I can feel my neck sweating under the scorching heat. It´s exactly four in the afternoon and the Plaça dels Àngels is teeming with curious onlookers and participants. We are waiting for the arrival of Ambassador Carlos Salinas. Jordi Puig, the Honorary Consul makes it clear that we can´t start without the ambassador. The flag bearers are getting impatient. I walk towards the stage, signal to the hosts to explain the slight delay and entertain the crowd a little bit.
“The ambassador is here!” I wave at the leader of the flag bearers to get ready. Showtime! Twenty eight flags are now dancing in the air. The drummers start beating the drums. To call the attention of the crowd, Elmar Dimayuga, walks through the sea of flags carrying a conch shell. Slowly raising the shell near his mouth, he acts as if he is blowing it. The sound operator plays the sound effect. The strong sound of the shell echoes all over the square as the audience is caught unawares. It seems convincing. Later after the show, a friend told me that he really thought the sound came from the shell and not just a recorded sound effect.
Parading in the middle of the flag bearers, leaders and representatives of various Filipino associations walk proudly while holding their respective banners. The last one to enter is the bearer of the big Philippine flag. While the big flag sails through a wave of smaller flags towards the stage, nine-year-old Elrome de la Cueva sings the a cappella version of the “Pilipinas kong Mahal” onstage. Everybody stands in silence watching the big flag undulates to the sweet voice of Elrome. I can hear some singing along. A few are misty-eyed. It is such a touching moment. The flag bearer climbs up the stage and waves the flag in front of everybody. The show has officially started.
How I became part of it
My independence day journey started after I got a call from the Honorary Consul inviting me to direct the main program of the Philippine independence day celebration. I was adamant. As a matter of fact, I initially said no to myself. I had already heard things about how chaotic and messy the meetings were. Someone even warned me that I was going to be giving myself a lot of headaches if I jumped in. However, after talking to various leaders of the Filipino community in Barcelona, I eventually said yes. I was to be a part of the Program Committee with the task of conceptualizing a different kind of show never seen yet in Barcelona. I prayed for ideas.
The religious leaders have finished with the ecumenical prayers. Up go the choir members to sing the national anthem. I look around. There are already lot of people in all corners of the place. The Honorary Consul readies to give his speech. Unity and integration are two strong words that he wants to stress in his speech. As a symbol of unity, he invites the Filipino leaders present to join him onstage. Later in his speech, he highlights the importance of integration and so he requests the Centro Filipino Children Choir to come up the stage to sing a Catalan song. The next speaker, Sr. Carles Domingo, Comisionado de Relaciones Institucionales del Ayuntamiento de Barcelona, who is representing the Mayor of Barcelona congratulates the whole community on this special day and for being active in the Catalan society. After the invited guest, it is the turn of the ambassador to address the crowd.
Colors, colors and lots of colors!
Massive participation. This was the special request from the Honorary Consul when we were brainstorming and searching for a new and vibrant concept. After all, Independence day doesn’t belong to a small group of people. It belongs to the whole Filipino community. We needed to enjoin everybody to come and participate. He wanted something different. The first thought that came to mind when I was thinking of a concept for the show was: COLORS. LOTS OF COLORS. AND FUN! Together with Nico Cueto, Jenny Adarlo and initially, Loida Alcantara, we came up with a very festive celebration. The show would be divided into three parts: the formalities, the cultural dances and the fun part. In the cultural part, five groups of dancers in colorful costumes would dance on the ground close to the audience. And we are talking of 25 – 40 participants in each group. That would be around 180 participants, so to speak. It would be a competition to encourage the dancers to give their best and would surely create excitement among the spectators. The whole new concept would motivate a lot of people to join. This celebration would totally be different from the past celebrations. Our enthusiasm was overflowing, we were very excited. Well, not for long though.
Not long enough, the second part of the show begins. The first guest performers are the dancers of Barcelona Dance Athletes. Dancing to the tune of well-loved Filipino folksongs, the performers, mostly small girls strut and glide on the ground to the thunderous applause from the audience. My gaze goes skyward. Gray skies threaten to rain on our show. Some have already opened their umbrellas. I pleadingly look at the dark clouds above us. Hear ye clouds, no throwing of tantrums now!
Of bullet proof jacket and Wonder Woman´s wristbands
Somebody threw the proposal papers on the table. The day to present the proposal to the rest of the organizing committee came. “Group dance? Who would join this thing?” “Nobody would participate in this! Magulo ito!” “A competition? What competition!” No! Nein! Niet! No can do! I should have worn a bullet proof jacket before coming to the meeting. They wanted to have the same show as last year. No expenses. No complications. Every time we pronounced a new idea, snipers would shoot us down. “This is the concept…” Bang! “I would like to suggest…” Ka-blam! “It will be something like…” Bang! Bang! Bang! Note to self: Next meeting, bring my Wonder Woman power wristbands and Captain America´s super shield to fight more bullets!
Bullets of raindrops suddenly fall as the second performers are halfway in their performance. The group calls themselves Falcons de Barcelona which is a team of Castellers. They are now assembling to form a seven-level human tower to the delight of the half-soaked public. Donning white overalls with red waistbands, adults form the pinya or the bottom base and the small kids, trained at an early age, slowly and carefully crawl up to the top to complete the tower. I later learn that there is a Filipino family in the group: Lucy, the mom and her two kids, Nicole and Xavi. As their final act, young Nicole climbs up the top of the tower and unfurls the big Philippine flag. The whole place is shaken by loud cheers and whistles.
We remained unshaken. Several grueling meetings later, the budget was chopped, cut and sliced. Undaunted, we met with several groups to join and participate and it was overwhelming to receive a positive display of support and the willingness to be part of the show regardless of the tight budget. Although we dropped the idea of a competition, we held our ground. We stood by our original concept: five groups dancing to five cultural dances, all to be performed on the ground, not onstage.
¡Damas y Caballeros, les presentamos nuestras danzas!
Onstage, the hosts introduce the first cultural dancers: the BIBAK group. One of the most important dances of the Bontoc people of Mountain Province is the war dance called Balangbang. It is intended to celebrate or bless the warriors who are going to a battle. Dancing to the rhythm of the gong and donning the traditional costume, the performers dance in a hide-and-seek fashion acting as if they are slaying the enemy. The name “Balangbang” came from the sound produced when striking the gong as it communicates to the spectators the slaying of the enemy. With an appreciative crowd in front of them, the BIBAK dancers give their all, barefoot and wet.
The crowd is under the spell of the the Ati-atihan dancers composed of the ABME members or the Associacion Bisayan ug Mindanaoan en Espanya. With their eye-catching headdresses made of feathers and dried leaves and glittery red tops and black leotards coupled with spears and shields, they easily catch the attention of the crowd. Even the grumpy clouds too. The rain has stopped and the sun has come out. The Ati-atihan festival is celebrated in January in honor of the Infant Jesus or the Sto. Niño. “Ati-atihan” means “to be like Aetas”. Aestas were said to be the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines. Although I have never been to Aklan, Antique, I perfectly recall my childhood days when we would gather in front of the television to watch the festivities in great awe. The fast and precise moves of the ABME dancers and the outrageous costumes complete the excitement that is now in full swing in the whole Plaça dels Àngels.
Not to be outdone are the youths of the PYC/MFYA group bringing the Masskara festival in Barcelona. Watching the lively twenty-six dancers in their colorful outfits and their elaborate masks reminiscent of Carnivale di Venezia, I am quickly transported back to my days in Bacolod where I would brave the sun just to watch the street dances and the main dance competition at the city public plaza. I can even smell chicken inasal and La Paz batchoy while watching the PYC/MFYA dancers as they sashay and shake their hips to the joyous beat of Volare with gusto. The crowd is having a good time. First held in 1980 where the province of Negros Occidental was experiencing one tragedy after the other, an economic crisis where the price of sugar hit an all-time low and the sinking of MV Don Juan that took an estimated of 700 lives, many of whom were from Negros, the Maskara festival was created by the city government of Bacolod in the hope of lifting up the melancholic mood of the people. From then on, the festival has been celebrated every third weekend of October.
“Don´t be shy girls! You are all princesses! I want to see all chins up in the air!” This was my last minute pep-talk to the VizMin ladies during their last practice yesterday as I found some of them shy and holding back. So when it is now their turn to do their version of the Kapa Malong Malong, I am very thrilled that they are dancing so elegantly and queenly. Kapa Malong Malong is a Maranao dance that shows the many ways of wearing a malong. The malong, common among Maranaos, T´bolis and the people of Maguindanao has a lot of functions. It can be worn as a skirt, a turban, a dress or a blanket. With their hair neatly tied in a bun regally adorned with pearls, the VizMin dancers maneuver with their green, red and violet traditional tube skirts with elegance and ease. And yes, all those chins are all up in the air!
Singkil dance is a famous Maranao dance that narrates the story of a princess named Gandingan who was caught in the middle of a forest during an earthquake caused by the forest fairies or the diwatas. The name Singkil was derived from the bells worn on the ankles of the Muslim princess and also means “to entangle the feet with obstructing objects in ones path”. Complete with props and native musical instruments, the last group is treating the audience a taste of pomp and pageantry. Composed of adults and children, all garbed in traditional Maranao costumes and wearing solemn faces, the dancers of St. James Episcopal professionally display their dignified steps and movements dancing at a slow pace and soon progresses to a faster beat as the princess and her prince weave through criss-crossed bamboos. All eyes are fixed on their feet with bated breath.
It is more fun to be Pinoy
As the last Singkil dancer leaves the dance floor, the third part of the show, which I aptly call it´s-fun-to-be-a-Pinoy part or simply the FUN part, has finally commenced. Up and coming Filipino singing talents in Barcelona such as Alvin Collado, Janet Rotor, Dianne Ico, Michaela Cañero, Mariz Molina Perez and Maria Sagana together with pianist Marina Gomez and guitarist AC Saulug take turns onstage regaling the crowd with their exquisite voices and happy music. Also invited is the Barcelona Choral Asia which renders several Asian songs. Winners of the raffle are drawn in between performances.
It ain´t over ´til it´s over. As the crowd has already thought that the show is about to end, they are once again treated to a surprise by the last performers: the Zumberas. Composed of about 50 grandmothers, mothers and single ladies who attend Zumba classes every weekend, they groove to the beat of salsa and hip hop showing off their Zumba moves. Headed by Claire de Sagun Rivera, a cancer survivor, it aims to inspire our kababayans to take care of their health, get fit and enjoy. After all, life is not always work, work and work. I see several Zumberas pulling some onlookers to join in. Is that the Honorary Consul shaking his hips?
And so, like in every show, it´s time for the curtain call as the program has come to a close. As I step down the stage after the hosts have finally recited their goodbyes, I survey the place. It´s ten o´clock in the evening but the crowd is still thick. I see the tired faces of the two Ati-atihan dancers who are lazily holding their headdresses. A few feet away is a member of the Masskara group sitting on the ground hugging her mask.
As I walk away from the stage, It dawns on me that new ideas are always possible. I am so glad our group fought for this concept. It was hard and stressful but we made it through. We are lucky to have a wonderful crew especially May Sangalang, Shiela Saludo, Arnel German; Harry Liangco, our competent sound operator; Gina Kearn, Ritzie Anne Taruna, Glenn Bernardo, Elmar Dimayuga and Krystel Cayari, our amiable hosts plus the support of the whole organizing body in collaboration with various associations. Of course, we are very happy for having a wonderful audience who despite the threat of impending drizzles, they stayed put and celebrated the show with us.
The real shades of independence
Celebrating this special day is a group effort. Nobody can do this alone. That is why, I always wonder why independence day celebrations cause gaps among its organizing members. Somebody has told me about what happened in one European city where the Filipino community saw four independence day celebrations because their leaders couldn´t agree with themselves.
We may now be independent from any foreign forces but are we independent from our personal interests and egoistic ideas? Are we capable of blocking negativity to get in the way of a very special day of celebration? When will we learn to put them aside, open our minds and work in harmony with each other? This celebration is only for one day, for crying out loud.
For all its worth, I feel very lucky to have directly participated in this year´s independence day celebration. I was able to see the true colors of independence, literally and figuratively.
Note: An edited version of this article was published in Roots and Wings magazine. We are publishing the original article as requested by the author and our columnist.