Thursday, December 16, 2010


IT WAS the Spaniards who brought Christmas to the Philippines, but it was the Americans who taught us how to celebrate it.
The Christmas that the Spaniards brought here was strictly a religious celebration -- rituals held inside the church, prayers and songs steeped in biblical and ancient European references -- which is why no indigenous Christmas songs came out of the entire 300 years of Spanish colonial rule.

In the early 1900s, however, the Americans secularized Christmas, introducing Santa Claus, Christmas tree, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Then and only then did Filipinos embrace Christmas and make it their own.

I think, however, that we Kapampangans embraced and claimed Christmas much earlier than the rest of the Philippines.

The common folk in those early days had a way of sneaking away bits and pieces of church rituals and reinventing them into something that they could claim as their own. That's what they did with the Bible: because they were never permitted to own one, the common folk memorized the Sunday gospel readings as they heard them, ran home and wrote them down, strung them together and produced the pasyon, which is apocryphal in some parts but so what, it served its purpose as the Bible of the masses for 300 years.

Christmas was too joyous an occasion to be limited inside the church and celebrated in just one day, so it was extended to nine days, beginning December 16, and that's how Filipinos in the Spanish colonial times began the tradition of simbang gabi. I am not sure if we merely acquired it from the Mexicans; my own theory is that it was initiated by the native secular priests, which had an interim hold of the parishes vacated by the religious missionaries (who were ejected from their parishes by a royal decree sometime in the late 1700s).

But we Kapampangans did one more unique thing: we invented the lubenas. (Historian Mariano Henson wrote that by the time the town of Angeles adopted La Naval in 1830, Kapampangans had already been doing the lubenas every year.)

Lubenas came from the word novena, which means nine days, referring to the nine-day simbang gabi. But while the rest of the country was content with attending dawn masses for nine consecutive days, Kapampangans went a step farther by holding a procession on the eve of every simbang gabi, i.e., they had a procession after dinner, which means they slept late, and then woke up before dawn for the simbang gabi (or simbang bengi in Kapampangan).

Waking up early after sleeping late is a double whammy, but that's exactly what Kapampangans must do as a form of penance in preparation for the birth of Christ -- Kapampangans, after all, are known for their excesses and for taking their religion very seriously.

They are also very fond of processions. When the procession takes place on the river, they call it libad; when held on land, it's called limbun. The lubenas is a form of limbun; the difference is that it's lit not by hand-held candles but by lanterns mounted on bamboo poles.

Two rows of these lanterns, usually six on each row for a total of 12 (representing the 12 Apostles) precede the andas (shoulder-borne carriage) or carroza (wheeled carriage) bearing the santo. At the head of the procession is a lantern in the shape of a cross, and right behind it is another lantern in the shape of a fish, with movable fins, mouth and tail (fish is the ancient symbol of Christ).

In the early days, there were other animal lanterns, like lamb (representing the Lamb of God), dove (representing the Holy Spirit), and the stable animals of the Nativity. Aside from their religious references, they served as an added attraction, since processions were also a spectacle for the public to watch and enjoy, very much like a parade.

Right behind the carroza is the climax of the lubenas, a giant lantern that served as illumination to the santo on the carroza (it’s actually the origin of the Giant Lantern tradition of San Fernando).

Trailing this big lantern are the singers, and the song that they sing over and over is Dios te salve (Hail Mary in Spanish), which has at least seven versions, all arranged by Kapampangans. In my hometown of Mabalacat, every barangay has its own version of Dios te salve.

The lubenas, unfortunately, is a vanishing tradition. Today, only a few northern towns in the Kapampangan region still hold lubenas in December. These are Mabalacat, Angeles, San Fernando, Mexico, Magalang, Capas and Concepcion.

In Mabalacat and Angeles, organizers have made lubenas a competition to inject adrenalin into the dying practice. The worsening traffic situation has also made lubenas (or any procession for that matter) a risky business, which is why fewer people attend it.

The lubenas is a precious cultural gem, unique to Kapampangans. While cash prizes are a great incentive to revive interest in the lubenas, they are actually cheapening it and reducing it to the level of a lantern contest.

The lubenas, first of all, is the property and therefore responsibility of the parish, not the government or any private organization. The parish priest, through the parish pastoral council, should take the initiative in restoring its potency as a para-liturgical activity that's meant to bring Catholics back to church, like moths being lured to the light. Barangays can have their respective lubenas, provided they all converge to the parish patio on Christmas eve, like they do in Mabalacat (then it's called maitinis, or matins, “prayers after midnight”).

While government and non-government organizations must be commended for their good intentions, the local church should find ways to reclaim and sustain this charming Kapampangan tradition, and reassert its original religious intent and content.

Sunstar Pampanga (December, 206) 


ON JANUARY 10, the kuraldal season of Sasmuan ends with street dancing to be held around the chapel of Barangay Sta. Lucia, just a short distance from the town's parish church.

The archbishop will concelebrate a mass with the parish priest on a makeshift altar at the chapel's rear, facing an intersection, which is the only spot in the area that's large enough to accommodate the big crowd.

Kuraldal is the Kapampangan equivalent of Obando's Sta. Clara and Cebu's Sto. Niño festivals, in which devotees dance their prayers and petitions. In Sasmuan, the object of devotion is St. Lucy, the town's patron saint. While devotees dance, they shout "Viva Sta. Lucia! Puera sakit! (Long live St. Lucy! Away with ailments!)"

Spanish chronicler Fray Gaspar de San Agustin, OSA wrote in Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas (1698) that St. Lucy had been venerated in Sasmuan "since long ago," i.e., the devotion may have been brought by the conquistadores in this ancient town when they arrived in 1571.

The small wooden image of St. Lucy enshrined in the chapel, according to heritage expert Prof. Regalado Trota Jose, is probably the earliest image of the saint in the town, older than either the one found in the parish church or the one taken out in procession during the town fiesta; it is also not made in Spain or Mexico but most likely carved locally because its elongated earlobes, similar to Buddha's, are a characteristic of an ancient carving style in Southeast Asia.

The kuraldal season in Sasmuan begins on December 13 with the feast of St. Lucy, whom the early Roman pagans executed by gouging out her eyes, which is why she is the patron saint of people with eye problems (her image holds a palm leaf, which is the symbol of martyrdom, and a platter with two eyeballs on it).

Pilgrims by the thousands, according to old folks, used to troop to Sasmuan on December 13, the same way pilgrims still do in Antipolo and Manaoag. Residents of Bacolor and Lubao still recall seeing thousands passing by on their way to the town of Sasmuan.

But the town's official fiesta has been moved to January 6; nobody remembers why, but it must have had something to do with the timing of the harvest, because rice and duman planters in Porac and Sta. Rita still coincide their harvest with the Sasmuan fiesta when the demand is great.

Pilgrims come and dance on both December 13 and January 6, but the wildest dancing occurs on the season's last day, January 10. The crowd is so thick that some manage to only sway or jump instead of dance. But those who can dance perform the traditional kuraldal steps; they look like a tribal dance with intervals of swaying and clapping as the brass band slows down before picking up again.

The dancing can go non-stop for hours; some devotees literally dance till they drop, bathed in sweat with eyes rolling as if in a trance. It is really a form of sacrifice or penitence, which is what Kapampangan folks do to ask for favors (like the Holy Week penitents do). In the case of St. Lucy, aside from cure for diseases, devotees pray to have children, and indeed, I have met many previously barren pilgrims who keep coming back to thank the saint for favors granted, their children in tow.

But while Sasmuan has the biggest kuraldal festival in Pampanga, it is not the only place where it's done. In several villages in Macabebe, people dance during their respective patron saints' processions; in Sta. Cruz, Lubao, the kuraldal held during the barrio's fiesta on May 3 causes massive traffic jam along Olongapo-Gapan Road. In Betis, costumed performers dance their version of kuraldal with swordfights on the feast of St. James on July 25.

These places are all located in the southern half of Pampanga. Nowhere in the northern towns will you find kuraldal. Is it because Angeles and San Fernando and adjacent towns have been so urbanized that they will never be caught doing a thing as folksy as dancing in the street? Or is it because of the southern towns' proximity to the Pampanga River, the cradle of Kapampangan civilization? Are Kapampangans living in the more ancient southern towns more in touch with their cultural fountainhead?

I notice that Kapampangans in the river communities dance at the drop of a hat; in the more agricultural northern towns, they have to dress up first and create artificial inducements like tigtigan terakan king dalan (street disco) to bring themselves to dance in public.

Sasmuan and those other towns holding kuraldal should realize the value of this cultural practice, its potency as a socio-religious expression and its potential for tourism. While it has similarities with Obando and Cebu, kuraldal is unique to Pampanga because it is wilder and more tribal. It is a vestige of a lost pagan ritual, replaced long ago with this Christian devotion to St. Lucy. It is also an expression of how musical, how carefree and how hedonistic we Kapampangans once were and still are.

The Department of Tourism should promote kuraldal as a genuine Kapampangan festival, with the kuraldal dance steps serving as the basic dance steps in other festivals like the Sinukuan Festival in San Fernando and the Baguis Festival in Angeles -- two well-funded public events in search of cultural roots and a theme and a rhythm that will resonate with the Kapampangan spirit. Public and private schools should introduce it in their PE classes.

Lastly, parishes should make an effort to hold kuraldal during their religious processions. Praying can be more physical than mere mumbling of prayers. Our ancestors put fun in their worship; we who lost it should take a hint from the kuraldal.

Sunstar Pampanga (January, 2007)


ASIDE from the lubenas, another unique feature of the Kapampangan Christmas is the giant lanterns of San Fernando. But unlike the lubenas, which can still be found in several towns, the giant lanterns were, are and most likely will be, exclusively in one town only: the City of San Fernando.

For sure, the art of making paper lanterns did not originate in Pampanga, not even in the Philippines (it most likely started in China). But Kapampangans can stake a claim (until proven otherwise) to paper lanterns as Christmas ornaments.

During colonial times, paper lanterns with candles inside them were used to illuminate religious processions, most notably during the La Naval in Bacolor every second week of November. They replaced hand-held candles, which were impractical for processions held in the breezy months of November and December.

These paper lanterns were most likely mounted on poles, and after the La Naval procession was over, were kept and the following month, used again for the lubenas. So we can deduce that the tradition of lubenas and its star-shaped Christmas lanterns began in the then capital town of Bacolor.

In 1904, the new colonizers, the Americans, moved the provincial capital from Bacolor to the next town, San Fernando, which was booming as a result of a growing sugar industry and the Manila-Dagupan Railroad, which passed San Fernando but not Bacolor. Everything was physically transferred - the Provincial Capitol, government offices, courts, and yes, even the lubenas and its quaint paper lanterns.

In those early days, San Fernando was swinging and galloping at full throttle, fueled by the money of the nouveau rich under the auspices of the Americans. Elegant mansions mushroomed all over town. If the defeated Bacolor was the bastion of Spanish culture, triumphant San Fernando was being reconfigured to showcase the best of American society. Thus, dance parties, balls and socials became the order of the day. Gov. Howard Taft even visited the town.

The lubenas benefited from the economic boom. San Fernando residents spruced up their lanterns, replacing paper with cloth and candles with carbide lamps (carburo). The big lantern of the lubenas, traditionally found right behind the carroza, became even bigger, measuring as wide as 10 feet even in those days. It eventually spun away from the lubenas and took a life of its own, becoming the forerunner of the now-famous giant lanterns.

In 1908, the lubenas became a ligligan (competition) of lanterns. In 1931, carbide lamps were replaced with electricity-powered lights.

Originally, only nine barrios of San Fernando participated; each night of the nine-day lubenas (December 16-24) was assigned to a barrio, which showcases its lanterns around the designated paglimbunan (procession route), i.e., starting from the Baluyut Bridge, turning right to Consunji Street, winding around McArthur Highway, turning to Tiomico Street and then to the other end of Consunji Street before terminating at the patio between the church and the municipal hall.

The original barrios that were assigned dates of lubenas around the parish church were, in chronological order: San Pedro Cutud (first because St. Peter held the keys to heaven), San Nicolas, Del Pilar, Sta. Lucia, San Jose, Dolores, San Agustin, Del Carmen and finally, Sto. Niño (last because the Holy Child was the ultimate symbol of Christmas). The judges viewed the lanterns from the balconies of the mansions along Consunji Street (owned by the Hizon, Ocampo, Rodriguez, Lazatin, Abad Santos and Singian families, among others).

The competition became a vehicle for barrio sugu (Kapampangan term for bayanihan), in which the wealthy residents of the barrio funded the construction of the lanterns (locally known as parul or tambul tambulan) while the poor residents volunteered their skills.

Because lanterns easily wore out and the giant ones could not be stored anywhere, the maitinis (final night of the lubenas during which all barrio entries converged in the church patio) became the occasion for paspasan tambul tambulan, in which holders of the lanterns-on-poles from one barrio smashed their lanterns against those of other barrios. The last lantern standing was declared winner. It was a rather violent ending for such dainty lanterns, which was probably why the smashing part was discontinued after a while.

It was around the 1930s that the rotor made its first appearance. The rotor is the mechanism that makes the lights inside the giant lantern dance; it consists of a barrel wrapped with a metal sheet, a row of hairpins (aspilé), and spaghetti-like electric wires that connect the rotor to the lantern.

When the operator rotates the rotor, the hairpins glide against the metal sheet, conveying electricity to the lantern. The secret is in the design of the masking tapes, which determines which lights in the lantern go on and off.

It is both primitive and innovative - a testament to the creative genius of Kapampangans. The fact that it is still being used today, after over 50 years, and after the lanterns had grown into humongous proportions requiring a huge amount of electric power, truly defies reason.

Rodolfo David, who died in 1971, is the acknowledged inventor of the rotor. David belonged to a family of lantern makers in barrio Sta. Lucia, whose patriarch, Francisco Estanislao, pioneered lantern making in San Fernando in the early 1900s.

His son-in-law, Severino David, introduced battery-operated giant lanterns in the early 1940s. After World War II, the family popularized the use of papel de japon for lanterns, which was a major aesthetic leap. Rodolfo David, aside from inventing the rotor, also produced a new lantern design in 1958, which has defined the so-called classic San Fernando lantern and influenced practically all other succeeding giant lantern designs.

The clan's present torchbearer is Ernesto David Quiwa, who introduced plastic vinyl as a more durable replacement to papel de japon; he is the first to win grand slam in the annual Ligligan and is credited to have brought the San Fernando parul to national and international prominence.

Today the Giant Lantern Festival is a certified national event that draws not only hundreds of thousands of viewers but also jurors that include foreign dignitaries and national figures. The lanterns are as large as houses, using up to 4,000 light bulbs and costing half a million pesos each. The acknowledged king of giant lanterns these days is Rolando Quiambao, whose passionate advocacy for the preservation of this unique Kapampangan tradition has attracted media attention and hordes of new admirers.

These giant electronic peacocks are truly a sight to behold; we Kapampangans have probably become jaded to them but tourists who see them for the first time gasp and gape; it's like witnessing a fleet of spaceships blinking with rainbow colors and descending from the starry December sky.

They are also community heirlooms, like the giant pyramids, which contain an ancient folk technology passed down from the ancestors. Part of their charm is their fleeting nature; they are assembled only in December and in January they are disassembled again, because their size prevents them from getting stored even in warehouses.

You often see cannibalized giant lanterns lying around in backyards and empty lots during the rainy season, like skeletons long decomposed and awaiting their next reincarnation. These magnificent cultural icons do not deserve this treatment.

The government should put up a foundation to ensure their survival in the years, even generations, ahead. Right now, some of them are funded by sponsors who can dictate their preferred designs and even insinuate their product logo on the face of the lantern.

The music to which the lanterns dance should be live and not canned, and certainly not cheesy tunes. Beethoven, Strauss and Mozart would be fine, but traditional Kapampangan music would even be better. Also, there should be a way to preserve and display them all year round.

An impoverished barangay spending close to half-a-million pesos for something to be displayed for only a few days is impractical, even immoral. Giant lanterns should go beyond Christmas; they should be transported to different towns where thousands of Kapampangans still haven't gone to SM to see a giant lantern, and should be displayed during fiestas and other big public occasions.

Lastly, the rotor system should be retired in a museum. It's a cultural gem, but it's an albatross around the neck of the giant lantern, dragging it down. Giant lanterns should be easy to transport and to mount, anywhere. But with huge rotors on a six-by-six truck following them around, who wants a giant lantern in their park, yard or patio? I am sure we have enough technology with which to replace the rotor. This way, we can all focus on the marvel of the lights and colors of the giant lantern, instead of its underbelly.

(With additional notes by Landlee A. Quiwa)

SunstarPampanga (December, 2006)


MAKE your Christmas a little different this time by making it a Kapampangan Christmas.

Forget chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and fill your noche buena table with native fare like lagang pasku (with old-style Chinese ham), asadung manuk, bringhi, tsokolate king batirul, panara (which nobody makes anymore) and an assortment of suman from Cabalantian.

If you hang a lantern outside your window, make sure it's a Kapampangan parul (lantern), which means it's either the multi-colored San Fernando parul or the white variety made in Angeles City.

You may also want to get yourself a Paskung Kapampangan CD; make sure you turn up the volume when you play it so that your neighbors will hear it, too. I am saying this not because our Center for Kapampangan Studies is the CD's producer, but because all the songs are original, really good and evocative of a true Kapampangan Christmas.

If you attend the simbang bengi (dawn Mass), try to attend the ones held in Mabalacat, where the parish choir still performs the pastorella, a colonial-era collection of church hymns sung only during this time of year.

When I was a child, the pastorella were the only motivation I had to wake up at dawn and go to Mass. There's no Kyrie like the Kyrie of the pastorella, no Gloria like the Gloria of the pastorella, and no Agnus Dei like the Agnus Dei of the pastorella--all performed with violins and operatic flourish that make you think our ancestors composed them that way to keep drowsy churchgoers awake.

Mabalacat is the only place in the Philippines where they keep the pastorella alive.

It is also one of only three or four towns in the Kapampangan region where they still have the lubenas, a unique and quaint tradition where a procession of lit lanterns is held for the nine consecutive nights before Christmas (December 16 to 24), which is also the same period for the simbang bengi.

In fact, the reason people do the lubenas is the same reason they do the simbang bengi--to mortify the flesh in preparation for the nativity of Christ. It's no easy task, after all, to stay up late for the lubenas and then wake up early for the simbang bengi. (Our Kapampangan ancestors learned this from their strict Spanish cura parroco.)

On the night of December 24, the place to be is again Mabalacat, for the assembly of all lubenas processions from as many as 20 barrios. You can imagine how the church patio will look like on Christmas Eve with hundreds of glittering, flickering lanterns of all sizes, shapes and colors. The event is called maitinis, and it's not done anywhere but Mabalacat.

And then of course, there's the Giant Lantern Festival (ligligan parul) of San Fernando. The sheer size of the lanterns is dumbfounding enough; what's even more amazing is the crude contraption that powers them, made of tin barrels, hairpins, masking tape and a spaghetti mesh of electric wires.

How this primitive mechanism produces the kaleidoscope of dancing lights on lanterns as big as houses is truly a wonder of Kapampangan ingenuity and imagination. We should all support this living treasure and make sure the rising costs (half a million pesos per lantern) do not kill it in the long run.

I wish, though, that they'd hold the festival in a more culturally appropriate venue, not some parking lot of a distant mall. When an activity is held in a commercial area, then that activity becomes a commercial activity, no longer a cultural one.

Remember that the giant lantern festival started over a hundred years ago as part of the lubenas in Bacolor (later moved to San Fernando along with the transfer of the provincial capital). It was held in the church patio because, well, it was a religious activity. Maybe it's time we should bring it back to its original venue.

If the cathedral patio is too small, they can probably spread the giant lanterns along the stretch of Consunji Street all the way to the capitol grounds so that the whole district lights up this Christmas and tourists will go to the town proper, not the mall on the boundary with Mexico.

On December 29, make sure you go to Betis for the Serenata, another charming Kapampangan folk tradition where two or three local brass bands try to outdo each other by alternately playing tunes until the wee hours. Some of the musical pieces they play come from classical Italian operas taught to them by the early Thomasites.

On New Year's Day, about two in the afternoon, go to Minalin town for the annual Aguman Sanduk cross-dressing festival. It's a festival unlike any other: farmers, fisherfolk and all the local tough guys wear their wives' or mothers' dresses (with matching wigs and lipstick) and parade in the streets.

It started in the 1930s as a dare among the menfolk; how it survived a world war, insurgency, and a volcanic eruption is a testament of the commitment of the townspeople of Minalin to preserve their cultural heritage.

Finally, the long Kapampangan Christmas season ends on January 6, feast of the Three Kings, which is also the climax of the kuraldal season of Sasmuan. Make sure you are there on that day: the mad dancing and gyrating that characterize this unique Kapampangan festival would make Obando and the Sinulog seem like a harmless grade-school folk dance.

The kuraldal is an ancient fertility dance which the Spanish chronicler Fray Gaspar de San Agustin described in 1698 as a ritual practiced in Sasmuan "since long ago."

While in Sasmuan, don't forget to buy pasalubong: their bite-sized bobotu is one-of-its-kind.
Have a merry Kapampangan Christmas!

Sunstar Pampanga (December, 2009)


There is no Christmas like Christmas in the Philippines, and the province that can claim to have the best Christmas celebration in the country is, without doubt, the province of Pampanga.
There may be other places with brighter Christmas lights, or taller Christmas trees, but here in Pampanga, we have the most unique, most enduring Christmas traditions, the richest noche buena fare, and of course, the largest and most beautiful Christmas lanterns. We even built an entire village where Christmas could literally be celebrated all year round.

Consider these: only Kapampangans hold lubenas, a quaint religious procession where the image of the patron saint is preceded by a lantern in the shape of a cross, a lantern in the shape of a fish (the ancient symbol of Christ) and 12 lanterns (representing the 12 apostles).

Right behind the santo is a final lantern, larger than all the others and behind it a chorus singing Dios te salve (Hail Mary in Spanish).

All lanterns are lit inside, producing a beautiful multi-colored luminescence, which lights up the streets and attracts onlookers and passing vehicles.

The lubenas, held for nine consecutive days before Christmas (lubenas is corruption of novena, or nine days of prayer and devotion), culminates in the maitinis on Christmas eve, when all the lantern processions from different barangays converge in front of the parish church so that all participants in the procession could attend the midnight mass.

It's a sight to behold, rarely seen and photographed because, well, even media people don't go to work on the night before Christmas.

This tradition still survives in Mabalacat, Angeles, San Fernando and some other towns in northern Pampanga and southern Tarlac.

Like the lubenas, the simbang bengi in Pampanga is also done in the nine days before Christmas, beginning December 16.

Our forefathers started this tradition as a mortification of the flesh--in those days, when an important religious festival was approaching, they prepared themselves spiritually not only by praying but also by making sacrifices.

In the case of Christmas, the sacrifice is in the form of staying up late and walking a great distance during the lantern procession, and then waking up early the very next morning to attend the dawn Mass.

Thus, unlike other Filipinos who sleep early so they can wake up early, Kapampangans deliberately worsen their sleep deprivation between the lubenas and the simbang bengi.

The simbang bengi is actually a misnomer, because the Mass is held at dawn (galingaldo or ganingaldo); today, parishioners who attend the night Masses instead of the dawn Masses are conveniently missing the point of the tradition.

In some towns in Pampanga, they still sing the pastorella--a set of liturgical songs in Latin composed in colonial times specifically for the dawn Masses.

I have very fond memories of simbang bengi in my hometown because the pastorella, sung by a choir and accompanied by violins, and performed with all the melodramatic flourish of an opera, kept me awake and entertained in those wee hours.

In fact I suspect that the Spaniards introduced the pastorella precisely to keep the drowsy Mass goers awake.

And then, of course, the giant lanterns -- the term deserves to be in capital letters because these humongous wheels of rotating kaleidoscope of colors and lights are truly world-class and one-of-a-kind.

Their sheer size, and the timing and precision with which the intricate patterns dance, and the exquisite beauty of their design--you would think they were assembled by a well-financed, well-equipped team of hundreds of engineers, computer technicians and programmers, but in reality, they are assembled only in some backyard in the barrio, by a ragtag team of local craftsmen and artisans, using tin drums, hairpins, masking tape, and a spaghetti tangle of wires--plus, of course, loads of inborn talent and wisdom handed down from generations past.

These giant lanterns of Pampanga, often dismantled after Christmas (there's no garage large enough to house them), should be preserved the way the Great Pyramids of Egypt were, because--like the pyramids--they are monuments to our ancestors' ingenuity and living proof of what folk technology can do.

And lastly, the food that is served this time of year is what makes Christmas in Pampanga truly the best in the country--from the duman whose harvest in early November coincides with the countdown to Christmas, to the tsokolati king batirul and the panara which mass goers coming home from the simbang bengi take for breakfast.

Of all the holidays in Pampanga, it is during Christmas when the dining table is most heavily laden with the best that the Kapampangan culinary tradition can offer: galantina, bringhe, asado, escabeche, estofado, afritada, mechado, menudo, azucena, pochero, relleno, morcon, lengua, etc. and the delicacies that only Kapampangans can make--turrones, sans rival, pastillas de leche, tibuk tibuk, pepalto, yemas, sanikulas, empanada, ensaimada, bobotu, pulburun, leche flan, silvana, espasol, araru, putu seco, ale ubi, bibingkang nasi, calame ubi, calame biko, sampelut, inangit, galang galang, putu lazon, kutsinta, suman tili, suman bulagta, suman ebus, patupat, alualu (Kabigting style, Corazon style, Razon style, you name it), pionono, tocino del cielo, samani, bangka bangka, batya batya, bucarillo, putung babi, taisan, plantadilla, rosquetes, mayumung kamias, mayumung kamatis, brazo de la reina, etc.

Tourists who visit Cebu can get dried mangoes, and in Iloilo they get biscocho, in Davao its durian, in Baguio its peanut brittle and in Laguna its buko pie.

Here in Pampanga, especially this time of year, there's a whole cornucopia of delicacies and pasalubong, enough to cause diabetes and get you accosted at the airport for excess baggage.

Happy Christmas to all Kapampangans and please, let's preserve our race by keeping our cholesterol levels down

Sunstar Pampanga (December, 2007)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

FPJ’s Kapampangan roots

I WILL start by posing these questions:

(1) Which Pampanga town is the birthplace of at least five Supreme Court Justices, a dozen Cabinet members and seven Governors?
(2) Which barrio in Pampanga has produced the most number of priests in the Philippines?
(3) Which parish in Pampanga has produced the most number of bishops in the country?
(4) Which Pampanga town has produced two Philippine Presidents?
(5) Which Pampanga town has produced two Kings of Philippine Movies?

 The answers are: (1) Bacolor; (2) Betis; (3) Our Lord’s Ascension Parish, Lourdes Heights, City of San Fernando; (4) Lubao; (5) Lubao. Let me explain the last one.

The town of Lubao is probably the oldest in Pampanga. It used to cover more than its present boundaries, maybe the entire southwestern Pampanga (Macabebe being the entire southeastern part). Mountain tribes from Pinatubo used Lubao as their passage to the coast, which is probably how the town got its name (Lubao came from baba, ‌lowland).

Lubao's strategic location made it one of the oldest and biggest pre-colonial communities in the archipelago. When the Spaniards came to Luzon in 1571, they found an already thriving Muslim community in Lubao (its population of 3,500 made it as big as pre-colonial Cebu). The conquistadores pacified the natives and reorganized the town, with a church built at its center. 

The Augustinian missionaries dedicated it to their most important saint, Saint Augustine. They also put up their very first printing press there. The present parish church of Lubao is the largest in Pampanga - another proof of the town's preeminence in the province.

Today, the whole country knows Lubao as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s hometown. More importantly, it is the only town that produced two Philippine presidents, the other one being Arroyo’s father, Diosdado Macapagal.

Lubao is also the birthplace of the original King of Philippine Movies, Rogelio de la Rosa. His brother Tomas also became a movie actor named Jaime de la Rosa, while his sister Purita became Diosdado Macapagal’s first wife (Rogelio, whose real name was Regidor, had another sister, Africa, and another brother, who died from an accident at the church belfry). Diosdado and Rogelio acted together in zarzuelas, mostly written by Diosdado’s father, Urbano Macapagal, a famous Kapampangan poet.

When Diosdado ran for President in 1961, the administration convinced Rogelio to also run for President to neutralize the Kapampangan vote; he was, however, prevailed upon by his brother-in-law to withdraw from the race, just days before the election.    

History is often stranger than fiction.  The other King of Philippine Movies, Fernando Poe, Jr., also ran for President in the 2004 elections, against Diosdado's daughter, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  As we all know, the FPJ juggernaut was on its way to easy victory when the citizenship issue gave it a flat tire.

His political enemies claimed FPJ (real name: Ronald Allan Poe) was not a Filipino citizen because his father, Fernando Poe, Sr. (real name: Allan Fernando Poe), was pure Spanish, and so was his father’s first wife, Paulita Gomez, as well as his paternal grandparents, Lorenzo Poe (or Pou) and Marta Reyes. Lorenzo was a playwright from Mallorca, Spain who had come to the colony years before the 1896 Revolution and settled in San Carlos, Pangasinan.

FPJ’s mother, on the other hand, was Bessie Kelly, whom Fernando Poe, Sr. had met at the University of the Philippines where he studied and posed nude for sculptor Guillermo Tolentino (their collaboration produced The Oblation). They fell in love and got married, which is why Poe Sr.’s first wife, Paulita Gomez, sued him for bigamy, five weeks before Bessie Kelly gave birth to FPJ, in 1939.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of FPJ, citing the Philippine Bill of 1902 and the Jones Law of 1916, which stated that all Spanish citizens living in the Philippines at the time Spain ceded the colony to the United States, were deemed citizens of the Philippines.  FPJ's campaign proceeded, by he lost to Gloria, thanks to Commissioner Garci and his operatives.

I am mentioning FPJ’s citizenship case because there are claims that his mother, Bessie Kelly, who was an American, may have had Kapampangan blood.

Former Pampanga Governor Estelito Mendoza, who served as FPJ’s lawyer in the case, mentioned in the court proceedings that Bessie Kelly’s mother was a Gatbonton from Candaba, Pampanga. FPJ was just a boy when she died so he could not remember even the first name of his maternal grandmother. In her own testimony, Ruby Kelly, Bessie Kelly’s sister and mother of Social Weather Station (SWS) chief Dr. Mahar Mangahas, also did not mention their Kapampangan mother.

My staff at the Center for Kapampangan Studies checked the registros parroquiales (parish records) of Candaba circa 1918 (Bessie Kelly's likely year of baptism, since she was 21 when FPJ was born in 1939) and found many Gatbonton entries (as expected in Candaba), but no Bessie Kelly, no Bessie Gatbonton, no Elizabeth Kelly, no Elizabeth Gatbonton.  It's possible that she was not baptized in her mother’s parish, or, as Center consultant Fray Francis Musni theorizes, she was not baptized at all, because Bessie’s father, an American, was Protestant.

Here’s how it gets even more interesting. Dr. Rodrigo Sicat, author of the book Lubao: The Cradle of Kapampangan Civilization, recently told me that his neighbor in Sta. Cruz, Lubao is one Fred Kelly, who claims that Bessie Kelly is his sister and that FPJ used to frequent Lubao in those early days.

Could Bessie Kelly’s American father have been one of those American colonists who went to Lubao in the early 1900s to cash in on the booming sugar industry in Pampanga?  One American who did was William Fassoth, Sr. He came to invest in sugar lands in Lubao because the town had vast sugar plantations and was only a short distance from the Pampanga Sugar Mills (Pasumil) located in Floridablanca. In World War II, Lubao became a strategic town in Pampanga owing to its railroad station which connected Clark Field with Mariveles, Bataan. (In fact, Fassoth built a camp in Lubao for American GIs, one of whom was named Kelly. The Center has a copy of Fassoth’s personal account.)

More research should be done to establish Bessie Kelly’s father’s roots in Lubao, if indeed they lived there. It all makes sense to me: her mother, a Gatbonton from Candaba, met and fell in love with an American businessman in Lubao, got married and settled in Lubao, which was a suitable place to do business in, and which is where a Kelly, Bessie's alleged brother, still resides.

If all this is proven true, then Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Fernando Poe, Jr. are town mates, after all.  

History cannot get any stranger than that.

First published on September 05, 2006

Magalang's serial-killer priest

JUAN Severino Mallari, date and place of birth unknown but probably a native of Macabebe, was ordained priest in 1809 after completing his seminary studies at the University of Santo Tomas.

Not too many Kapampangans have heard of him but he has secured his place in history for three reasons: (1) he is the second Filipino calligraphic artist-priest, (2) he is the first Filipino priest executed by the Spanish colonial government, and (3) he is the celebrated serial killer of Magalang town.

The details of Juan Severino Mallari's life can be found in Dr. Luciano Santiago's book Kapampangan Pioneers in the Philippine Church 1592-2001, published by the Holy Angel University Center for Kapampangan Studies.

From the start, this gifted Kapampangan priest had had bouts with mental instability brought about by his artistic genius, his mother's strange illness and the string of stressful episodes that most likely aggravated his depression.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, a number of Filipino artists specialized in engraving and painting religious subjects. Two Kapampangan priests, Fr. Mariano Hipolito of Bacolor and Fr. Juan Severino Mallari, did calligraphic drawings (which are preserved in the archives of the Archdiocese of Manila); hence, they are recognized as the first and the second Filipino calligraphic artist-priests, respectively.

Calligraphic drawing is a folk art in which the artist draws figures to decorate the edges of a manuscript. This art form antedated the establishment of the country's first art academy, and was probably inspired by the illuminated manuscripts from Europe, except that the sketches were in black-and-white. (It was only much later when calligraphic drawing became more elaborate when it took the form of letras y figuras.)

Fr. Hipolito and Fr. Mallari took to calligraphic drawing to decorate their usually drab parish annual reports called planes de almas. They had contrasting styles: Fr. Hipolito often drew Spaniards in various poses like hunting, walking their pet or writing at their desk, while Fr. Mallari's favorite subjects were flowery vines and naked boy angels perched on swirling clouds.

Right after ordination in 1809, Fr. Mallari became coadjutor, in quick succession, of Gapang, Lubao and Bacolor. He applied to be pastor (parish priest) of Orani, and failed; then Mariveles, failed again; and Lubao, failed once more. Lastly he applied to be sacristan (chaplain) of the Port of Cavite, was again rejected. In 1812, he was finally and thankfully appointed pastor of San Bartolome Parish in Magalang, Pampanga. However, it was also around this time that his mother was stricken with a strange illness (history does not record the nature of her illness, except to say that Fr. Mallari believed she "had been bewitched").

What happened next was the stuff of horror movies: over a period of 10 years, a series of unexplained murders took place in the bucolic town of Magalang.  Again, history does not record the details of the murders, just the number of victims -- a total of 57 murders!

Considering the size of the town, it was mind-blowing how the killer could have escaped arrest (or even identification) for such a long period. But it was even more mind-blowing that when the killer was finally arrested and identified, it was none other than the cura parroco (parish priest) himself, Fr. Juan Severino Mallari!

At the time of his arrest, Fr. Mallari had already fallen ill due to his psychosis.  And yet the Spanish authorities still hauled him off to Manila and imprisoned like a common criminal, instead of committing him to a mental institution.

According to historian Dr. Santiago, this was unusual and highly irregular, because Spain pioneered the humane treatment of mental patients, having founded one of the first psychiatric hospitals in Europe (named Hospital de Inocentes, to emphasize the innocence of mentally ill people, who were not supposed to be held responsible for their actions).

According to historian Dr. Santiago, who is also a psychiatrist, at the time of Fr. Mallari's arrest in 1826, the Hospicio de San Jose had already been operating for 15 years, so Fr. Mallari should have been taken there instead of the prison.

But the Spanish authorities were probably too outraged by his heinous crimes to be bothered by human rights issues. An account by Spanish chronicler Sinibaldo de Mas, recorded in Blair & Robertson's The Philippine Islands series, says that "The attorney on that case talked in pathetic terms of the indescribable and barbarous prodigality of blood shed by that monster." The account mentions Fr. Mallari's case as an example of the indios' natural tendency to believe all the ghost stories they were so fond of telling.  Fr. Mallari, the account goes, claimed in his defense that he had murdered 57 of his parishioners "because he believed that he could by this means save his mother who, he persuaded himself, had been bewitched."

In 1840, after languishing in jail for 14 years, Fr. Juan Severino Mallari was executed by hanging -- "clearly," Dr. Santiago writes, "a victim of injustice." His death earned him the title in history as the first Filipino priest executed by the Spanish colonial government, since the execution of the Gomburza (Fr. Gomez, Fr. Burgos, and Fr. Zamora) took place only 32 years later, in 1872.

More research needs to be done on this dark episode of Magalang history. Who were the victims? How were they killed? Do they have descendants still residing in Magalang today?