In the past few years, I have only been celebrating easter in Europe, and they’re parties compared to the way it is celebrated in the Philippines.
In the Philippines, where I grew up, we fasted (ate only fish and rice), visited different churches, joined long processions, sometimes dawn processions and non-stop marathon chanting in makeshift cottages. Easter is the time of the year when Filipinos are obliged to be quiet and wear a frown – the Holy Friday “Biyernes Santo”-look.
In 2004, I did a radio documentary for Sveriges Radio P1 featuring the self-flagellation and crucifixion of die-hard devotees in Pampanga. With self-flagellation I meant that they whipped themselves with certain tools (check pic in the gallery above), and with crucifixion I meant that they let themselves be nailed to the cross.
Some did it as penance. They consumed too much alcohol for the rest of the year, or were lazy, or were bad to their family, so they felt that the only way to cleanse their sins and show they were sorry was to hurt themselves.
Others did it in return to God’s favor.
Whereas there were others who did it for money. Tourists then paid to see the spectacle.
To see all this, my uncle Paul led me to a town in Pampanga one very hot, scorching hot Black Friday 2004. There was an ocean of people in the streets.
During the procession, bloody devotees whipped themselves, the stench of their blood mixed with sweat and strong body odor permeated in the air. Blood splashed around as they whipped their backs, so even those who were not involved in the whipping got blood stains on their clothes.
The procession ended where some devotees would be nailed to the cross. Since I am short, the other international and local journalists let me stand out front. The nailing made the devotees cry out and swoon.
I remember a man I interviewed some days before the crucifixion. He seemed decent. But he was very sad and nervous about being crucified – unlike the others who did it annually. It was his first time. He was around 50, and overweight, and he offered to sacrifice himself so that God would listen to his request – to cure his nephew from tuberculosis.
My mother was with me during the interview, and she is a doctor. She told the man – didn’t you know that curing TB in the local health office is free? Just take your nephew there, you don’t have to pay for it.
But it was too late, he was resolved to go through the ordeal, since he already had promised God. His wife cried when he refused to change his mind. She was worried about him. That his health could not take the strain.
I always wonder what happened to him.
My uncle Paul arranged my contact people – politicians, a priest (who disliked the tradition) and several devotees – to make my radio documentary possible. Uncle Paul made sure I was in the pool of local and international journalists that were right in front of the devotees nailed to the cross so I would not miss a thing necessary for my work. Thank you, Tito Paul.
i would also like to mention that during the procession, when throngs of people came, I lost sight of my cousins, sister and aunt who were with me. Tito Paul was with me most of the time though.
This was a time before Iphone, google maps and Facebook existed, so we all had to trust our insticts and tried to think how others were thinking in this situation. They knew I would stick to the end of the rites for my job. So they stuck around until the crowd thinned. At dusk they found me waiting where they parked the car. They were all sweaty, tired, and sparsely covered with blood stains. They said: “Never again will we follow you in your job.” But ah, I doubt that. Years later, my aunt followed with me to Tacloban, the city destroyed by superstorm Haiyan (Yolanda).
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