The path of the pilgrim, part 2

FIGHTING WORDS - Kay Malilong-Isberto - The Freeman

We arrived in Obando Church after the procession left and while mass was ongoing. My newfound Cebuano friend brought me to the middle of the church, asked two old ladies to make space for me on the pew, and moved to the row in front of mine. After the mass, she brought me to a place beside the church where the candles were sold and lit. We both bought the multi-colored ones, each color corresponding to a wish for health, wealth, peace, love, and other good things. When did the Catholic Church sanction practices that seemed Wiccan? I wondered. Maybe the priest didn't know that the candles were being marketed that way. I thought they looked prettier than the usual white ones.

My new friend had to go back to the office. She left after giving me instructions for finding a ride home. Outside the church, an old woman selling candles cajoled me into buying a bundle of red candles from her. A traffic aide offered me his lighter and asked me to include him in my prayers. Upon closer inspection of the candles that I lit at a makeshift altar by the church, I noticed that male and female wax figures were included in the bundle. The female figure had a hole in the middle. I asked the vendor what they were for. “For your family,” she explained. It was my first time to see such things.

I explored the area surrounding the church and found more vendors selling food, toys, clothes, shoes, and other usual fiesta merchandise. The band accompanying the procession could be heard in the distance and one of the marshals assured me that it would be arriving in church soon. True enough, carrozas bearing the three patron saints of Obando arrived in the church plaza. They were surrounded by marching bands and dancers in gowns and hats. The priest announced that dancing would commence after the mass.

After the mass, each carroza entered the church to loud cheering from the crowd. A male emcee roused everyone and asked if we were ready to dance. There was more loud cheering. When the carrozas were all inside the church, a prayer leader recited a prayer for San Pascual Baylon, the saint honored that day. The emcee then took over, asking everyone to raise their hands and handkerchiefs and to start dancing as a marching band played. People swayed from side to side as they held their arms up. Some stood on the church pews. I had read that the dancing was prohibited after World War II for being “pagan.” The practice was supposedly restored only in the 1970's.

The emcee would yell the intentions for the prayer dance and you could tell what people were praying for by how loud the crowd cheered for each intention. “For those who want a spouse! For those who want a child! For those giving thanks for a child! For those with problems at home! For those with problems with your spouse! For those with problems with your children! For those with problems with your parents! For those with problems with your in-laws! For those who need money! For those who need a job! For those who want to go abroad! For those who want a house and lot! For those giving thanks! For continuous good weather! For flooding to stop in Obando! For the end to plans to build a landfill in Obando! For our elected leaders! For your husband to be more hard-working! For your wife to be sweeter! For your children to do well in school! For graduating from school! For passing board exams!” The loudest cheers went to the prayer intentions for a job and for the chance to go abroad.

During Jose Rizal's time, Obando must have been a bucolic town with fresh air and wide spaces for dancing. The Obando I saw seemed to have every available space covered with concrete, houses with raised entrances to keep floods out, and trisikads with sidecars built higher than usual to traverse flooded streets. The dance ritual exoticized in blogs was no fertility rite. More people seemed to be praying for jobs, the chance to work abroad and the financial security it offered rather than for a spouse or a child. There were new prayers for the flooding to stop and to keep a landfill from being built-these reflected contemporary problems of climate change and waste management.

Maybe one thing has remained the same: the people inside the church with me prayed and danced fervently. I was too inhibited to dance as they did. Maybe it will be different when I go back next year.


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