“Sa Laoag ba nagsimula ang sabong? Taga-Laoag ba si San Pedro?” These questions were raised by one of the official commentators at the 2014 Aliwan Fiesta, the country’s biggest festival of festivals staged last Saturday at the CCP Complex in Pasay City. The commentator, who said he is also Ilocano, was bewildered when the Laoag City contingent interpreted the Pamulinawen Festival as cockfighting. Such bewilderment, dear karikna, was shared by a whole nation, or at least those who saw the event in person, through television broadcast or on the Internet.
But before I proceed with my humble observations, let me express my admiration for the 300-plus strong Laoag City contingent who gave their all in their performance. I am personally aware of how hard they labored, how much they sacrificed, and how they put their heart every step of the way to make their city proud. Kudos to their stellar production team headed by Christian Espiritu, an exceptionally talented performance artist; to all the support staff, dancers, propsmen, instrumentalists, singers, designers, sewers, cooks, architects, engineers, and other volunteers—all of whom were passionate in carrying out their respective roles. Credit also goes, of course, to the City Government of Laoag led by Mayor Chevylle Fariñas who supported the group.
Having said these, there was no question, dear karikna, about the Laoag contingent’s dedication and talent. The bewilderment comes from what is really the most important element of any authentic festival: the story. An event or ritual significant to the history and culture of a people, a particular agricultural product, means of livelihood, food, animal, or plant endemic to the place—these are highlighted in festivals. In short, they are about something a place and its people are truly proud of and thankful for.
Pamulinawen as sabong? While it is true that some Ilocanos may be involved in pallot (Ilocano for cockfighting), there is no proof either that such gambling activity started here or that we are doing it here more than anywhere else. It is questionable, too, whether among many things we can choose to celebrate, this gruesome hobby is really what we take pride in.
So why the choice of story? Inside sources say the pallot narrative was picked because it is a “winning piece.” This is because scenes inside the cockpit are really exciting and colourful. Given the lively character of more popular festivals like Cebu’s Sinulog, Iloilo’s Dinagyang, Bacolod’s MassKara, or Kalibo’s Ati-atihan, Pamulinawen organizers probably wanted something really flashy, although flashy is not really Ilocano.
Year after year, the Sinulog—this year’s Grand Champion—commemorates the Filipino people’s pagan origin, and their acceptance of Roman Catholicism. Dinagyang—which decided not to join this year because they have won too often in the Aliwan and are now setting their sights on international exhibitions—narrates the arrival on Panay of Malay settlers and the subsequent selling of the island to them by the Atis. It also celebrates the coming of the image of the Sto. Niño to Iloilo. These stories—the same stories—are told consistently, over and over, whenever the Sinulog or Dinagyang are presented. There may be variations in choreography, props, or costume, but the respective narratives are always told faithfully.
All these years, Pamulinawen has not outgrown its confusion. In 2009, the last time Laoag joined the Aliwan Fiesta, Pamulinawen portrayed fishing as an old Ilocano practice although in this country of over 7,000 islands, fishing is really common fare. In the Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival of Festivals, Pamulinawen has been portrayed as blacksmith trade (2011), courtship (2012), and songwriting (2013). It was in the Mini Tan-ok Dance Competition last February that Pamulinawen became pallot.
This, dear karikna, is rather sorry. Few people know that Pamulinawen Festival is actually older than many Philippine Festivals, the Sinulog (1980) and Dinagyang (1977) included. With the help of local historian Pepito Alvarez, I have personally seen a souvenir program of the Pamulinawen Festival initiated in the 1950s when Ferdinand Marcos was still a congressman and Carlos P. Garcia was the Philippine president. Meant to highlight Ilocano culture and to bring it to fore in the national consciousness, various events were staged by the provincial government not only in Ilocos, but in various venues in Metro Manila as well. For some reason, the festival was not held for some time until it was revived in the early 1990s under the administration of Laoag Mayor Ernesto Tamayo. It was then that Laoag adopted the Pamulinawen, previously a provincial event, as a city festival.
Through the decades, dear karikna, Laoag has failed miserably to shape and define the Pamulinawen Festival. Maybe there are other priorities over cultural and historical integrity? Could it be politics, a showbiz mindset, or obsession about malls? I personally heard a top choreographer respond to someone who asked how the conceptualized the Pamulinawen dance routine was conceptualized: “Charing-charingan lang,” he said. The choreographer may have said this in half-jest, but this helps us understand why the Pamulinawen continues to suffer a crisis of identity.
And what about the viewers, especially the non-Ilocano ones, do we really want them to believe that Pamulinawen, and, by induction, Ilocano culture, is about pallot?
Artists are powerful individuals; they could even be more influential than politicians, for they shape their people’s consciousness, help them define their identity, and empower them to preserve their heritage while embracing evolution and change. Any artist who sees his value only by the trophies he has won is underestimating, even insulting, himself.
Laoag City ranked fourth in Aliwan Fiesta 2014. While this may be an achievement, the choreographers are apparently unhappy because they know they could have done better. They could have won second or first, they say. They put the blame on faulty props made by the Laoag City Engineering Department.
Sadly, they regret the faulty props, but not the questionable story.
I am proud that Laoag, my beloved city, has potentially excellent artists. Destined for greatness, they will be on top—better than everyone else—I am sure, in the next editions of Aliwan and more.
Meantime, let’s take on the challenge of narrating our true and meaningful story. And on this artistic struggle outside the cockpit, we must not chicken out.