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The Philippine Festive Table

 

 

It is fiesta morning. Before dawn, even before the church bells ring out the Saint's Mass, the band strikes up a brassy march, warming the night air and waking the populace. The cooks have been up a brassy march, warming the night air and earlier, stoking kitchen and backyard fires. The lechon, a sucking or full-grown pig, is turning on its bamboo spit. Stuffed capons are roasting, soup bubbling, rice cakes baking. Embroidered tablecloths are being pressed and spread. The entire house-from front door, now opened as wide as welcoming arms, to the yard swept clean of every dry leaf-is ready to celebrate the rituals of this special day.

 

Fiesta in the Philippines means many things. A celebration of the Saint's feast day. Thanksgiving for the Lord's and the land's bounty. A testimonial to labor and its fruits. An affirmation of human bonds. A toast to the good life.

 

It is a universal Philippines feast, the spirit prevailing in rural barrio or upscale Manila suburb. The difference between one and the other is marked only by the trappings of the feast: the richness of the board, the folks' manner of dress, the range of hospitality. Although words apart, both communities are caught in the fiesta spell, neither less spiritedly than the other.

 

Centerpiece of the fiesta is the festive table Whether it be an heirloom or something a Sunday carpenter put together, it is proud testament to the host's goodwill. It is set in the most conspicuous part of the house, dressed in the family's best linen adored with silver and flowers, and laden edge to edge with delicacies of the field and sea , market and grocery. It is both cornucopia of bounty and sacrificial altar, the last harking back to the Filipino ancients' practice of offering to nature spirits the best of their own gifts, in the hope that plenty would bring plenty, generosity beget generosity.

 

In place of honor is the lechon, stuffed with fragrant tamarind leaves or lemon grass, and spit-roasted a golden brown, its skin crips and crackling, it ears and tail emblems of delight awarded to special guests. So important is it in the Filipino feast that in Balayan, a coastal town in Batangas Province, a festival is held in its honor. The lechon, festooned with leaves and flowers, is paraded around town before meeting its destiny on the laden table.

 

Radiating from the lechon are choice dishes: beef rolls called morcon; chicken and turkey luxuriously stuffed; sausages and ham; fishes dressed in mayonnaise and a rainbow of vegetables and eggs garnishes; steamed crabs, prawns and lobster; noodles fat, thin, transparent and thick. Filling in every empty space are crystal dishes of relishes, dipping sauces and pickles in translucent strands, or cut like flowers and stars.

 

Desserts are on a separate side table, a testament to the national sweet tooth. Fruits freshly picked, or last season's harvest carved in floral shapes and preserved in syrup. From the native tradition, rice cakes and puddings sprinkled or glazed with coconut, and the milk candy called pastillas, wrapped in thin paper with intricately hand-cut tails. Chinese sweetmeats. American pies and cakes ,and a slew of Spanish sweets.

 

Part of the festiveness is working together in preparation, which is in fact pre-celebration that begins days ahead. Pigs, goats and cows are fattened, native cornfed pullets cooped up to encourage fat and prevent muscle, rice ground in stone mills.

 

The women of San Miguel de Maayumo (literally, Saint Michael of Sweetness) in Bulacan Province cut out with small sharp scissor-without a guide except for folk memory and skill-the hearts, flowers, stars, leaves and words like Remembrance and Mabuhay(long life/welcome) that decorate pastillas, wrappers. In Pakil, Laguna Province bakers mold cookies in the image of the Virgin of Turumba, the town's patron. In the towns of Sariaya and Lucban in Quezon Province, edible folk art comes in the form of brilliant wafer-leaves called kiping.

 

The best cooks from the farm or among one's relatives come unbidden, bearing their favorite knives, and all the skill and devotion of the living generations of one's clan. Grandmothers and master cook direct the kitchen; mothers, aunts and household help hang curtains, even as they whip up their specialties. Daughters and nieces polish the silver, wash the crystal and china, arrange flowers.

 

On visperas, the eve of the fiesta, the colored bunting-handmade and hang by the young-already flutters in the streets. The church has been cleaned from belfry to patio, the altar filled with flowers, the crowns and halos of images burnished bright, the wheeled palanquins for the procession decked with lights.

 

On the day of the fiesta, every home is an open house. The host, who had earlier called on the mayor, and parish priest, family elders and business associates, friends and friends of friends, now welcome all, even the stranger.

 

He leads the guests, in protocol as strict as that of a state dinner, to seats of honor: the men of the cloth, government officials, town professionals, members of the clan, and so on, in a hierarchy of regard and all-day table to which guests come in waves, not sitting them to gather around, sip the vino tinto, start on the soup, and eat, eat, eat.

 

Everyone shares in both the bounty and the spirit. As the close, or favored, guest leaves, he is given pabaon, a food package to take home, something that extends the hospitality to his family, to the next day, to memory.

 

By then the festive table is in disarray, a good sign. It has done its role: as a symbol of the Filipino's regard for family and friend, church and town; as pledge of his fealty to community, given in the language of eating and sharing, feasting and giving.

 

 

The Elemental Filipino Family

 

From cradle to grave, the family is the Filipino's rock of ages. In childhood and youth, it is his rock of support and security; in adulthood, it is home when he marries too early and cannot cope, an insurance for times of need; and then in old age, it is the hearth to which he returns, however far he may wander.

 

The Filipino may contract other bonds in the course of his life with the company he works for, the church he worships in, the neighborhood he lives in, even the foster nation he swears allegiance to - but the foundation of his strivings is first and foremost his family. And by family is meant the veritable tree that includes under its shade relations up to the third degree as well as in-laws. This explains why the Filipino orphan who does not know his genes is the most popular figure of pity in Filipino soap operas.

 

If there is one institution that truly works in the Philippines, it is probably the Filipino family. Not even the Roman Catholic Church or the State, for all their power and influence, can rival it in claiming the loyalty and allegiance of Filipinos.

 

There are three basic family systems the nuclear family which consists of a husband, wife and children; the polygamous family which consists of a husband or wife and several spouses and their children; and the extended family which brings together several generations in direct line and kinship ties built by marriage. The extended type best describes the Filipino family.

 

The extensions can be mesmerizing. Almost every Filipino thinks of his family as consisting not only of the nuclear cell of spouse and children; it includes for him the innumerable relations of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. These are further extended to include kin acquired through marriage and the institutionalized compadrazo system by which godfathers and godchildren come to be regarded as kinsmen.

 

And what tradition and custom have sanctified, the legal system has reinforced. The State sees the family as a basic social institution which public policy cherishes and protects. This is elaborated in various provisions of the Civil Code which treats marriage as inviolate, prohibits divorce, extols the rearing and education of children, obliges couples to live together and in fidelity to each other, and emphatically states that in case of doubt, all presumptions favor the solidarity of the family.

 

This sanguine view of the Filipino family is by no means shared by all. As Mao did in China, so some scholars and social scientists see the primacy of the family as a monkey on the nation's back.

 

The Hunt study of 1963 opined that the Filipino family system may have deterred national modernization and nationhood and suggested that the shortcomings of the Filipino family may be the defect of its virtues. This has since been echoed by many social scientists, including the Jesuit sociologist John Carroll, who believe that family loyalties impede the development of wider loyalties and cooperation.

 

Some contend that the Philippines may really be no more than an assemblage of millions of families that mirror the country's fragmentation into islands. That behind the division of the republic into cities, provinces, towns and barangays, there is the truer division of society into families.

 

The studies pin on the elemental Filipino family such diverse ills as the prevalence of dependency, nepotism, graft and corruption, lack of initiative and self-reliance, parochialism, and the flabbiness of Philippine nationalism. There is no lack of evidence to back the lament.

 

When President Aquino is criticized for the activities of her relatives, her critics are merely continuing a long tradition of excoriating national leaders through their kinsmen. Certainly, the Marcos regime did much to show the nation how macabre is the adage that blood is thicker than water.

 

Yet, like the conclusion that prizes the family above everything, the knock against the Filipino family is also facile and tendentious. It reflects the vain attempt to find one simple explanation of why the Philippines has proven so slow in developing, when in all likelihood many factors have contributed, with the mystique of the Filipino family only one of them. One could argue as well that the problem of Philippine modernization is not a matter of making the family less the focus of individual loyalty, but of trying to transform its obvious strengths and values into a force for shaping a modern and progressive society.

 

One instance in which these virtues can work for the whole society is to be found in the contemporary phenomenon of Filipino migrant labor. In recent years, because of lack of jobs and opportunities at home, many Filipino families have been wracked by separations as family members have had to venture abroad to work. Overseas Filipino workers, now numbering 1.5 million, endure long years of labor in hardship stations to give their families a little more of welfare and comfort. What they send or bring home from abroad runs in the billions of dollars every year - an undeniable boon to a nation strapped of cash.

 

This says something also about the adaptability of the Filipino family to changing times.

 

It is a popular notion today that modernization, whether fast or slow in coming, will erode family ties and prune the extensions of the Filipino family. But stresses on family life are hardly unknown to Filipinos. They have known their share of urbanization, colonization, modem lifestyles, broken marriages, desertions, the generation gap, and homegrown versions of the communes, but their basic family system and its values have survived.

 

Amidst the challenges of a changing world, the Filipino family will simply continue to adapt and make adjustments, abiding as the essential place of refuge for the Filipino.

 

Batanes Another World

For Batanes - for those three numinous syllables that conjure the distant, the forbidding, the beautiful - one tempts fate.

The Batanes Archipelago lies on the northernmost tip of the Philippines, on a vast expanse of surging waters where the Pacific Ocean meets the China Sea. It is only 525 miles from Manila, but it may as well be another world.

From the air, as the Fokker 50 glides down the landing strip at the foot of Mount Iraya, the land serves up a breathtaking welcome. Pastoral hills rolling down savage seas. Sea birds riding the waves. Puffs of foliage of the deepest green. The wind's way on tall grasses. Low clouds now held in their place by a rainbow with its fragile promise of fine weather. Villages of stone huddled on tractable shores. The morning sun swaddling the land with golden light. An island inchoate, still warm, it seems, with the force of creation.

Always, the sea. It rams against limestone rocks, crashes onto shores and, in Valugan, laps on an incredible beach overlaid with smooth stones. It never rests. On fine days it froths. Roiling, it can send waves thirty feet to the crest, haul ashore from the seafloor rocks as big as houses, or bury an entire village under sand. Most Batanes families have lost a member to the sea.

Always, the hills. Up in what folks call Marlboro Country one half expects a tattooed cowboy or Julie Andrews singing a paean to nature to materialize among the cattle grazing by.

Batanes is the Philippines' smallest province both in terms of area (21,099 hectares) and population (14,663). It is made up of three islands and seven islets including Y'ami, where, on a clear day, the folk say, one can see Taiwan.

Batan, the largest island, contains the capital town Basco. One can circle it in two hours by car. In Sabtang island hillside homes hang above the sea, allowing the folk to fish from their window. Strong current prevent boats from ferrying commuters regularly to Itbayat island. Also, there is a technique to getting on or off shore. There are no piers or beaches. The island is reined in by towering cliffs that drop sharply into the sea. To go ashore, one waits for a strong wave to thrust the boat up to ground level then jump off. One goes through the same acrobatic feat to climb aboard.

The Ivatan, the people of Batanes, have inherited the land's insular character; Unlike most Filipinos who emerged from an eclectic gene pool through intermarriages, the Ivatan are of purer stock. They uniformly bear the features of their ancestors: the Malay's brown skin, the Chinese almond eyes, the Spaniard's aquiline nose.

The anin, or typhoon, is the central fact of Ivatan life. That Batanes is constantly battered by typhoons is a myth; when a typhoon does come, it lashes with a velocity that can break the barometer.

Every Ivatan has a favorite typhoon story. In 1921, the cathedral was unroofed and the wireless tower twisted. In 1905, strong winds suffocated cattle to death. In 1918, a fishing boat was swept away to Annam; five years ago, a fisherman was set adrift to Taiwan. In 1952, someone determined to recover his GI roof chased after it; he got it back at the town plaza, rolled into a ball, driven about like tumbleweed. In 1987, a Philippine Navy landing ship tank ran aground in Basco and a school building was blown away in Mahatao. The governor tells of that stormy night long ago, with the family gathered in the living room waiting for the typhoon to pass. The roof gave way, disgorging in their midst a cow. Next day, there was a feast.

In defiance of nature, the Ivatan have built fortress like homes. The typical Avatar house is made of limestone quarried from the hills and roofed with grass. Walls and roof are a meter thick; windows and doors small and narrow. During a typhoon, rope nets secure homes.

The kitchen, a separate structure, is the most important part of the house. Built around a great stove, it is very like a campfire - warm, safe, a source of communal well-being. When the aruyo trees grow unusually long, tender leaves, the Ivatan are sure a typhoon will hit them in a few days; it is time to fill the kitchen with provisions. Come the typhoon, the entire family lives there.

Life is fundamental. The Ivatan live without television, moviehouses, shopping malls or restaurants. If the frippery of the twentieth century has passed them by so have its ills. Nobody locks his door. No one is too rich or too poor. Every one is a farmer or a fisherman. Besides a spartan life, the Ivatan are bound together by religion. In their uncertain universe God is the only certainty.

Many Ivatan, especially the young, have moved to more hospitable shores but they return on occasions, as did Juliet Ponce, now a Manilan, who came home to wed. Many stay by choice. The governor's wife, an outsider, fell in love with Batanes at first sight and made it her home. Allowed a second life, Gregorio Delatado, 88, will live it again in Batanes, the best place he knows.

Batanes is not for tourists out to shoot Kodakchrome views. It is rather for those still blessed with a sense of wonder, for whom uncharted roads lead to discovery. There are plans to urbanize Batanes. The young are agog: the old dread change. In the old days, the Ivatan believed that when they die they become stars. On cloudless nights, the Ivatan's dark world is lit by hundreds of brilliant stars. Up there is balm to pain of change. Up there is a cairn to folk memory.

 

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