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.