San Isidro Labrador, patron saint of farmers

ROSES AND THORNS - Alejandro R. Roces () - May 15, 2001 - 12:00am
It was only in May 1 of 1913 that our workers started celebrating Labor Day. The occasion was the First National Labor Congress meet that was held in Manila. But centuries before that, our rural workers, the farmers, were already annually commemorating a farmer’s day during the May 15th feast of San Isidro Labrador, patron saint of all farmers. It is in some ways a more important day than Labor Day because, first, it marked our entry to the agricultural revolution; second, whether we like it or not, we are still mainly an agricultural country. Our problem, in fact, is that we have yet to fully implement our land reform program.

Thomas Jefferson defined farming as "the first and most precious of all the arts." This is because tillage marks the start of civilization everywhere. As Daniel Webster summed it, "When tillage begins, other arts follow." And so today we join all our faceless farmers who labor and toil in total obscurity. They are on top of my list of our unappreciated workers.

No labor celebration can match the traditional colorful celebrations of San Isidro Labrador’s feast day. In Europe, there was the mythological belief that all animals go down on their knees on Christmas Eve to commemorate the Redeemer’s birth on a stable. In Pulilan, Bulacan, carabaos march in procession during San Isidro’s feast day and they not only kneel, but walk on their knees like penitents in front of the church. The carabaos became the local counterpart of the ox associated with San Isidro and it was introduced as a work animal to the pioneer farmers as San Isidro’s animal.

In the Quezon province town of Lucban and Sariaya, farmers observe the feast of San Isidro in what is possibly the most original and indigenous folk motif found in fiestas – the pahiyas. All the homes that line the processional route are colorfully decorated with kiping, a rice paste that has been shaped into a leaf and tinted with different colors. It would make a perfect background for any stage presentation of a Filipino fiesta.

Some people would say that the fact that we celebrate Labor Day on May 1 and the feast of San Isidro in mid-May is pure coincidence. I prefer to think of it as providential. It is unfortunate that the last Labor Day celebration was anything but a celebration. It was one of the blackest days in our history. Fortunately, the feast of San Isidro that farmers will commemorate today will be peaceful. We like the old tradition where celebrations were associated with some saint.

In his Voyage to Brobdingnag, Jonathan Swift said, "And he gave it his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."

I think the above was the main message in the Labor Day unrest. Those who labor contribute to nation-building. Politicians are the big question-mark!

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