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Hala, bira: Keeping the fiesta alive

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Loud thumping beats underscore the palpable excitement of eager spectators on the streets. Flashes of vivid colors dance before you like a parade of people clad in the most intricate costumes pass by. You make your way under the fluttering banderitas with a paper plate in hand, gladly helping yourself to some of the best local dishes, all the while savoring the scents of the feast. Gleeful predictions about who will win the local beauty pageant create a murmur around you, along with cheerful screams coming from the perya.

Celebrating town fiestas has always been a highly-anticipated experience for Filipinos. Every aspect of our culture comes into play—art, food, music, dances, and religious devotion—attesting how creative and fun-spirited Filipinos truly are. “Mapapansin [mong] ‘pag papalapit na ‘yung piyesta, andaming mga pasabit na banderitas sa paligid,” expresses Dr. Michael Delos Santos, an Associate Professor of Araling Filipino from the Central Luzon State University. 

(You notice that when the fiesta is coming, a lot of banderitas are strung around.)

But since the COVID-19 outbreak, the streets have remained sans banderitas and the once-beloved sight of the community celebrating as one has gone. Events have been forced to shift to online platforms in hopes of delivering the same festive spirit. Unfortunately, these valiant attempts hardly suffice. 

Despite these trying times, many believe that the fiesta can still bring smiles to people’s faces inside the safety of their homes—and it might just be what we need to get through.

Be our guest

Kwento ito ng iba’t-ibang naratibo ng tunog, kulay, at lasa,” Delos Santos remarks. With families and friends reconnecting, different households preparing their feasts, complete with the local bands playing music all day—a town has never been more alive. But for Delos Santos, the cherry on top would have to be the perya, where everyone finds themselves reveling in childlike bliss. “Dito ka mamamasyal kapag gabi, maingay dito, maliwanag dito. Puwedeng maglibang, bata man o matanda,” he recollects.

(It’s a story of different narratives of sound, color, and taste.)

(This is where you go at night, where it’s noisy and bright. Anyone can enjoy it, young or old.)

The Filipino trademark sense of fun is not the only quality on display. Long-glorified cornerstones of Filipino character, hospitality, and camaraderie, are what truly elevate and deepen the fiesta experience. None more so than in the mother of all Philippine festivals—The Kalibo Sto. Niño Ati-atihan Festival. 

Internationally acclaimed for its grandeur and vitality, the Ati-Atihan is all the more special because of the rich bond of the Aklanon community. Overall Event Coordinator Rhea Rose Meren takes pride in the people’s unmistakable hospitality. For Aklanons, during the festival, no one is a stranger. “Even if ngayon lang kayo nagkakilala, sa kalye lang for example, maya-maya nasa bahay ka na ng Aklanon na nakilala mo,” Meren heartily expresses, “And then maybe later, doon ka narin matutulog [at] kakain.”

(Even if you just met recently, along the streets, for example, a while later, you’re already at the house of the Aklanon you just met. You’ll rest and dine there as well.)

Between a rock and a hard place

However, since the pandemic broke out, these special fiesta moments have begun to sound merely like the good old days. With the uncertainty of when might the pandemic end, Delos Santos notes, “Kapag ang mga tao ay hindi [nagsasama-sama upang] magdiriwang ay mawawala na sa mentalidad nila yung ganitong pagtitipon.” As the continuance of these cultural celebrations faces peril, the Ati-Atihan is no exemption to this adversity. 

(When people don’t get together to celebrate, these gatherings get lost in their mentality.)

The festival’s Assistant Event Coordinator Maranatha Vargas describes a daunting challenge for organizers to deliver the same hype, festive ambiance, and solidarity. “Ang focus po ng Ati-Atihan Festival for this year was, how do we make Ati-Atihan still vibrant in the new normal,” she divulges. Shifting the celebration to social media platforms and the local cable may prove a viable solution. Still, the committee remains uncertain whether it will elicit the same emotion from the people.

One of the most iconic Ati-Atihan festivities adjusted during this time is the rousing street dance, accompanied by the cacophonous percussion of the band. Meren explains that every participating tribe used to dance on the streets without any choreography. Its essence relied on the freedom of anyone from the audience to jump in and dance with the Atis. “During the festival na ‘yung live talaga, with physical presence, iba ‘yung feeling mo,” Meren worries, “Kung makikita mo siya sa TV lang, […] ‘yung chance na mabo-bore ‘yung [manonood] sa video is malaki.”

(If you just watch it on the TV, there’s a big chance the viewer will be bored.)

The committee had hoped to shoot a street dancing video of Aklanon tribe members while banking on improvisation. However, as logistical and safety concerns continued to skyrocket, the committee eventually decided to shelve its plans.

At the heart of the feast

Though stripped away of its interactive elements, the Ati-Atihan remains anchored to its true essence–the people’s panata. The Ati-Atihan’s Project Manager Jessie Fegarido shares that Aklanons uphold an obligation to celebrate and give thanks to their patron, Señor Sto. Niño. “The other activities [ay] masasabi natin na mga bulaklak na lang ‘yun,” he declares. 

(For the other activities, we can say that they’re simply adornments.)

Sharing the same sentiment, Vargas emphasizes, “The essence of how we can express [the] devotion nung mga Aklanons and Kalibonhons to Señor Sto. Niño, I think whether virtual man siya or physically present sila, hindi siya nagbago.” 

(The essence of how we can express the devotion of Aklanons and Kalibonhons to Señor Sto. Niño, I think whether virtual or physically present, it hasn’t changed.)

Not the last hurrah

Despite the changing times, the culture of fiestas has yet to fade away. “Because culture, even [if] you store it for so long…time will come that it [sprouts] out,” Fegarido posits. He affirms that culture is more than its physical forms; some events may be canceled, and feasts may not be as grand, but the essence remains with the people.  

The festival committee formally launched the first digital Ati-Atihan last January. They broadcasted a video that highlighted past festival celebrations, Aklanon’s tribe members, and devotees. 

Vargas hopes that the scaled-down iteration will only reignite the people’s passion for their town’s fiesta and culture. “Surely it may make their heart ponder na, talagang sana matapos na ang pandemic kasi we are excited to go home during [the] Ati-Atihan festival, and to celebrate the way we used to celebrate,” she expresses.

(Surely it may make their heart ponder, really hoping that the pandemic would already end, because we are excited to go home…)

By Lizelle Villaflor

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