The triumvirate of Obando

ROSES & THORNS - Alejandro R. Roces -

The Obando orational (fertility) dance has a few characteristics that set it apart in the pantheon of Philippine fiestas. The chief one being that it is not dedicated to one or two saints, but three. The story of how they became a part of the festival is the story of Obando.

The Obando festival, and their saints, make an appearance in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere: “It was believed at that time that a triumvirate in Obando granted sons or daughters, at choice: Our Lady of Salambao, Santa Clara, and San Pascual Baylon. The advice was wise; Dona Pia soon afterwards knew she would be a mother...”

Santa Clara, while not being the patron saint of the town, is the oldest member of the group. Ancient Filipinos had the habit of naming their barangays, later barrios, after plants or trees that flourished. Obando was originally Catangalang, or the center of the tangal area; tangal being a mangrove tree with a red bark that is used for strengthening and giving color to coconut wine. In pre-Hispanic society virtue was in fertility, not virginity; barren women had a low social status. There were no herb cures for the condition; orational dance rites were the cure.

The women would gather in sacred groves and dance to the accompaniment of drums, bells, the clapping of palms and the cries of the women. They chanted the diwang and danced before and to the anitos. Even after the Franciscans built a chapel fertility dancing continued in Catangalan. They just simply redirected their dances from the anitos to the chapel’s image of the Virgin Sta. Clara. This is why she is the one to whom the dances are addressed.

In 1623, Polo (where Catangalan was located) seceded from Meycauayan. On May 14, 1753 Governor General Marquis Jose Francisco de Obando y Solis, changed the name of the burgeoning town of Catangalan to his. Thus a year later, did the town become Obando. A newly- installed priest would collect tribute for two years, which was earmarked for the construction of a new church. And so entered San Pascual Baylon as the titular of the new church.

Baylon loosely translates to “fond of dancing.” San Pascual was even noted by his religious superior of the time, Father Ximenes, as being seen dancing before a statue of the Virgin Mary. In all, he was the perfect titular for Obando; a town that even two centuries later still kept alive the fertility dances of their pagan ancestors. The fact that the dancing had changed to the fandango from the diwang and were now being dedicated to Sta. Clara could not disguise its pagan roots. If the dancing could not be stopped, it could at least be given a Christian veneer.

The third member of the group would show up much later, and under “miraculous” circumstances. On June 19, 1763, according to the sworn records of two illiterate brothers (Juan and Julian de la Cruz), they were disengaging their salambao (a net) that was entangled in a stream called Holing Doon. They discovered the statue of Our Lady of the Conception in the net, only her feet sticking out. Two days later they brought the Our Lady to the parish church in Obando, where she was enshrined alongside her more aged predecessors.

For three days in May the dancing continues; still offered to Sta. Clara, with San Pascual playing second fiddle. In Obando are found the roots of our dancing traditions; a tradition that connects our pagan fertility rites of the past to Obando’s devotional dances of today.

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