The Queen of the Virgins winningly waves to the crowd. She signals her two escorts to slow down to pose for the three giggling German tourists who are now aiming their cameras at her. After several shots, one of the tourists thanks the queen and gamely gives her majesty a shy curtsy. Everybody laughs. The queen releases a hearty giggle. Passersby, mainly Spanish locals and tourists stop for a while intrigued by what is happening in this long and narrow street of Calle Hospital on a warm and humid Sunday afternoon. A procession is taking place. Complete with young queens and their escorts all donning Filipiniana-inspired costumes.
“¿Santacruzan? Eso qué es?” Asks a confused señora who is standing outside her shop trying to make out of the procession. The Queen of the Virgins, who doesn’t speak Spanish that well, signals one of her escorts to answer the old lady and tell her what Santacruzan is. “Ah Filipinas…pero bueno, muy interesante eh.” Is all she can muster as the Queen of the Virgins and her escorts carry on with the procession heading towards the heart of Raval before reaching their final destination, the San Lorenzo Ruiz parish church.
Every year, when spring is in full swing, and the temperature rises by a fair bit and rain showers come far and between, Filipinos in Barcelona take this opportunity to celebrate the fifth month of the year with a lot of pomp and pageantry just exactly how it is being celebrated at home. Being once a colony of Spain, we share with the Spaniards a deep sense of passion for honoring our saints.
The Barrio of Raval, considered to be one of the most colorful neighborhoods in Barcelona, literally and figuratively, is the best place to hold these events. Raval is home to a mix of mismatched and undeniably interesting characters; a melting pot of all sorts of personalities. You have the intellectuals, the artists, the pickpockets and the layabouts. There are the Catalans and the Spaniards. The Pakistanis, Eastern Europeans, Latinos, Africans, gypsies and the sometimes-lost-but-more-often-curious tourists. Not to be missed are the four to five thousand Filipinos along the many streets of Raval especially Joaquin Costa and Valdonzella so much so that among Pinoys, Raval is often considered to be Barcelona´s Little Pinas. There are a number of Filipino restaurants, grocery shops, remittance banks and barber shops scattered all over the neighborhood that automatically gives a newly arrived Pinoy the impression that he will not feel homesick after all. Because of Raval´s multi-faceted environment, this neighborhood is no longer new to all kinds of cultural activities, come rain come shine.
For the Filipino community, kicking off the merriment is the Día Filipiniana y Convivencia organized by Centro Filipino (with the support of Barcelona City Hall and the Philippine Consulate) which falls on the second week of May. When Centro Filipino was founded in 1986, it has been instrumental in promoting Filipino culture in Barcelona. One of its programs is the Iskwelang Pinoy, a non-formal education offered to Filipino children who were born in Spain. Students learn religion, Tagalog, English and the Philippine history. For years now, the Iskwelang Pinoy has been holding “Dia Filipiniana y Convivencia” as the school´s culminating activity before its final graduation at the end of May emphasizing the importance of Filipino culture and integration to the citizens of the host city. Students (aged 4 to 12 years old) proudly show off their baro´t sayas and barongs and enthusiastically recite poems, sing Filipino songs and dance to traditional music in front of a culturally mixed audience. Even if they don’t understand a thing, several tourists and locals show their appreciation by applauding heartily after the kids have recited Jose Rizal´s “Sa Aking Mga Kababata” with gusto. The people behind the Filipiniana project also aims to connect with other cultures. Every year, they invite groups of different nationalities to perform and showcase their own music, dances and costumes. Bangladeshi dancers and Peruvian performers strut their stuff on stage adding more colors to an already lively show.
Talking about the month of May is never complete without mentioning the flowers and the Virgin Mary. Being Catholics, tradition dictates us to offer flowers to our Mother Mary as a sign of our love and respect. Flores de Mayo, which is also known as Flores de Maria is being observed during every mass for a month at the San Agustin church or popularly known as the Filipino Personal Parish sitting majestically on the Plaza de San Agustin. Throngs of faithful devotees fill the church full to offer flowers and songs of praises to Mama Mary. Flowers and more flowers flood at the foot of the Virgin all-month-round.
When I was a child, I remember how I used to look forward to the arrival of May. The first two weeks were a welcome treat to the eyes as flowers of all shapes and sizes started to bloom in our garden in my hometown in Bacolod. Our melendres with its pink and purplish flowers looked like cotton candies in our front yard. I always suspected that there was a silent competition between our melendres and our bogainvilla as they tried to out-bloom each other. Later on, the pinkish melendres and the purplish bogainvilla would complement each other as both would become a main fixture in front of the image of the Blessed Virgin on our altar.
As the days of May unravel, the day of the main event finally arrives. The Filipino Personal Parish busily prepares the Santacruzan procession participated by the young members of Migrant Filipino Youth Association (MFYA) together with the Parish Youth Council or (PYC). The Santacruzan procession falls on either the third or last week of the month. This religio-historical festival or popularly known as Sagala was introduced to us by the Spaniards. It depicts how Queen Helena, mother of Constantine the Great finds the Holy Cross, from which the name Santacruzan was derived. Through this event, the second generation Spanish-born Filipinos (who are not familiar with this celebration) come to know the story behind the queens and their escorts, behind their titles and their symbols. And for them to experience the beauty of our culture. Thus, it is heartening to see how these young participants enjoy the celebration especially the procession.
The Queen of the Virgins gives her last wave to the cheering crowd as the procession has finally reached the church grounds. After which, the holy mass follows. When the mass has finally come to an end after an hour and a half, mass-goers gather outside the church to share some pica-pica or finger foods prepared by several groups of the community. Loud laughter and jolly conversations ensue. Plans of summer escapades reverberate in the air. As the summer is fast approaching, many Filipinos are going out of town with their employees either in the nearby towns somewhere in the Pyrenees or cities outside of Spain. Taking advantage of their remaining time with their families in Barcelona before their “work-related holidays”, most of them spend these days on the beach with lots of Filipino food and fun games. Although, most often than not, they stay under the shade for most of the time afraid that their skin gets darker.
As I am about to leave the church grounds, I see some of the escorts bidding their queens goodbye. They are rushing to leave as they still have a basketball tournament to play. Left behind are the Queen of the Virgins and two other queens. Still in their colorful and elegant gowns and high heels, they are busily choosing what kakanin or Pinoy dessert to eat from the Pinoy vendors plying their panindas outside the church. They can´t seem to decide what to have. The sun is still up as I head to Calle Hospital leading to the Las Ramblas. The air is cool and salty. I look back and see the queens happily indulging their chosen grub while sharing some anecdotes from the just finished procession. Ah, finally, they have decided what to devour: the multi-colored layers of glutinous rice and coconut or best known as the sinful sapin-sapin!
Once in a while, whenever I think of our melendres blooming in this time of year, I am easily reminded of my childhood´s love-hate relationship with this month. Much that I enjoyed the colorful May flowers and the vibrant May festivals, I also couldn´t help but feel a bit of glumness. The smell of soaked earth and wet leaves and the boisterous symphony of frogs and insects enjoying the puddles and wet fields formally announced the arrival of the rainy season. The sky becomes moody and fickle-minded; a sign that our summer fun had officially ended. We would brace ourselves for the coming rains.
For Filipinos on this other side of the world however, it´s a totally different story. Instead of a wet season ahead, our kababayans are now looking forward to a hot Mediterranean summer. They just can´t wait to put on their swimming costumes, frolic on the beach all day long and devour a glass of cold halo-halo afterwards and a karaoke party over San Miguel beers with a plateful of bopis in the evening. Asi que, who still feels homesick in the month of May? Obviously, not the Pinoys in Barcelona!
Join the Filipino Personal Parish in celebrating Santacruzan on May 24 (Sunday) and Filipiniana on May 31 (Sunday).
Nats Sisma Villaluna came to Spain to study Masters in International Sectorial Economics at the University of Santiago de Compostela in 2004. From 2005 to 2008, he worked as a volunteer with various Spanish NGOs in Madrid. In 2009, he took up Masters in International Cooperation at the University of Barcelona. At present, he juggles from teaching English to being an active volunteer of Centro Filipino in Barcelona. He is a member of The Filipino Writers in Spain and the Grupo Concierto Filipino. Nats is a lover of books, good food and art films. He also travels a lot in his free time.