The staging of the ritual of the Passion and Death of Christ that is celebrated in the Philippine province of Pampanga, particularly on Good Friday on the outskirts of the San Pedro Cutud neighborhood, in the City of San Fernando, capital of the province, does not please the Catholic Bishops's Conference of the Philippines but he tolerates it: "these are erroneous interpretations, it is preferable to donate blood at a Red Cross post."
This sort of religious tourism, or what goes of a popular religiosity program to another of tourism marketing, in the only catholic country of the immense Asia (Masses celebrated in Tagalog continue to pronounce the name of god in Spanish 'dios') is no longer conceivable today without flagellants or crucified: waving elaborate palms on Palm Sunday, going through the seven churches with their open tabernacles on Holy Thursday night or going to stations of the cross and processions —whether of saints or sinners— is insufficient, or it is insufficient to attract more than fifty thousand visitors a weekend to these places of rice villages.
During the 1970's the Passion in Pampanga went from being a local to a national phenomenon, it began to be televised and ten years later it jumped internationally and took off…
The Pampanga (the first of the territories of the distant archipelago taken by the Spanish Crown in the XVIth century), in the central region of Luzon Island, issued today from Manila along the great Expressway1 about seventy kilometers to the north, apart from exhibiting the title of culinary capital of the country —little taken advantage of—, since the mid-twentieth century it has been celebrating its particular duel of an extreme ordeal with raw crucifixions. Figurative neighbors interpreting patricians and hudyos (Jewish, in Spanish 'judíos'), centurions and Roman executioners, with metal helmets, bright red tunics and plastic flip-flops, all crucial actors in the death of Jesus of Nazareth, achieve a very particular Philippine recreation of the Cenacle at the Crucifixion that rides, with fervor, from Monty Python to Mel Gibson.
From Sinakulo al Kalbaryo
If the Philippine curia dislikes the Passion in Pampanga and avoids it, the municipality and public authorities, on the other hand, applaud it, seeing in it "a pure source of solidarity and strength for the community." From its official website they manifest themselves or through interposed websites to offer programmed itineraries to visitors of the same convictions or to the media separately.
We must remember that it all started when a local theater fan and writer, Ricardo Navarro, promoted by the Tourism Office of the City of San Fernando de Pampanga, writes in 1959 a work in Tagalog, a dense imitation of an auto sacramental, on which everything will be built. Unexpectedly, the performance, which lasts for two hours of drama and liturgy, will include the first live crucifixion from 1961 when a healer or witch doctor, Arsenio Añosa, had himself crucified in a disturbing outburst, which also had continuity... although without forgetting a labyrinth of antecedents.
Walls of Penitensya
As in the romance of Calderon de la Barca, walls of penance and holes covered with blood, sacramental theater and sermons survive in the pamagdarame, term with which flagellation is known in Pampanga.
Catholic reasons lead to Franciscans and Jesuits to easily adapt it to local customs when in the seventeenth century they standardized beliefs and traditions to bloody rituals to root the creed of the new religion with better results. Penitensya and mortification, the new slaves of Christ, the magdarame flagellant devotees.
Series of fine bamboo coils, smoothed, grouped in bundles and strung to a cotton or abaca cord, form the typical scourge of the place, known in the region by the name of burilyos.
Hitting their backs one after another, stained with antiseptic and blood, they sing with dry sounds, like pedalboards of old organs, and serve for the flagellants to consummate their penance and mortify barefoot and in a group, until more than three hundred followers gather for the occasion, only young men.
They are also provided with hoods, which help preserve anonymity, as redemption masks, apart from allowing the entire ritual and gazes to focus on the very act of flogging.
To those wearing masks they call kapirosas —It is not necessary to insist here on the Spanish kinship with the 'capirote'—. Today they are more than hoods bandanas or scarves tied across the forehead or around the neck.
The penitents, before going out to discipline, have protected the skin from infections with antiseptic, as has been said, and then they scrape or scratch backs to prevent coagulation. Their thighs and legs are also tied tightly with knotted strings to retain blood circulation.
They forcefully bring to mind the discipliners of La Rioja, "the picaos", what Regoyos and Verhaeren discovered in their Black Spain —morally black clarifies Regoyos readers in the introduction—, although these they scrape after whipping.
Its virgin wax tablets (rods) with six embedded crystals two by two are a device comparable in use to the panabad Philippines, pieces of wood that are reminiscent of the old hand cards due to their design.
The panabad, also garnished with points of broken glass, are passed through the back to scratch it with incisions and thus prevent the bruises that come out after continuous whipping.
Along the way, from Holy Tuesday to Good Friday, they will sprinkle themselves with water while making stops or penance stations and singing pabas, psalmodic liturgical texts.
Meanwhile, the crucified wear curious and painless crowns of makabuhay, braided from stems of an exuberant vine of the same name with medicinal and abortifacient properties (pamparegla), common in Philippine forests and markets in Manila, like the one in Quiapo in front of the Black Nazarene parish. (Nothing to do with the crown of barbed wire shown in a viral video of National Geographic released in 2013).
After reaching the dusty top of an artificial hill converted into Golgotha for a day, the discipliners who have made their way to that point and have preceded those who are going to be crucified, receive the whips of glory and there they take off their scarves with those who guarded their identity and the crowns, these made of blunt palm leaves, to stack them on the base of the cross one by one.
Immediately afterwards, the change of scenery begins for the preparation of the crucifixions, the protagonist prisoners are the only ones who carry crosses on their backs and barefoot, accompanied by their families. The crosses are lowered to arrange the crucified, conveniently attached to the crossbar and the vertical post, and then they are nailed with hammer in hand, with disparate reactions but similar gestures of pain (some go microphones and their groans are confused with the public address system and background music), and then suspend them for about four or five minutes until they disengage and descend.
The Kristo Kapampango
Ruben Enaje, the Kristo Kapampango (the Christ of Pampanga), in the role of Vir Dolorum —and also some Rex Philippinarum—, almost a picture rescued from a remote medieval Catholic iconography, is as famous in the Philippines and abroad as Whang Od Oggay, the unique and long-lived traditional tattoo artist from the town of Buscalan, owner of the most genuine ethnic designs shell pre-colonial
In 2019 (all the images in this blog post correspond to that date), after thirty-three allegorical years uninterruptedly crucifying himself and coming back, he announced that he would stop doing it in the future, at the gates of retirement at the age of sixty: Mabuhay! (long life in Tagalog).
Meanwhile, the dramatization of his faith not only brought him fame, but also, and above all, beyond a popular prestige, has been bringing him stability in the difficult job among Filipinos as a man of firm convictions and absolute confidence since he started working in the construction world and miraculously emerged unscathed from a serious work accident. That's where it all started, that's how he tells it himself, unwrapped with the media.
In that definitive Holy Week for Enaje, three more Filipinos climbed the tree to nail themselves to it (Edison Francisco, Angelito —Cherub— Las Pinas and Ronald Aquino) and a young woman, May Jane Sazon, employee of a beauty salon in the neighboring town of Santa Lucía, already a veteran after having repeated it previously on more than a dozen occasions, as a Kristo woman of Pampanga.
Steel nails of about ten centimeters, sterilized trying to avoid any infection in that dusty hill, the main stage of the Passion in Pampanga, are soaked in alcohol.
Enaje carries his own, almost converted into a relic. And with accurate hammer blows they drill the shins of the main toes and in the center of the palms of the hands avoiding nerves, bones and tendons. Ambulances and first aid personnel wait at the bottom of the hill to take them on stretchers and quickly treat their wounds. And to any spectator also if the case arises.
Enaje himself has commented in more than one interview, in a display of devotion and suffering, that the operations to suspend and unpin the cross can cause more disorders than ritual nailing wounds. Just an overwhelming sense of immobilization occurs when you're pinned up high, he says.
Easter Sunday with Salubong
The capital of Manila, throughout Easter in the surroundings of the Quiapo parish, which venerates the Black Nazarene, has brought together all the vendors of Sampaguita at the doors of the parish to offer the Philippine jasmine, which is the national flower —although it originates from the valleys of the southern Himalayas—, with a characteristic sweet aroma, the preferred one to decorate altars and make garlands.
Like the Passion in Pampanga with the salubong (meeting) of the Resurrected Christ and the Sorrowful Mother, Holy Week closes its celebrations from that moment throughout the archipelago.
It is also the time to eat and share ginataan, kind of warm sweet dessert soup based on rice and coconut milk, with multiple varieties, similar to Spanish porridge, and suman with sugar, a pastry made of rice cooked with coconut milk, or steamed in banana leaves, with an exquisite wrapping in buri palm leaves. Rice cannot be missing at Easter either. ✑region