The government has been promoting the Philippines as an exotic tourist destination by highlighting the numerous festivals celebrated in the provinces. There is nothing wrong with this approach. After all, tourism creates jobs and other livelihood opportunities. It can bring substantial investments in the countryside. But profit should not be the only goal of tourism. Respect of local traditions should be highlighted as well.
Over the past years, cultural festivals have been commercialized. Local traditions have been infused with a modern twist to attract and entertain more tourists. This is bastardization of culture. Bureaucrats are now more concerned with the marketability of festivals. Last month, the Department of Tourism conducted a seminar workshop on festival management in Region 8 in order to teach Samarenos the “correct way” of celebrating their own local traditions.
Merrymaking is overemphasized which prevents many people from appreciating the histories of festivals. For example, Flores de Mayo is celebrated every month of May. It is a procession honoring the Virgin Mary. The Santacruzan re-enacts the search of Queen Elena for the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. Today it is reduced into a simple parade of beautiful ladies in many parts of the country.
The Obando Festival is popular among couples who want to bear children. Originally, it was a festival which involved different dance rituals honoring three patron saints: St. Paschal, St. Claire and Our Lady of Salambaw – the patroness of fishermen.
The Ati-Atihan and Dinagyang festivals are celebrated to honor the Infant Jesus. But showbiz stars are grabbing the limelight when they organize shows during these events.
The annual Kadayawan Festival celebrates the good harvest of crops, vegetables, fruits and orchids in Davao City. But Kadayawan used to showcase the Lumad culture of Mindanao. Tribal leaders are complaining that Kadayawan festivities “hardly depict the struggle of Mindanao’s indigenous peoples to pursue their unique way of life and retain control of their ancestral lands.” Even Davao City officials admit that Kadayawan had “lost track of its indigenous beginnings and has turned commercial and too tourist-oriented.”
The Baguio Flower Festival or Panagbenga is celebrated at the time of the year when plants start blossoming in the Cordillera region. Panagbenga was conceived in 1995 to symbolize Baguio’s comeback after the July 16, 1990 earthquake. But Cordillera activists note that over the years, the festival “has destroyed the real essence of the Cordillera peoples’ ethnic culture.” They added that Panagbenga has been reduced “as a profit-driven tourism event capitalizing on the culture of the Cordillera indigenous peoples.”
Even politicians have used the Panagbenga to campaign during elections. Remember the senatoriable who joined the parade by riding on a horse? How about the politician who performed a Cordillera dance ritual to the tune of Boom Tarat Tarat?
Many people have already forgotten the reasons why festivals are organized. The Concerned Artists of the Philippines said “Fiestas are originally celebrations for a good harvest and pleas for a bountiful next. These are community affairs that affirm and reinforce the spirit of bayanihan or collectivity.”
The Pahiyas Festival in Lucban and Sariaya, Quezon is a thanksgiving festival to San Isidro Labrador for the past year’s bountiful harvest. The event is popular for the hanging of fruits and vegetables in the houses of residents. The Tinagba Festival in Iloilo City is a harvest-offering activity for Our Lady of Lourdes. Farmers organize a parade using carabao-drawn carts filled with agricultural products while Agtas come down from the mountains to dance.
Festivals also remind us of our colorful past. Cotabato City commemorates the arrival of Shariff Kabunsuan and Islam to Mindanao every December. Binabayani Festival re-enacts the war between the Aetas and the Christians through dance in Olongapo. Sanduguan Festival recaps the first contact between the inhabitants of Mindoro and traders from China. Halaran pays tribute to the history and culture of Capizeños during pre-Hispanic times. Balanghai Festival in Butuan highlights the coming of the early migrants from Borneo and Celebes.
Festivals should showcase the richness of Filipino culture. They celebrate the yearning of Filipinos for a more prosperous living. They depict the people’s struggles to overcome the difficulties of life. Sadly, festivals today are celebrated to make the tourists happy. Profit comes first before culture. Festivities lose their cultural and social relevance as commercialization rears its ugly head. In short, festivals become “organized spectacles.”
Festivals are celebrated “with a sense of surface glitter and transitory participatory pleasure, of display and ephemerality.” They reflect what cultural theorist Fredric Jameson calls the “contrived depthlessness” of modern cultural production. In some way, the Pagoda Festival tragedy in Bocaue, Bulacan during the 1990s symbolically foretold the cultural decline in the Philippines.
Festivals are considered by the government as peaceful, politically-neutral and exotic tourist attractions. But festivals can also be “an essential aspect of a revolutionary movement.” Didn’t Lenin refer to the revolution as the “festival of people?”
Organizing festivals today can radicalize certain segments of the population. What if farmers realized there is no bountiful harvest to celebrate because of the bad agricultural policies of the government? What if the Bicol Food Festival in Naga encouraged the people to ask policymakers to do something about rising food prices? The Baguio Flower Festival could be used to highlight the insane policy of promoting cash crops instead of food production.
The rice and food crisis have provoked food riots in many countries. The government believes no such thing can ever happen in the Philippines. On the other hand, festival protests are distinct possibilities.