Gowns, gold, and glory: The splendor of Santacruzan processions

A cornerstone of local culture and festivities, the Santacruzan is a celebration of faith and reverence as one community.

The inky night sky is greeted once more by the bustle of spirited festivity below. In a tradition that stretches back 91 years, dozens of maidens prance down a street in a single procession, both sides strewn with floral arrangements. Fresh faces nearly glow golden, made all the more luminescent with decor; each girl is gilded in gowns befitting queens and framed by magnificent arkos or carts. If one were to stop at any barangay in the Philippines at the month-end of May, they would come to find the crowning moment of Flores de Mayo—the grand Santacruzan

In it, each reyna represents a certain virtue or pivotal event in Catholic history. Beginning as far back as the biblical conception of mankind, the procession culminates into the very moment it was named after: Queen Helena of Constantinople, locally called Reyna Elena, allegedly finding the true cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.

But with each passing year, barangays attempt to one-up their neighboring communities with gimmicks to revitalize interest in the procession; in a gentle balancing act, they aim to elevate its pageantry while maintaining the sanctity of the tradition.

While glittering crowns and vibrant flower arcs decorate the streets, there is more to the Santacruzan procession than what meets the eye.

As the flowers blossom

For Melvin Roxas, his tenure as the hermano mayor or lead decision-maker of last year’s Flores de Mayo in Santa Maria, Bulacan hinged on a reminder that the province is the birthplace of the tradition. Roxas was determined to preserve the Santacruzan’s cultural footprint, saying, “The significance of participating and organizing this festival ensures continuity. Ito ‘yung pinakamahalaga—for the next generations to see and still experience this very unique cultural legacy of our land.”

(This is what’s most important.)

It was an honor, for Roxas, to be the mastermind in a huge event for his community. “This festival binds each and every family kasi having a sagala representing [their clan] makes them excited and gather on this special night,” he describes. Roxas also emphasizes that the Santacruzan has helped his community become more tightly knit as they crafted this jubilant project together.

But this collective effort also highlights the individuality that the participants have exhibited in their craft. Roxas saw the creativity in the little details such as those found in the traditional arko. “The arko[s] are…made from the native materials…[showcasing] the artistry and the creativity of the locals,” he stresses. Volunteers are allowed to place any material on these arkos as long as they capture the spirit of their reyna and the Santacruzan as a whole. 

Jia Maranan (IV, AB-ISE) has taken part in maintaining the legacy of the Santacruzan since she was five. As a child, the first thing that piqued Maranan’s interest in participating were the glamorous outfits—representing a chance for self-expression. In the seven processions she has participated in since, she has observed the joy and willingness to collaborate among the volunteers as they craft gorgeous and meaningful creations for the procession.

But before any reyna graces their audience through their elegant walk, they first have to realize the weight of their respective crowns—something that Maranan now knows like the back of her hand. Learning to connect with people during the procession is an essential part of being a reyna. “While iniikot ka, may mga taong nakakakilala sayo o kinakausap ka,” she shares. For Maranan, building up the courage and self-confidence to face the crowds takes a lot of time and effort. But it also teaches a reyna to become more exposed to different religious expressions and meet a lot of folks—all with different stories to share.

(As you go around, there are people who may recognize you or talk to you.) 

Buds rooted in community

As participants like Maranan put their game faces on for the ritual pageant, organizers like Roxas work tirelessly behind the scenes. “Napakalaki niyang trabaho. It involves connections with all of the community,” he expresses. Roxas would scout for promising representatives; he then orients them about all the particulars of the event, ensuring that volunteers and local communities will all play their part in bringing a grandeur festivity to life.

(It is a lot of work.)

As a camarero, or a caretaker bound in patronage to a saint, Roxas has noticed a dwindling curiosity toward the event’s historical significance. “We are conscious about how we could maintain the solemnity of the celebration. Kasi ‘yun ‘yung mas malalim,” he admits. In line with his wishes to preserve the accuracy of the festivity, Roxas would involve mothers from the community to represent Reyna Elena. “Reyna Elena [is] the mother of Constantine. So [the participant] has to be a mother,” he explains. 

(Because that’s the deeper root of it all.)

Meanwhile, for Maranan, she grew to understand that beyond the embellishments, the Santacruzan is a religious undertaking. She observes how her community would honor and highlight the significance of the Virgin Mary in their faith. Her image is draped in beautiful outfits and garments, while participants in the procession passionately and joyously sing to her their prayers. Showcasing the deeply embedded faith and culture of their people, Maranan’s community takes pride in celebrating the Santacruzan.

Roxas asserts, “It’s not the pomp and pageantry but how the Santacruzan has touched the lives of the people.” Keeping the communal and spiritual aspect of the celebration alive proves to be quite the challenge—calling for a collective effort.

Rebirth, come bloom

The Filipino Santacruzan shines beyond the glittery getups and glamorous gowns as a long-standing part of Filipino culture and heritage. Along every adorned street it graces, the Santacruzan serves as an avenue for each individual to navigate their beliefs while finding a community to practice these with. “In terms of my personal growth, I realized that I was able to explore ways on how to express my faith,” Maranan attests in Filipino. For many like her, the annually anticipated festivity bridges Filipino devotion, culture, and ingenuity.

Despite dismay toward shifts in the public’s focus on what Santacruzan is about, the element of pageantry in itself is nothing bad and if anything essential. “If we will not spend time and resources for this, maybe ‘yung susunod na generations, wala na,” vouches Roxas on the equal importance of the material to the spiritual, since creating a spectacular experience is the key to ensuring the celebration’s longevity. 

(It might be lost in the future generations.)
These flickering embers of the Santacruzan’s core may be fanned, hopefully into a flame that roars much brighter than the jewels and sequins cascading down a long lineage of reynas. These queens shall come and go, but what they represent will reverberate for ages.

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