‘Santacruzan’ and ‘guinataang halo-halo’
If you should find yourself driving from the city to a beach or mountain destination toward the end of May, keep your eyes peeled for any of the numerous “Santacruzan” processions on the highway or main streets. The Santacruzan (after “Santa Cruz,” or the Holy Cross) commemorates the finding of the True Cross by Queen Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian king.
It has been described as a “religio-historical beauty pageant,” often featuring actresses, beauty queens, or local beauties who parade around towns and city districts escorted by barong-clad young men under arches fashioned from bent bamboo and festooned with paper flowers. Each figure in the Santacruzan is accompanied by other men or boys holding up torches, lamps, or roman candles, and as the procession winds its way through crowds lining the route, it can turn into a rambunctious occasion, with a brass band or drum-and-lyre corps filling the air with solemn hymns alternating with festive music.
In all probability, the Santacruzan was introduced here by Spanish missionaries, cannily using spectacle and myth to strengthen the natives’ burgeoning faith and religiosity. I don’t know if the “Flores de Mayo” (or Flowers of May, a devotion to foster the people’s love for “Mama Mary”) is older than the Santacruzan. But the two have long been linked, with the flower offering and novena culminating in the Santacruzan at the end of the month.
Since the Santacruzan features tableaus depicting the many titles held by the Virgin Mary, along with other biblical figures like Methusela, Queen Judith, Ruth and Naomi, and of course Queen Helena and her son Constantine, it could be said that the procession is a dramatization of the Rosary and the events of Mary’s life, as well as a literally moving lesson in bible history.
I write today of the Santacruzan because in my childhood I took part in one. I forget now what figure I was representing, but my participation was solicited by distant Jimenez relatives who lived in Sampaloc, Manila, if I remember right.
My gown was probably rented since I don’t remember seeing it hanging in any closet at home. What I recall is that it was mostly red, overlaid with white lace along with sequins and fake pearls. A tiara came along with it. And I do remember it was the first time I ever wore makeup, which soon turned sticky in the evening heat.
Memories of the procession are blurry at best. I can just remember being blinded by the roman candles and being annoyed by the boy who served as my escort since he kept grabbing at my hand. My most vivid memory was after the procession in our relatives’ house, where for the first time I encountered the native snack guinataang halo-halo, a mix of boiled yam and bananas, sago pearls and sticky rice balls that was redolent with the aroma of coconut milk. I remember it vividly because, as an older relative handed me a bowl of the concoction, my mother grabbed it away, warning me: “Don’t eat this, it’s too late at night and you’ll end up with a bad tummy.”
I’ve had occasion to try many a bowl of guinataang halo-halo since, but nothing can beat the taste (or promise of it) of that elusive first bowl ever.
One other interesting development in Santacruzan history is that the Philippines’ gay community soon adopted it wholeheartedly. Movies, TV shows and TV news shows would be filled each May with scenes of gay Santacruzans, the cross-dressing queens, heroines and Virgin personas outdoing their all-woman counterparts, fashionable and flamboyant, posing outrageously, and batting kilometric false eyelashes.
Inevitably, the Church intervened, issuing an edict forbidding gay versions of the religious event. I don’t know what our Church leaders were so offended by: the eyelash-batting, the increasingly risqué gowns, the offensive behavior of the drunken men on the sidelines. But surely not all of these were the gay participants’ fault? I wouldn’t be surprised if underground gay Santacruzans are still being held furtively, far from public attention but literally gay as ever.
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