Photo by Martin Espino

I Miss What Iloilo Fiestas Used to Be

By Allyn May Canja

I never really enjoyed fiestas as a kid.

I remember that every fiesta my mother would force me to wear a dress with big bows and tulle bottoms early in the morning and then drag me to the church, where I always felt out of place because I didn’t know the hymns being played. The air felt heavy, probably because of the people’s impossible-to-fulfill pleas that they would collectively pray to the heavens.

I remembered fiestas as events where people slaughter pigs and chickens that they took care of for the entire year prior. It’s where the sound system blares “Brother Louie” and “Fantasy Boy”, songs which can be heard as far back as the next town.

Everyone was invited. And, strangely enough, everyone took pride of how, despite their economic struggle, there is that one day of the year when they can afford to buy everyone lunch, and dinner, and even breakfast the day after.

I never really understood all the trappings of the fiesta—the sanctity of the family and its accompanying religious traditions, specifically— until it has gradually faded behind the changing of the times. As I became older, the fiesta I remembered would grow on me.

Anyone who has ever been to a barangay fiesta before knows how why people still make a big deal of these celebrations. Below is how I remembered them.

The Feast

I think we could all agree that the best thing about any fiesta is the food. Who could resist the estofado glazed in all its caramelized muscovado glory? Or the valenciana and the way its seemingly incongruous ingredients and condiments contributes to its unique taste and texture? Or the buco pandan salad swimming in cream along with the coconut shred? The fiesta table, just like the Philippine’s islands, represented all the local colors (and even flavors).

There was a time when hosts would serve food in smoked banana leaves, and some guests would eat using their hands because it became too overwhelming to wash dishes in between servings. While the recent fiestas I went to had all my favorite dishes, there are now a lot more food varieties to to choose from like cakes and sushi. Just like the Philippines opening up to the world, the fiesta table has also become global.

The Perya

This was everyone’s—and by “everyone”, I mean both kids and adults—favorite. I remember how every year, the peryahan came to town bringing the famous mouse, which always seemed to be generally called ‘Buknoy’. In Buknoy’s game, you needed to guess which box he (or she?) enters by making a bet. If you happen to win, well, you get either a labador, balde or electric fan. I have not experienced making a bet on Buknoy because my Agriculture teacher in high school told us that mice see using their sense of smell, and they are most likely to enter the same box. This tidbit made the game less of a thrill, honestly.

However, what I liked to play was the tiro-tiro. This was where I learned I have a good aim at shooting. I always won a piece of Cloud Nine or Muncher, perhaps the only kind of green peas I ate where the salt content rivalled that of chicharon.

iloilo perya shooting range
Photo by Martin Espino

Ten years ago, I found going to a peryahan to still be fun. I could tell people still went there to enjoy. Lately, when I went to one, I could sense that most people go there to gamble. That breath of pure fun I used to inhale is gone. A father hogs the toy gun so he could get a cracker for his son. An old woman is getting screamed at by a young man because he placed the bet first. Everyone wanted to win. When did the peryahan become so competitive?

And that brings us to the rides. Sometimes a big peryahan comes with a ferris wheel. Those things are a hit, especially with young lovers. I remember my first ferris wheel ride. It was with my friends, and I projectile-vomited the moment my feet touched the ground after getting off the cab. We laughed. “That’s how life makes you dizzy sometimes,” I thought.

ferris wheel iloilo fiesta
Photo by Martin Espino

During the recent Dinagyang, I passed by a ferris wheel installed in Diversion Road. There was a long line of high-schoolers holding hands. I did not find it romantic, because I thought kids as young as them should have laid there hands off of romance. I head over to a cotton candy stand to neutralize my bitterness with sugar.

The simbahan

If there is one thing that survives the test of time, it is faith. I remembered how after the celebrations, people look back to the year and pay their gratitude towards their patron saint. Or oftentimes, people just ask for more blessings to come their way the next year.

The Jaro fiesta, one of the biggest in the city, still have both young and old people flock to the cathedral, armed with their perdon and their prayers. Although some fiestas has attracted lesser and lesser crowds over the years, many people still consider fiestas as a reunion with their families or loved ones.

Memories of Fiesta - Project Iloilo
Photo by Martin Espino

These days, I noticed that some fiestas have removed religion from the equation, replacing it instead with a messaging that has more do with secular commerce than with spirituality.

Regardless of how fiestas will be defined in the future, there is no denying that community lies at the heart of all of these. How will you celebrate yours this year?

Allyn Mae Canja is half-Ilonggo, half-Antiqueña, and a full-blooded romantic. She has self-published collections of her essay, poetry and fiction.