishops, Benedictine abbots, Olympic athlete, Miss International, US state legislator, Grammy Award winner, and even the patriots who founded Kabataang Makabayan and the New People’s Army—all of them started at Holy Angel, they got their education there, they are proud of it, and they are grateful for it.

I don’t have a Holy Angel diploma at home, only an ID card that says I work there. All of you who have an HAU diploma, cherish it like a diamond. Make sure to dust it off this week, or if it’s tucked away in some cabinet, take it out, have it framed and hang it on your wall, and on Saturday, March 8, join all the alumni, wherever they are, in cheering Holy Angel University for all the great and wonderful things it has done to you, to this region, and to the world.