Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Passion in Paete: Lenten Traditions in a Northeast Laguna Town

The Maundy Thursday procession in Paete begins at dusk, recounting the Passion of Jesus Christ before crucifixion. The religiously images were splendidly garbed in embellished and lit carrozas.

Jeepneys ply the National Highway from Siniloan to Santa Cruz, the capital of Laguna. This is the eastern route to the southern Tagalog province that hugs the lower half the Lake of Bay, popularly called Laguna Lake, passing through the province of Rizal. The road trip is mostly scenic with the lake on one side, usually hemmed with rice fields, and the hills and mountains, the southern end of the Sierra Madre range, on the other. It goes through the towns of Famy, Pangil, Pakil, Paete, Kalayaan, Lumban and Pagsanjan, all charming and quiet.
The most interesting, perhaps, is Paete, popularly known for its woodcarving and taka, the craft of the papier-mache. The town, wedged in the middle of northeastern Laguna, is also known for its Lenten traditions. Although many of these practices are done in numerous places in the predominantly Roman Catholic country, they are more alive here, I think, more spectacular, more dramatic or more elaborate. Moreover, they are done almost twice as much. The traditions are practiced by two churches—the Roman Catholic and the Philippine Independent Church, popularly called the Aglipayan Church.
The Aglipayan Church is a breakaway group from the Catholic church, formed in the early 1900s and co-founded by a former Catholic priest, Gregorio Aglipay, in an attempt to established a national church away from Spanish colonial control. Thus, its practices and beliefs are dominantly Catholic. It is said that Paete has many Aglipayans. 
While the Holy Week traditions start on Palm Sunday, the major ones are held during Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
I arrived in Paete on Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015, as many tourists do. It was late afternoon, and at the town plaza, a sinakulo was concluding. Jesus Christ had already been crucified. Together with two other criminals similarly tortured, he was drenched in fake blood that dripped to the white loincloth and turned magenta, suggesting the use of a food coloring agent. Still, it was intense and a bit unsettling to see. The cast then gathered onstage and immediately dispersed, mingling with the crowd and having pictures taken.
The sinakulo is a major part in the commemoration of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is still practiced in several parts of the country such as Rizal, Bulacan, Pampanga, Laguna, Camarines Sur and even Metro Manila. The sinakulo, also spelled as cenakulo, or the passion play, tells of the life and suffering of Jesus Christ, and is mostly staged by local organizations, composed of members of the community, many without a background in theater. 
With bright blood and glistening costumes, I was introduced to the Lent of Paete.
The small plaza sees the most activities during this time. It is surrounded by the municipal hall, the Catholic church and Aglipayan church. A rivulet, the Paete River, separates it from the Catholic church. While most of Metro Manila slows down almost to a halt and many of its residents stay home or fly to the provinces and beaches starting Maundy Thursday, Paete is abuzz. Just after the sinakulo, the Maundy Thursday procession was gearing up.
In between, I went to the old stone church. The Church of Saint James the Apostle (Santiago Apostol) faces the lake, as many churches in this area do, with the mountains as backdrop, the foothills of Sierra Madre, and a sprawling front yard. It looks petite, and its being august owes much to the lack of paint, exposing the stone make and affecting great age. Like many churches in the Philippines, Paete’s is perhaps the oldest structure in town and is definitely a major heritage structure. The sun burnishes it with gold and russet during sunset while the moon rises behind it.
The heritage church suffered damages and series of rebuilding since the first stone church was erected in early 18th century. The facade is ornate with carvings of leaves and flowers, attributed to local artisans. Above the door is the relief of St. James, depicted as Santiago Matamoros (St. James, the Slayer of Moros). The roof is embellished with series of finials shaped like curly waves.
Upon entering the church, three imposing paintings are most noticeable, some of the old treasures of the church—two paintings of Saint Christopher and a depiction of heaven, earth and hell, attributed to Paetenian painter Josef Luciano Dans. Saint Christopher paintings, which depict the saint carrying the child Jesus across the river, are interesting. One is painted on wood panels. This was what many people know about for many years until it was brought down from the wall, revealing a mural underneath, considered older. While both depict similar scene, the saints were rendered differently. One can only surmise the reasons why a new painting was done to cover the original mural. What is plain to see is the paintings have suffered damages and are in dire need of conservation.
Outside, the statues of saints and Biblical characters were lined up along Juan V. Quesada Street, Paete’s major road named after its first mayor. They were finely dressed and were placed on carrozas or floats that were bedecked with ruffles, tassels, ribbons, wood carvings, fresh flowers, etc. Each carried their own lamps, in different shapes and designs, that illumined the images through the dark night. The float of the Hesus sa Banal na Eukaristiya or Jesus of the Holy Eucharist was laden with real bread, punctuated with grapes. Even the cordon was made of pieces of bread strung together.
The line-up of religious statues took up a whole block of the street riddled with quaint shops, souvenir stores and eateries. There were about fifty or more icons. People thronged to the place, and the narrow street looked like a fair. The processions on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are like pageantry. The Roman Catholic and the Aglipayan processions are mounted simultaneously, equally attractive and impressive. They illumined the whole town center as they wind their ways through the narrow streets. Even the heavens participated. The sunset painted the sky mauve and pale fuchsia while a little later the mountains let go a spectral moon.
The Maundy Thursday procession is inspired by the Passion of the Christ, telling the story before the crucifixion. The Paete procession is distinctive with salubongs, literally “meetings,” the points where two characters/images meet and sort of have a dialogue, which is chanted. The images, particularly the heads and arms, are made to move like puppets. The salubong is enacted three times: at the market, where Mary wipes Jesus’ face; at the Plaza Edesan, where Veronica wipes Jesus’ face; and at the plaza, where Veronica shows the three miraculous impressions of Jesus’ faces on her veil to Mary, who also shows her own impressions.
While joining the Maundy Thursday procession, we chanced upon a very quaint shop, decorated with small ball lanterns made of paper, and stopped for a while. The owner, Lino Dalay, was watching the procession with her old mother. Chatty and amiable, he invited us in and related he was a production and costume designer for films such as Halimaw sa Banga. When movie production slowed down, he packed his bags, costumes and props, and went home to Paete, opening a shop called Ang Buhay at Hugis ng Paete. The shop specializes in wood carvings and taka products as well as in using recycled materials. The place is bursting with colorful curios, knickknacks, masks, toys, home decors, etc., made with either paper or wood, particularly batikuling. The owner also founded a community theater group called Buwig Teatro ng Paete, which staged his original play based on the legend on how the lanzones or langsat, a fruit Paete is also known for, became sweet and edible. It was pinched by a mysterious woman, making the once poisonous fruit edible for the townspeople to enjoy, the folktale tells. Some say she was the Virgin Mary in disguise. Dalay insisted she was a sister of the two diwatas of popular legends, Maria Makiling and Maria Sinukuan. Unnamed, he calls her Ang Babaeng Kumurot, the Woman Who Pinched.
Beside Ang Buhay at Hugis ng Paete is a delightful coffee shop and gallery, the Kape Kesada Art Gallery. The handsome shack made of wood and reclaimed pieces of old houses was bright inside with paintings and sculptures. The chairs were of the batibot kind and old capiz-shell windows were repurposed as dividers. The café has a spacious front yard, covered with gravel and accentuated with plants and trees. It has the only open space in the town center. It has the tallest tree in the town center, boasted the owner, a dentist and art lover, who was busy watching the procession.
Just across the street, a house sheltered the Santo Entierro, literally “holy burial,” the statue of the dead Jesus Christ. The home was open for anyone who wanted to pay respect or pray. Popularly called “Senyor,” “Mahal na Senyor” or “Senyor Sepulkro,” the image had been readied for the Good Friday procession, which is more dramatic. Like most of the statues in the procession, the Santo Entierro is privately owned and cared for by a family, passed on from one generation to another. The owner or keeper is called “rekamadero.” The Santo Entierro is said to be oldest statue in the town, even older than the church. It is said to have been brought by Spanish friars from Mexico in the sixteenth century.
Paete’s most important statue had undergone ceremonies in preparation for the procession such as ritual “bathing.” It is treated with utmost care as if it is a real holy corpse. The bathing water is a combination of lambanog, the strong arrack made from coconut blossom sap of the Tagalogs, and agua de coloña. During the bathing on Holy Wednesday, after days of vigil, the image, which has movable parts, is made to sit on a chair. The clothes are reverently removed and the head covered with a scarf. It is carefully cleaned with balls of cotton. Afterwards, it is placed inside a makeshift tent or kubol of wood and white cloth for the pagsusuod or smoking. The Santo Entierro is then smoked with incense or dried langsat peelings. The practice is reminiscent of embalming traditions of Cordilleran ethnic groups. The statue is dressed in new clothes and covered with glimmering blanket. The praying of the novena accompanies all these, which take about five hours. The leftover bathing mix, believed to be sacred and miraculous, is put in small bottles to be distributed among devotees.
On Good Friday, the Santo Entierro is fetched by a group of boys and men, who will bring it to church. These boys, all in white shirts, serve as pallbearers throughout the procession.       
Inside the church on Good Friday afternoon, the Siete Palabras or Seven Last Words were recited. Several parishioners related their emotional journeys to redemption, their struggles, their testaments of faith.  
The religious statues or poons started to gather by the side of the church, most of them bearing the faces of grief and mourning, with crystalline tears on the cheeks. Encased in glass, the Santo Entierro was parked inside the church, by the entrance, surrounded by the boys. Behind it was the Mater Dolorosa, the Sorrowful Mother, dressed in black.
The Mater Dolorosa is another important religious statue of the town. Very old, it is said to be a replica made by prominent town sculptor Mariano Cagahastian Madriñan of his own original work, Mater Dolorosa, which was exhibited at an international exposition in Amsterdam and received a gold medal in 1882.
At the same time, the Aglipayans were at their own church, with their own Santo Entierro and Mater Dolorosa, which was in luminous white, and retinue of boys.
As the sun set, the Catholic statues passed by the front of the church to be blessed by the priest with holy water, amidst billows of incense. Each was introduced to the gathered people, starting with the twelve apostles. The introduction included the horrific and eccentric ways they died.
Siya ay binalatan nang buhay...” (He was flayed alive…)
Siya ay inihagis mula sa tore, at nang makitang buhay, siya'y pinagbabato at pinalo hanggang mamatay...” (He was thrown from a tower, and when found still alive, was stoned and clubbed to death…)
Siya ay biniting patiwarik at hinati ang katawan gamit ang lagari…” (He was hanged upside down and sawed in half…)
Siya ay inihagis sa kumulong langis ngunit siya ay himalang nabuhay. Siya ang pinakahuling namatay sa mga apostoles, namatay dahil sa katandaan…” (He was thrown into boiling oil, but miraculously survived. He was the last of the apostles to die, dying from old age…)
The moon, the one before the blood moon, was already rising above the church.
When the introduction of the saints was finished, the church was opened to reveal a resplendent and brightly lit Santo Entierro, and the striking Mater Dolorosa. The younger boys made noise with instruments made of bamboo tubes or wood, called matraka, from the Spanish matraca, meaning “rattle.” The Santo Entierro carriers formed a very tight group and swayed as they walked as if the Santo Entierro was dancing.  
The two processions went around the town center, taking different routes and seldom bumping into each other. Many spectators and visitors followed both, especially the Santo Entierro, going through dark alleyways and streets, like going through a maze.
The poons not included in the procession were displayed on house fronts or windows.
The Good Friday procession was a longer one, ending by eleven in the evening at the town plaza, where people snatched up the flowers that adorned the carrozas, particularly the Santo Entierro.
After this, the Paetenians would prepare for the Easter Sunday Mass, in which the male parishioners are separated from the female. Each group would escort statues of the Risen Christ and the Virgin Mary, which will meet in the middle of the churchyard.
After resting our tired feet and eating lugaw and tokwa, we decided though to return to Metro Manila. We took a jeepney to Famy to catch a bus going from Infanta, Quezon, to Manila. At one in the morning, we were at a junction in Famy. The boys eating balut at a stall was talking about a man who had just been stabbed. Drunk teenage boys lounged by a street island and a monument, talking loudly and speeding off with their skateboards. A group arrived, bought beer at a 7-Eleven store and drank outside. A girl, who seemed to be with Down’s syndrome, was singing her lungs out at one dark corner. A couple arrived and seated near us at the bus terminal. The man shouted at the woman for nagging or something. The woman, with peroxide blonde hair, talked about leaving his boyfriend. The child she was carrying began having tantrums. By the dark road going Manila, there has a huge sign, the logo of Red Horse, a local beer brand which had become a rite of passage for many, including mine. It was uncharacteristically cold that morning. Maybe it was the breeze from the mountain. Maybe it was from the coming typhoon. I cradled a souvenir from Paete, a miniature red taka horse, a reminder of childhood and innocence, and now of spectacle, sacrifice and sanctity.     

The old Saint James the Apostle Church of Paete.

The old paintings of Josef Luciano Dans inside the  Saint James the Apostle Church of Paete.
Road going to Paete town center

A denser part of Paete

The sinakulo at the plaza.

Souvenir and carved wood shops abound in Paete

The religious statues are readied and lined-up along Paete's main street

The Philippine Independent Church in Paete, also gearing up for the procession.

Carroza escorts wear uniform shirts. This is the most beautiful of them.
Preparing for the Good Friday procession at the side of the Paete Catholic church
At the Aglipayan Church, boys and men who will carry the Santo Entierro wait.
The Mater Dolorosa and the Santo Entierro inside the church before the procession.

The Catholic boys

The Mater Dolorosa of the Aglipayan Church
The Good Friday procession
The Santo Entierro inside the home of its caretakers, bathed and prepared a few days ago.

The images were blessed one by one at the start of the procession.

Younger boys make noise to signal the coming of the Santo Entierro

The religious statues, when not in procession, are displayed.

Ang Buhay at Hugis ng Paete shop

The owner's mother whose portrait of a younger self hangs on the background.
Miniature taka horses.
Kape Kesada Art Gallery

In Famy