07 October 2009

Postscript to Peñafrancia

Note: I wrote the first draft of this entry last September 28, a week after the fiesta.

To a non-catholic, Daet Bishop Gilbert Garcera’s homily after the fluvial procession would not have mattered much if not for Jonas Soltes’s note that appeared on my Facebook. Apparently, Bishop Garcera’s fiery denunciation of the media -- for sensationalizing the melee involving a voyador and a priest -- did not spare the city government.

A paragraph from the homily however struck me, and I would like to highlight it because to my mind, it mirrors the thinking of the local Catholic leadership in regard to the fiesta:

Third, I appeal to the FUTURE MAYORS OF NAGA CITY AND ALL GOVERNMENT AGENCIES IN NAGA CITY - to facilitate a prayerful atmosphere for pilgrims during the month of September especially during the novenario to Ina and the Divino Rostro. It’s VIVA Naga because of Ina. Without Ina, September will simply be another insignificant month in the calendar of the city. (Underscoring mine)
The claim, however, is problematic from a historical point of view. Because 111 years ago, on September 18, 1898 to be exact, a regiment of indio civil guards led by Corporals Elias Angeles and Felix Plazo led a successful uprising that successfully ended Spanish rule in Ambos Camarines.

In fact, as described in Joe Barrameda’s newly launched historical novel recreating the events leading up to the battle for Nueva Caceres, the Spanish colonial government would later surrender to the victorious Naguenos at around 2 o’clock of the following day.

It is precisely for this reason that the Sangguniang Panlungsod, through Ordinance 2006-050 as amended by Ordinance No. 2007-032, established September 19 as the “Aldaw nin Katalinkasan sa España.” Further, it mandates the city government to formulate annual programs, plans and activities that will promote and perpetuate the significance of that date in the City of Naga.

I will not blame Monsignor Garcera for making that flippant claim because like him, I too have always equated September with the Peñafrancia Fiesta -- and the convenient respite from work it brings me as a non-catholic -- because that is what tradition has always made us believe. Were it not for the efforts of local historians Danny Gerona, Joe Obias and Joe Barrameda, I wouldn’t have realized the importance of September 18-19 and thereby continued to wallow in ignorance of a most glorious event in our history as a city.

Come to think of it, for more than 100 years now, what has been the effect of Bishop Jorge Barlin’s effort in 1905 to move the celebration of Peñafrancia Fiesta from July to September? Intended or not, it is to overshadow and effectively erase those glorious two days from our memory, when they should actually be celebrated as a high point in our history as a freedom-loving people.

The only other event that would match it was in April 1945 when the Tancong Vaca guerilla units led by Major Juan Q. Miranda successfully liberated Naga from the Japanese Imperial forces way before MacArthur landed in Leyte Bay. In these two occasions, victory was achieved through a purely Bikolano effort, with no external help extended to the locals.

Yes folks, as a Bicol Mail editorial raised which JoeBar’s latest work answers, when Angeles and Plazo surprised the numerically superior and better armed Spanish forces in Nueva Caceres at around 11 o’clock on September 18, 1898, the city had already celebrated the Peñafrancia fiesta -- as it had previously been doing every July.

What took place in Naga in those fateful days was a “triduum for a tranquilizer” of the restless indio population as Barrameda describes it, with the winds of war in Manila having already reached Daet in the northern part of Ambos Camarines five months earlier. Clearly, it was not the nine-day celebration that the Catholic establishment now wants to keep free of intruders and intrusion.

When the Church of Caceres finally marks 300 years of the Peñafrancia devotion next year, September 18 will fall on a Saturday, coinciding with the fluvial procession, and 19 on the final day of the festivities itself. Thus, this year’s skirmishes and post-fiesta recriminations will, in all probability, come back to haunt Naga again. (It will, for sure, be an election issue in 2010.)

But whether the city government, under a new mayor, will fold and bow to the Church’s wishes -- as Garcera’s homily desires -- or whether it will continue to grow a backbone and assert its right to celebrate those two glorious days in September 111 years ago remain to be seen.

What is clear though is that viewed from the prism of history, this heroic act of the sons of Handiong predated the Peñafrancia fiesta in September; hence, it is incorrect to claim that without the fiesta, September will just be another insignificant month in the city's calendar. This therefore calls for some more give-and-take, and not hardening of positions, by both sides. Its recognition of this historical fact will go a long way in mending the frayed church-state relations that has characterized the final year of the Robredo administration.