Friday, June 18, 2010

St. Martha's Duckyard

Noong 1988, humigit-kumulang sa 25 taon pagkaraang sulatin ko ang tulang “Awit sa Ilog Pateros,” sinulat ko naman ang isang maikling artikulo tungkol sa Pateros para sa isang magasing wala na ngayon, ang National Midweek. Ako pa ang editor ng magasin nang lumabas ang artikulo sa isyung may petsang Abril 27, 1988.

Ang sumusunod ay isang slightly revised version na nalathala sa antolohiyang Writing Home: Nineteen Writers Remember Their Hometowns, edited by Ruel S. de Vera (Anvil Publishing, 2002).


TOURISTS often have to pass some kind of native test to prove that when in Rome they are quite capable of doing whatever repulsive thing the Romans can do. For political tourists in Manila, the test these days is climbing Smokey Mountain; but for the general run of squeamish visitors the usual test is still eating balut.

Balut is what my mother’s hometown, Pateros, is known for. Pateros is Spanish for duck raisers or duck farmers or duckers, if there’s such a word. It was formerly part of Rizal province; now it’s part of Metro Manila; but it’s such a small town the local joke is that, from the poblacion, when you turn one corner you’re in Pasig, when you turn the opposite corner you’re in Taguig, and when you cross the bridge you’re in Fort Bonifacio, Makati.

Among neighboring towns Pateros is known not only for balut, which we normally pronounce and spell as balot, but also for its bright felt-covered slippers, known as alfombra (which the local gentry wore even to church and formal occasions), its cenaculo, and its Holy Week processions. Pateros still has all those attractions, but these days the balutans, or balut factories, have to import all their duck eggs from Laguna. That’s because virtually all the duck farms are gone, and that’s because there’s virtually nothing left of the Pateros River.

For more than a decade now this tributary of the Pasig River has been dying a slow death from the poisons and chemical wastes and the garbage dumped into the Pasig. The strip of water that remains in Pateros is choked with waterlilies the whole year round. It’s such a thin and shallow strip you can almost wade across to the other side. Political candidates always promise to have the thing dredged, but the last time I looked, the land borders of Pateros and Fort Bonifacio seemed about to meet.

I can still remember when the river was big enough to swim in. It was already dirty and smelly back then, but the dirt and the smell came from the ducks and the laundry and the human waste, which prevented finicky souls like myself from learning to swim but which, at least, were not river-killers. It was a river big enough for the the annual fluvial procession to St. Martha.

The official patron saint of Pateros is San Roque, but for some reason it is Santa Marta whose feast day we celebrate. The feast day of Santa Marta, the biblical virgin who attended to the household chores when everybody else was listening to Jesus, is in July, but again for some reason (probably because July is rainy season) we insist on celebrating on the second Sunday of February.

The story is told that when one of my mother’s forebears, Lorenzo Quiogue, was swimming or perhaps performing his morning ablutions in the river, a huge crocodile appeared and threatened to make duckmeat out of him. He prayed posthaste to St. Martha (I don’t know why he didn’t pray to St. Roch; perhaps virgins make better intercessors), and she obligingly zapped the crocodile. This is, of course, the story told by Lorenzo Quiogue’s descendants, who in eternal gratitude converge on Pateros from all over the world for an annual celebration in August.

Another version of the story is that the crocodile was decimating the ducks when the duckers prayed to St. Martha. As in the first version, she answered the prayers by zapping the crocodile. Ever since then Pateros has honored the virgin saint with a river procession.

When I was a boy the centerpiece of the fluvial procession was a floral arch mounted on a platform carried by three or four bancas lashed together. On this makeshift but elaborately decorated vessel, known among tagailogs as a pagoda, women in balintawak and men in kundiman pants (those red pajamas that Katipuneros wore) would be dancing, and for many of them it was a fertility dance, as in Obando. I can still recall fragments from an early poem I wrote:

Martha, Martha, friend of Jesus,

intercede for us and bring

bring the surge the sway of dancing

into flat bellies and dehydrated skins.

Directly in front of or behind the pagoda was a large colorful wooden crocodile atop a towed banca, and above the crocodile danced, in hieratic frenzy, an old man in harlequin’s costume. In one hand he carried a wooden scimitar; in his other hand, a fishing pole. From the pole hang, like bait, a little plastic doll, obviously a fertility symbol.

A procession of bancas sandwiched the pagoda. The bancas were loaded with goodies bought along by people who had had their prayers answered by St. Martha and who had therefore made a panata, a vow, to express their thanks by showering the watchers on the shore with mangoes, turnips, boiled saba bananas, candies, suman, even balut and red-dyed itlog na maalat.

The river procession was always in the late afternoon. By the time it reached the river’s end darkness had set, and the virgin saint’s image would be taken down from the pagoda and taken back to church in another dancing procession: literally dancing in the streets! an orgy of dancing in the streets. I once thought of writing a short story with the Pateros fiesta as backdrop, but was afraid it would sound too much like Nick Joaquin’s story on San Juan’s tatarin.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have abandoned the project. Unless the Pateros River gets dredged, the pagoda could die like the tatarin, and be remembered only as an element in a writer’s story. On the other hand, if the river does get dredged and the pagoda is restored to its former glory, there is danger—now that the original religious and ritualistic impulse of the fiesta is gone and only its mercantile possibilities remain—that it would be transformed into a commercialized tourist undertaking like Aklan’s ati-atihan and Marinduque’s morion.

I don’t know which prospect I dread more.

-- Jose F. Lacaba

From: Writing Home: Nineteen Writers Remember Their Hometowns, edited by Ruel S. de Vera (Anvil Publishing, 2002).

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