The expression “merry month of May” resonates more with Filipinos because we associate it with fiestas.
Originally intended as a religious commemoration of a patron saint, the fiesta has taken many other functions, some still associated with the patron of the place—for example, a devotee going to Antipolo to pray for a safe trip, or to Obando to pray for fertility—and others much more mundane, as in politicians trying to garner votes by distributing T-shirts to everyone around, or, quite simply, visitors grabbing an opportunity for a good time.
Fiestas are actually celebrated all year round, to coincide with the feast day of various saints in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. But many places have their fiestas in May, dictated by climate and agrarian circumstance. Climate, because May is a summer month, appropriate for the many outdoor activities of a fiesta. It is also a month for many flowering species to bloom, thus the term “flores de Mayo.” It’s not just the bougainvillea; even trees end up splashing the landscape with a riot of colors.
The agrarian part is that May marks the end of the dry season; in fact, quite often you have afternoon showers—a prelude to the rainy season for many parts of the country. Farmers do in fact pray, during the fiesta, for the rainy season to come so they can begin planting. It can be difficult, these appeals for rain: no rain or too little rain can be as disastrous as too much rain.
Alas, the fiesta’s merriment has a dark side. One of my mother’s caregivers was telling me last month about her trials with household help. Her yaya (nanny) had asked to go home in May, and the reason was, you guessed it, the town fiesta. Our caregiver said she goes through this ordeal every year, knowing that the household help had no intention of coming back to Manila.
The caregiver had anticipated this and had gone to Mindoro to visit a relative, as well as to find a replacement for the yaya. But she did this with some despair, knowing that she was not likely to be successful. Her worst fears came true: She could not find anyone, and the reason was, again, the month of May being a fiesta month.
Farming families, no matter how poor, will have money saved up for May. The fiesta is a time to show off, to invite friends and relatives to come and visit. People will splurge for the fiesta, with mixed motivations. There are the original religious intentions of honoring the patron saint by spending for the festivities, including donations to the church, and household preparations of food.
This religious aspect is itself quite mixed: Honoring the saints is motivated not just by veneration or love of the saint, but also in part out of fear. The patron is perceived to be much like a feudal landlord, kind when pleased, vengeful and sinister when vexed, and the fiesta spells the difference between benevolence and maleficence. There are numerous stories about calamities visiting a community, or a family, for not being generous enough with the fiesta or, horrors, not having the fiesta at all.
Sometimes, too, a calamity is blamed on an inappropriate celebration of the fiesta. I have never forgotten attending a fiesta in Quezon City some 40 years back—I remember because it was the last summer before I entered university—and, after returning home, getting word that the community had subsequently suffered from an outbreak of gastroenteritis. The community quickly blamed it on the organizers of a gay Santacruzan, the Santacruzan being a procession, originally of real women dressed as various Biblical characters to commemorate Christ’s passion (“Santa Cruz” means “Holy Cross”). The gay version is much less solemn, with the characters expanded far beyond the Bible (for example, Nefertiti of Egypt often pops out from nowhere, a clear intended pun).
Never mind that the gastroenteritis could have come about from the fiesta food spoiling in the summer heat and causing food poisoning. The Philippines being the world’s most disaster-prone country—typhoons and storm surges, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, disease outbreaks and epidemics—it isn’t surprising that people feel obliged to have the fiesta as insurance. Or to think that a fiesta was not grand enough because it was followed shortly after by some adverse event.
And the gay Santacruzan? I haven’t heard of it being blamed lately for disasters, although the Catholic clergy have been known to complain about the event, only to back down because such an event manages to raise substantial funds for the town, mainly because the mutated santacruzan is also a beauty pageant, with the selling of votes for the various queens generating income for the organizers, the contestants, and, presumably, the parish.
To return to our caregiver, she has this theory about how the fiesta affects the availability of household help. The best time to recruit, she says, is around August and September because by then rural households’ savings would have run out and the farmers are still waiting for rice harvests. As she told me that, I thought of the term “inagosto,” used in southern Tagalog provinces to refer to August being a time of hunger, even death, mainly of severely malnourished children.
During that time, families will even push their women to take up jobs in urban centers as domestic helpers. So for the next few months, the women get to work and send money back to their families, supplementing the meager income from agriculture. But the horizon for the women, especially the younger ones, remains the month of May.
The idea is to save some money and to return for the town fiesta. It can be a grand homecoming, with the probinsiyana (rural girl) returning transformed, decked out in the clothes and makeup of the big city, and bearing a mobile phone and a large can of MY San biscuits.
This is the worst time to recruit household help because there’s money floating around, still meager, but more than usual. Most of the helpers will end up broke within a few weeks, joining the ranks of the inagosto, ready to be recruited again for the big city, if they hadn’t been courted and married off during the fiesta month.
And so the cycles are repeated each year. I’ve wondered if all this has taken an international aspect, as overseas Filipinos save to send money home for their town fiesta, or better still, to come home for the fiesta. I hope, too, that these cycles are not marked by periods of boom, and bust.
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