The fiestas of Rizal

ROSES & THORNS - Alejandro R. Roces -

Born on June 19, 1861 and executed on December 30, 1896 by the Spanish government; today we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Jose Rizal. We are familiar with the inspiration that Noli Mi Tangere and El Filibusterismo were to the nascent revolution. These two books, completed in Europe (Noli in Berlin, Germany and Fili in Biarritz, in the Basque Country) became the underpinnings for a new Philippine identity and national consciousness. His books, and his death, are commonly referred to as the catalyst for the revolution; even though he himself was an advocate of non-violent means for change. Through his writings, Rizal also helped preserve two fiestas and gave us a glimpse into the veneration of religious icons in the late 19th century.

The first step in the Catholicization of the Philippines was the exchange of pre-Hispanic pagan idolatry with Roman Catholic iconography. Local artisans were used to fill newly constructed churches and cathedrals with artistic renditions of saints; filtered through the prism of the Filipino. The veneration of Catholic icons evolved; beginning with the Our Lady of Guidance (the oldest image of the Virgin Mary in the Philippines), proceeding to the discovery and subsequent veneration of the Santo Nino de Cebu by Friar Andres de Urdaneta, and peaking during the era of Rizal. In his descriptions of Capitan Tiago’s private chapel, Jose Rizal gave future scholars an insight into the manic level the veneration of iconography reached: “There was a group of the Holy Family, their busts and limbs done in ivory…oil paintings, also by Filipino artists, depicting the suffering of the holy martyrs and the miracles of the Virgin...”

Of the two fiestas, Rizal’s renowned powers of observation have given us an insight into rites and rituals of the communal activities. In Obando, their Orational Dance was a fertility ritual, aimed at helping childless couple conceive. The legend was if the couple danced before the image of San Pascual they would be blessed with a child. Rizal made mention of this ritual in Noli me Tangere: “…Father Damaso advised her to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Obando, there to dance on the feast of San Pascual and ask for a son…” As the story goes, Doña Pia went, danced and gave birth to Maria Clara.

Once, the premier pilgrimage in the Philippines was to Our Lady of Antipolo. The legend of Our Lady of Antipolo was directly connected to the Manila galleon trade. The galleon trade was the economic life-blood of the islands, and she became famous for saving a galleon from a tempest during her journey to the islands. She then became the patroness of the galleon trade and known as Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage. Rizal was likely not a devotee of Our Lady of Antipolo, however he made her fluvial procession the centerpiece of his one-act zarzuela (written at age 19) and, through his writings, preserved our vision of the Antipolo pilgrimage at the height of its devotion. Jose Rizal gave us the best contemporary description of the pilgrimage. Today, much of the devotion has been forgotten and few remember the mystique with which she was held. 

 In crafting his tales of the Philippines, Jose Rizal spurred the formation of a new Philippine identity and national consciousness and created a snapshot of the devotions and venerations of his period. How many countries can boast having a National Hero acclaimed not on the strength of his arms, but on the power of his mind? He left us with a wealth of knowledge; observations and thoughts that remain paramount in Filipino literature. We do not need to rely on second-hand stories and legends of his accomplishments; we just need to read his works to gain the measure of the man and the hero. 

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