This is Our Strength: Why Filipinos Celebrate Fiestas and Festivals

By Reina Adriano

Photo provided by Reina Adriano

Photo provided by Reina Adriano

In many Filipino homes, there will always be a corner for reverence. You will find an altar with many statues of saints perched on top, with candles, rosaries, and novenas adorning the table where it is set. In the States where I do not have my own altar, I  have a makeshift one instead: a small area of my study table is occupied by stampitas—images of the Pope, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ on bookmarks—staring straight at me while I read my notes for grad school, allowing me to remember where my religious roots lie. Beside those on my desk, a rosary hangs around a small lamp. My mother usually chats me up on Messenger in the evenings, “Don’t forget to pray before going to bed,” she says. “And ask for guidance while you’re away.”

 

“I will, Ma,” I reply. “I always remember.” I close my laptop and head to bed.

 

I make it a habit to remember that February is the feast day of Santa Misericordia, the patron of my mother’s town--and to some extent, mine--in Legazpi, Albay. It is a small town in Bicol, Philippines. Tourists who visit our place long for beach weather and white sand, clear skies and fresh flowing water, but reality is far from that. Where my mother comes from, there is not much but sea and storms, the wind brushing past from the east side of the peninsula. There is also an active volcano that erupts every so often, spreading lava to the nearby towns and dusting every rooftop with ash. My mother loves visiting our province--both her hometown and my summer spot--in time for the fiestas; my grandparents, too. They are all religious devotees of the Virgin Mary.

 There is this concept called Panata, or a votive offering, wherein families pass on the tradition of servicing the Church. The religious statues symbolize the faith of many Filipino households, always revering the saints in altars secluded in a corner of living rooms. The scent of candles, fragrant oils, and incense waft through the house; rosaries, novenas and prayer books decorate the pedestals. It is our way of connecting with divinity. In addition to this, some families give out donations, others volunteer their sons and daughters to partake in the parade for the festivals of their patron saints. In my family’s case, we promised that we would give our patron saint, Nuestra Senora de Santa Misericordia (Our Lady of Mercy), her dress for the parade. It is a tradition that has been upheld and passed on for generations.

My mother is an avid believer of this Panata. It is her promise of attending to Our Lady in exchange for a good life for everyone in our family. Imagine buying fabric, getting the measurements, sewing the dress, adding beads and sequins, and putting ornaments on a statue. Imagine numerous preparations, sleepless nights on choosing the best design “worth wearing by the Virgin Mary,” hands overworked from threading through a needle. My family does all of this because we believe there is value in these acts somewhere in the afterlife. However, my family also does it to show how close-knit we are with the community. Not many people understand our customs and traditions, but it is in that mystery behind the beliefs that make them want to see it for themselves. What’s so amazing about this culture of togetherness that other nationalities find so fascinating? What is so special about the Filipino handaan (feast) and salusalo (get-togethers), the kamayan or boodle fight, and the festival etiquette that is associated with it? Why do we love celebrating feasts and even eating with our hands with the food served on banana leaves as a way of sharing food with the entire community?

Photo provided by Reina Adriano

Photo provided by Reina Adriano

Popular festivals such as Masskara, Sinulog, Ati-Atihan, Dinagyang, Panagbenga, and Moriones are part of tourists’ bucket lists. These festivals are mostly connected to our history and Spanish influence due to the 300-year occupation. Needless to say it also anchors us down to our religious history of the dominant Roman Catholicism. Many tourists watch penitential rites during the Lenten Season, thinking its all colors and loud music when in fact it’s all about people reflecting on their faith and their way of life—a time for contemplation and penance. I remember as a child watching other young girls being dressed up as an angel to help in the Salubong for Easter Sunday, as a flowergirl for Flores de Mayo, and as Reyna Elena, if chosen for the Santacruzan parade. It should be worth noting that these are quite different from the livelier festivities tantamount to fun and enjoyment. However, if they stay long enough until Easter they will find themselves surrounded by activities that signify rebirth and renewal. Cash-prized contests such as Bingo and raffle draws, palarong Pinoy (Filipino games), and even beauty pageants are also part of the week-long activities.

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The food will not disappoint, either: the adobo, palabok (festival noodles), kare-kare (curry), lumpia (egg rolls), all the smells of palatable cuisine which the household is ready to share to anyone who chooses to enter. Sometimes I would watch my grandmother toil in the kitchen in her own sweat, wondering why she tries to give so much when in fact she receives very little in return. She would let me taste-test a few of her treats, lest she’s expecting a lot of guests knocking on our door. “May bisita, Apo (We have guests, Granddaughter,” she would tell, “Papasukin mo lang (Just let them in).” Never mind the small, cramped living room, or the lack of air-conditioning in the house. We have extra monobloc chairs and mini-electric fans, anyway. Never mind that there isn’t much to go around; what’s important is that we have something to share.

The fact remains that people will always invite you to eat at their place, even when you tell them you're just passing by, or that you just wanted to see the parade, and then go your way after. The locals would even ask you to take some food along before you leave. This is also the reason why we love karaoke over beer and good company while singing to our heart’s desire, why we can fill an entire house with a dozen relatives or more from both sides of the family. We remember our faith and traditions by celebrating these festivals. But we also love to leave the impression that we can always share, despite the strain in financial resources or in times of trouble. We choose to welcome those who are estranged, those who rise above adversity, those who have strength to hope. All I can say is that Filipinos endure. I am miles away from my family right now, but I can imagine everyone happily eating with their hands. I can smell the waft of great food from the kitchen. I can hear the chatting of relatives and the queuing up of songs on the jukebox. Somewhere in the corner, the saints and our offerings. This is our way of community.


We’re always looking for BOSFilipinos blog writers! If you’d like to contribute, send us a note at info@bosfilipinos.com.

Todos Los Santos in the Philippines

by Bianca Garcia

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Do you celebrate All Saints’ Day? I do, and lately the movie Coco has been on my mind. I love how the movie showcased Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), when big throngs of family and friends congregate at the cemetery to commemorate their loved ones. The movie tugged at my heartstrings because it reminded me so much of how we celebrate Todos Los Santos (All Saints’ Day) in the Philippines.

Each year on November 1st, Filipinos swarm to the cemeteries to honor our beloved family and friends who have passed away. Some families would come the previous day, some would come the next day (on All Souls’ Day), and some would stay there for the three days. Some people camp out and spend the night, and the cemeteries are literally packed with people, food, light, flowers, candles, and music.

The energy during Todos Los Santos is anything but sad. The holiday has become a de facto family reunion, so there’s a jovial feeling in the air. Filipinos honor our loved ones who have passed by bringing their favorite foods, reminiscing about them, praying for them, and keeping our memories of them alive. There is something very uplifting about celebrating the lives of our dead, instead of mourning their deaths.     

In my family, we go to two cemeteries - one for my mother’s side, and another for my father’s side. We bring food, we pray, we catch up with our relatives. The kids play, the adults talk, we all eat and enjoy our time together. I am sad that some of my family have passed too soon: Lolo Ising, Lolo Leno, Lola Nading,Tito Jun,  Ate Isabel. But I am also happy that I still have them in my life - through my living relatives, and through Todos Los Santos.

*Quick Filipino vocab:

Lolo = grandfather

Lola = grandmother

Tito = uncle

Ate = older sister

Trying Halo-Halo in Metro Manila

By Roland Calupe

Photo provided by Roland Calupe

Photo provided by Roland Calupe

If you haven’t heard of halo-halo before, it’s a Philippine shaved ice dessert that’s amazing to eat, and a great way to beat the heat and humidity in the summertime. The literal translation of halo-halo means “mix mix,” and it’s exactly that with the myriad of ingredients that are included in this tasty dessert.

On my trip to the Philippines in 2015, I tried some of the best versions of halo-halo in Metro Manila. Here are some of the most prominent ones from my trip:

Photo provided by Roland Calupe

Photo provided by Roland Calupe

Razon’s of Guagua (Guagua, Pampanga) – The first Razon’s of Guagua opened in 2003, but it all started in Guagua, Pampanga in 1972. Today, Razon’s has grown to over 70+ stores around the Philippines! Their version is a purist’s dream of halo-halo. Besides the shaved ice and milk, there’s only 3 other ingredients: sweetened macapuno (young coconut), sweetened saba banana, and leche flan (custard with a caramel layer). This version just melts in your mouth, and it’s probably my favorite halo-halo!

Photo provided by Roland Calupe

Photo provided by Roland Calupe

The Original Digman’s (Bacoor, Cavite) – My Dad’s family is from Cavite, and Digman is a barangay (barrio) of Bacoor. It’s actually really hard to go to the original Digman in Bacoor because the success and popularity of the original has spawned a multitude of other Digman’s Halo-Halo restaurants in the area. Some of the locals say that it dates back to the 1930s. This version of halo-halo contains a lot of ingredients, and is more consistent with what you may see at a Filipino restaurant in the U.S. It has saging na saba (saba banana), white beans, sago (starch from palm stems), garbanzo beans, red mung beans, nata de coco (jelly from fermented coconut water), jackfruit, sugar palm fruit, ube halaya (purple yam jam), red and white gulaman (fruit jellies), ube ice cream, and leche flan. All the ingredients come together with the ice and condensed milk to make a slushy-style halo-halo that you eat with a spoon, and drink straight from the glass it’s served in. All the ingredients are prepared fresh daily, and it makes their version of this dessert really come together.

Photo provided by Roland Calupe

Photo provided by Roland Calupe

Milkyway Café (Makati City, Manila) – This version of halo-halo has similar ingredients to Digman’s but they have been an ice cream shop since the 1950s. Their halo-halo has leche flan, preserved fruits, ube, pinipig (toasted grains), and milk. You’ll really enjoy the flaky ice that they serve, as it goes perfectly with these ingredients. When you get it topped with their ice cream, it’s extra special. This easily could be anyone’s favorite version of halo-halo if they try it here first and decide never to go anywhere else!

Kabigting’s (Paralaya, Arayat, Pampanga) – Kabigting’s started in the 70s and their version of halo-halo has only a few ingredients: creamed corn, mashed white beans, and carabao’s milk pastillas (milk-based candies) along with extra finely shaved ice. As you can probably tell by now, ice is a big deal when it comes to halo-halo, and Kabigting might just have the best ice around. This version may be simple, but all the ingredients come together nicely. You can find Kabigting’s branches throughout Metro Manila these days, as they’ve expanded to several locations throughout the years.

 

Photo provided by Roland Calupe

Photo provided by Roland Calupe

So if you ever get a chance to go to Manila, let me know which version you like and respond in the comments below!

Note from the BF team: If you’re ambitious and can’t get to a halo-halo spot, check out this article in Filipino Kitchen to try making it at home!


We’re always looking for BOSFilipinos blog writers / subjects! If you’d like to contribute or have a suggestions, feel free to send us a note: info@bosfilipinos.com.

A conversation with my Best Friend, Saima

By Leila Amerling

Saima and I, THEN and NOW...   (our Junior year of highschool (1998) and Saima as my maid of honor (2016). I actually couldn't find one normal picture of us in any of my wedding photos.)

Saima and I, THEN and NOW...

(our Junior year of highschool (1998) and Saima as my maid of honor (2016). I actually couldn't find one normal picture of us in any of my wedding photos.)

Saima Kazi is a half-Bangladeshi, half-Indian Muslim living a foodie life in Boston. Saima has a story to tell and it starts (where most of our stories begin) where she grew up: the Philippines. Saima was born in Bangkok, Thailand, moved to the Philippines later in elementary school, and lived the rest of her formidable years there. She then moved to Boston for college and has been here ever since.

Saima and I have been friends, best friends, since the 6th grade (although she will claim it was the 4th). Like any close friend, she has been a part of many of my life transitions, she was even my maid of honor. She is the reason why I actually live in Boston. Well technically, she was the person who convinced me to move to Boston from the Philippines for college. The reason why I’m still here, well, I ask myself that every winter. It could have something to do with Saima’s cooking. If you ever have her cooking, you’d probably stay in Boston too.

Saima is one of the first members to join BOSFilipinos, and was a sous chef for our Filipino Food Pop-Up last September. When we host our monthly Filipino food potlucks, Saima's contributions are the first to be cleaned out. Anyone who has tasted her food will agree that she's an incredible cook. And anyone who meets her will also agree that she completely lives and understands the Filipino way of life.

Leila: This might be a loaded question but, where are you from originally?
Saima: I inherited the ethnicity of being from Bangladesh, but moved to the Philippines from Thailand where I was born. I grew up in the Philippines which is where my most coherent years were spent (i.e. teens), and it’s where I feel the most connected, like the culture and the food. Mainly because I was surrounded by Filipinos.

Leila: What do you do?
Saima: I help manage a boutique in the fashion retail industry.

Leila: What’s the best part of your job?
Saima: Meeting different people, being able to style them, and being able to teach people how to style them, leaving everyone happy once I’ve interacted with them! Well, at least most of the time...

Leila: What is your favorite thing to do in your free time?
Saima: Cook new things, spend time with my Besties, dance with my handsome Haitian boyfriend, and catch-up on Netflix. I’ve been watching Downton Abbey lately.

Leila: What is your favorite thing to cook?
Saima: Oh boy! Another loaded question. Adobo, Pinakbet, Arroz Caldo, Munggo, Thai Meatball Curry, Haitian Chicken Stew, Biryani, anything with a fried egg on it. I could keep going but those are in rotation in my kitchen.

Leila: Is that influenced by your background?
Saima: Oh yes! Thai I picked up from spending my early years there. At home, we cooked Indian, and most of my latter years was spent in Filipino restaurants and homes. But it’s not just the food, it’s the people that I’ve come across that have influenced my cooking (you and your mom are a BIG part of it). I was born into a conservative Indian family forced to follow rules but the Philippines brought me sunshine, tanduay rum, dried mangoes and introduced me to the other aspects of non-conservative ways of life, like binge eating, drinking, dancing and singing karaoke. I mean who doesn’t want a piece of the Philippines?!

Leila: How did you learn to cook?
Saima: Well, I never had to cook until I moved to the the States. I am a foodie so when I left the Philippines I craved it a lot. I thought about the flavors that I missed and enjoyed the most, so I took my favorite flavors, and learned to cook by trial and error.

Leila: When do you plan on going back to the Philippines?
Saima: When they eradicate all lizards. Hate them. Or when there’s a wedding to attend. That’s when all of the best Pinoy foods come out to play (except lechon, I’ll never know the true deliciousness thanks to my religion).

So there you have it folks. A little peek into the life of my friend, Saima. I’ll bet you may think that you have a boring life, but really, like Saima, you have a story to tell too!

 

We want to hear your story too! Or if you know of anyone that has a story to tell, or that you want to interview please let us know! Send us an email at info@bosfilipinos.com or hit us up on social media and we'll get back to you ASAP.

Of Cockfights and Adobo

by Bianca Garcia

© Bianca Garcia

© Bianca Garcia

This is an excerpt of an article I wrote for Offline Magazine (now shuttered down). I wanted to write about a controversial local tradition, and weave in stories about my family and food (of course). The entire piece is published on my blog.

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I stared at the gates outside the arena, gray and rusty, paint peeling off. The scorching sun was beating down on us, bright and relentless, and on the ground there were clouds of dirt being kicked around by the flip flops that everyone wears. There were sounds of children playing nearby. It was a typical provincial scene, grand and quaint at the same time. We shuffled to the entrance, and then we entered a different world.

We were at the cockfighting arena in San Fernando, Pampanga, a province in the Philippines. Dark, humid, loud and thumping, I could feel a frantic energy pulsing in the air. It was my first time going to see a cockfight, or “sabong” as it is called in Filipino. Cockfighting is a blood sport so violent that it’s outlawed in many other countries, but it has been part of Filipino culture for centuries.

In the Philippines, cockfighting is a great equalizer, where the rich and poor come together without any class distinctions. It is a community activity that brings neighbors together and ignites the bonding of the townsfolk’s men. A common joke among the wives is that the roosters are luckier than they are, because their husbands caress and lovingly massage the roosters first thing in the morning. Up until the 60s, when most parts of the country started becoming more urbanized, almost every backyard had chicken and rooster coops, with every family being invested in the sport of cockfighting.

To read the rest of the article, please head over to Confessions of a Chocoholic.