I arrived a little past six when dusk is still settling in. The jeepney comes to a stop on a narrow road. Our driver announces that this is the last stop. Streets leading to Baliuag’s poblacion have already been blocked to motor traffic for the traditional Good Friday’s Prusisyon ng mga Santo (Procession of the Saints).
Unsure of where to go, I walked to the nearest intersection just in time to see the first few carrozas passed by. Leading the charge is St. Peter, followed by the rest of the 11 apostles, all borne by ornamented carrozas or floats. The order of the procession reflects the apostles’ primacy in Christian tradition.
I was adjusting the settings of my camera when the image of St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of lost causes, slowed down as processional traffic comes to a temporary halt. Then the sound of the staccato recitation of the Station of the Cross broadcasted from the church fades as the carroza continues on. But a scent, at once familiar but which I can’t put my finger on, lingers and envelops the crowd in its wake.
The crowds are definitely thicker this year compared to the last time I went to this western Bulacan town in 2014. Both sides of the streets along the procession route are brimming with spectators. Families came prepared with chairs, food and, of course, fans to beat the blistering summer heat. Mercifully, there is a soft breeze blowing, making the night a bit more tolerable.
Two men bearing kawits made from tall bamboo poles stopped in front of me and started to prod the tangle of Meralco cables upwards. Then what seems to be an industrial-sized generator followed by a carroza more than twelve feet high starts to roll by. A tableaux of the Pagpapatigil sa Unos (Calming of the Storm) appears complete with theatrical effects – mechanized rolling waves, boat replica and faux rain. For a moment, I fear for the man holding the electricity wire up as he got sprayed by water from the float.
On the sidewalk opposite a Savemore store, Angelita Magat stands like a good foot soldier of god. She tells me that she is a long-time devotee of this Catholic tradition. A Baliuageño through and through, Nanay Angelita witnessed the transformation of the procession into a prominent spectacle that has come to define Baliuag’s religious fabric. While she noticed the ever increasing number of visitors each year and its attendant traffic, she has no complaints, adding that the religious fervor is good especially for the young.
Meanwhile, strategically positioned in front of the plaza, Shane Hernandez and her barkada religiously take pictures of every poon that passes by using their smartphones. They were drawn to the event when a friend posted pictures of his experience on Instagram last year. They said that they came all the way from Valenzuela City, more than an hour drive south. I asked them what they enjoy about the procession the most. “It’s like being part of the Biblical stories,” they chorused.
Indeed that aspect of sacred imageries and icons has remained unchanged since the colonial times. Spanish friars then forbade Filipinos from owning or reading Bibles. Thus, the clerics were the sole source of catechism. Architecture, paintings, sculptures and plays were used to illustrate dogma and stories from the Bible.
The poon owner
It’s almost 8 p.m. For some of the participants, they have been waiting for more than two hours already. Floats numbered 102 and above are parked in front of the brick-clad church of St. Augustine of Hippo, Baliuag’s patron saint.
Marcos Cruz and his party are waiting for their turn. Beside them is a more modest but lavishly decorated carroza where St. Joanna, wife of Chuza, is enthroned. Like the rest of the images being paraded, none are from the parish church, rather these are owned by individuals and families who have deep roots in this town.
Marcos shared that he had the image made right after he graduated from college 15 years ago. Instead of investing in a car or house appliance, he and Enrico Ignacio saved up so that they could commission a Manila artisan to sculpt St. Joanna’s image and buy a carroza which will serve as its conveyance whenever it is taken out of their house for processions during the Holy Week and town fiesta. He said they did not mind the hefty investment.
“The cost was nothing compared to the blessings that we received,” Marcos cheerfully narrated. “We haven’t had any serious illness and we received so much in return.”
“During Semana Santa, the poon is brought for a series of processions starting on Palm Sunday and culminating in the Good Friday procession,” he continued as the men in charge with pulling his carroza prepares to join the procession.
Preparing for the procession
Marcos said that decorating the carrozas and sourcing the flowers and other ornaments take weeks. I asked him about the aroma that wafts from the floats. He said that it’s a sampaguita scent.
Aside from getting flowers and candles, they also have to feed those who will join their saint in the procession. Other parties even had shirts printed for their procession-goers.
Santa Juana’s carroza takes its place at the end of procession. I bid Marcos goodbye and stayed behind until the last of the carrozas (No. 117 bearing the image of the Virgin Mary) left the plaza. The crowd thinned out but the steady oration coming out of the loudspeaker reminds the faithful of the ongoing procession snaking around the major thoroughfares of Baliuag.
Earlier, I got to talk to Ronaldo Terga, one of the men tasked to clear the way of carrozas from low-hanging electric cables. He has been doing the task for the past 20 years. He added that time has not dampened his desire to fulfill his yearly panata.
Despite the progress of Baliuag and the creeping commercialization of some traditions across the country, there is no doubt that here the spectators and participants alike are moved by faith, ascribing to their panata or religious vow their annual participation and pilgrimage, and enraptured by the collective sacred experience.
Hungry, I look for place to eat which should have been easy if it were not one of the busiest days in Baliuag. The perimeter of the church plaza known as Glorietta is lined by every imaginable fast-food chain. Each restaurant, however, has lines kilometric long and is bursting at the seams trying to accommodate hungry spectators. I settle for a 711 because of the more tolerable queue.
A few minutes later, the carroza of St. Peter rolls into the plaza after completing the circuitous procession which started at 6 p.m.
The carroza carrying St. Joanna arrives more than two hours after it left the church’s premises. It stops while the lay ministers read a brief biography of the saint and acknowledge the owner, Marcos and Enrico. After the float is blessed by a priest, they proceeded home where a feast awaits those who joined the procession.