The feast of Our Lady of Peñafrancia (locally called Ina or mother by devotees) is celebrated on the Sunday after the Octave (8 Days) of September 8 (the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Catholic calendar) that usually falls on the second or third Sunday of September in Naga City in the province of Camarines Sur. Although Ina is housed at the Peñafrancia Basilica Minore (popularly called the Shrine of Our Lady of Peñafrancia) in Naga City, the Virgin is considered as the patroness of the entire Bicol Region. The Catholic community of the region (comprising of six provinces namely Albay, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Catanduanes, Masbate, and Sorsogon) holds a pilgrimage to Naga City at least once a year in September to celebrate and honor her divinity.
The festivity is a month-long celebration composed of secular or state-sponsored activities and Church-led activities. Many of the state-sponsored events (led by both the Naga City mayor and the Camarines Sur governor) are competitive activities where cities, municipalities or often universities in the region compete with each other in various areas such as sports, dance, and music. The highlight of the state-led activities is the Miss Bicolandia (est. 1982), the longest running beauty pageant in the region, boasting of winners and runners-up who have been successful in national pageants such as Binibining Pilipinas, Miss Philippines-Earth and Miss Philippines World.
As one of the most anticipated Catholic performances in the nation, Peñafrancia is composed of many religious activities that are preceded by a novena, or nine days of prayer, in honor of the Virgin. On the first day, a replica of the Virgin of Peñafrancia (together with the image of the divina rostra or the Divine Face of Jesus) is brought from its shrine to the 400-year old Naga Metropolitan Cathedral and Parish of Saint John the Evangelist (Naga Cathedral) where the first-day novena mass is held. The transference of the image is locally called the translacion, literally an act of transferring: an all-male ensemble called voyadores is literally transferring the image of the divina rostra and the image of the Virgin from the shrine to their temporary abode at the Naga Cathedral for nine days.
On the last day, the image is returned to her shrine following the Naga River route via a fluvial procession called regata. The voyadores transfer the divina rostra followed by Ina to the market place near the Rio Grande de Naga or the Naga River. In the river, equally frenetic groups of voyoaders ridden in colorful bangkas (boats) are waiting.
When the flatboat reaches its destination (The Shrine, the devotees shout “Viva la Virgen” (Long live the Virgin!) and the image is carried back in a procession to the cathedral.
Traslacion. Immediately after the novena prayer between noontime and 1 pm, traslacion begins by the priests or sometimes the priest’s representatives bringing the image of the divino rostra and the image of the Virgin to their respective andas (parade wagons). After being installed in its andas, the divino rostra is then pulled by a group of voyadores while others are rushing to touch the image. Depending on which affiliation one belongs, it is common for a voyador to wear a prescribed uniform by the group. Commonly, a group wears the same t-shirt with the same color and the same print. This is to easily identify each other, especially since, everyone aims to touch the image of the divino rostra or the manto (the garb) of the Ina. Touching the image or the garb is a difficult task especially since the number of voyadores reaches up to 20,000 and annually. Reaching the images involves the group pulling one member upwards and let him walk through their shoulders – literally making the other members as a human bridge leading to the icons.
This transfer is a performance of panata, a sacrificial and religious performance enacted by a voyador intended for himself or his loved ones. Often, voyadores are performing this painstaking panata for a sick loved one such as the case of one informant whose wife was diagnosed with cancer the first year he joined the translacion in 1998. In other cases, a voyador joins the traslacion because of familial tradition – male members of the family are devotees; hence, a family panata such as the case of Frank who has been participating in the ritual performance since his teenage years.
Frank has an eighteen-year old son who recently joined the traslacion in 2016. Remarking that his participation is “panata na ng pamilya ” (a family devotion), it is also important to note that this first-timer voyador exclaimed in full pride “panahon ko nang maging tunay na lalaki. Ang tatay ko at lolo ko ay mga voyadores. Bata pa lang ako alam ko na dapat din akong sumama sa traslacion at kailangan kong mahawakan ang manto ng Ina” (It is my time to become a man. Both my father and grandfather are voyadores. When I was younger, I knew that I should also be part of the traslacion and I have to touch Ina’s garb.”
This remark is both fascinating and intriguing since the teenager is convinced of his becoming a real man only if he becomes like his father and grandfather: veteran voyadoresespecially since both have already touched the manto of Ina. Incidentally, the young man has not touched the manto that year: “okay lang yun, sina tatay matagal din naman bago nahawakan ang manto.” (That is not a problem. It also took some time before dad and grandpa were able to touch the garb of the Virgin). In this regard, for many vayadores, participating in the traslacion is not only a devotion or a panatabut also rite-of-passage: becoming a real man – a rite of passage for young boys to become a man.
The young man was with his barkada (peers) when he joined in 2016. They were eight in total but joined a larger group consisting of 32. They wore orange t-shirts with the face of the divino rostra printed on it. Like Frank’s son, five members of the eight young men participated in the ritual and festival because of a particular belief that they have to become a “tunay na lalaki”(real man).
Prusisyon at Dawn Time. Frank also explains that “mabilis magtampo ang Ina, siya ang reyna! Dapat walang ibang papansinin” justifying why no woman is allowed to join the voyadores. Furthermore, 45-year old Virginia Pacheco, also a devotee of Inaand an official of the Catholic Women’s League of the Naga Cathedral links the no-woman voyadores performance to tradition: “simula noong magkaisip ako, ganyan na ginagawa dito. Basta ang mga lalaki sa traslacion at mga babae may madaling araw na prusisyon naman kasi. Tradisyon ba” [As long as I remember, it has always been like that. Male devotees to the traslacion and female to the early dawn procession]. This early morning performance will be elaborated later but it is also noteworthy to include here a pragmatic reason for the absence of women in the tradition as also expounded by Virginia: “hindi naman kakayanin ng mga kababaihan yung ginagawa ng mga voyador – tingnan mo naman, hinihila yung tali tapos nagsisiksikan sila upang maabot ang manto ng Ina.” [Female devotees could never perform the physical demand of the tradition, compared to the strength of the voyadores. Just look at the male devotees – they carry with them the wagon and they rush to touch the garb of the lady]. In this regard, the maintenance of the tradition and the physical demand of the ritual are often used as the culprits on the non-participation of women.
Virginia noted the specific ritual devotion where women become the main performers is performed at dawn. As soon as the voyadores have transferred the Virgin from its shrine to its new home for nine days, the women popularly called the prayer warriors take over to pray the rosary, clean the manto and collect donations and community members’ intentions for the virgin. At dawn, these women meet up and parade Ina in a street procession traversing the church to the marketplace to the town plaza and back to the church.
The Regata or the Fluvial Parade. On the last day of the Peñafrancia is the return of Ina to her shrine via a fluvial procession popularly labled as regata (from regatta, which literally means boat race). In this devotional act, the voyadores once again step into the spotlight. This time, there are two divisions: those on ground for the transfer of the images of the divino rostra and the Ina from the Naga Cathedral to the pagoda at the Rio Grande de Naga stationed at the central market of the city and those on the water in order to transfer the images back to the shrine. In the river, thousands of bangka (boats) are eagerly waiting for the coming of the Ina. These boats are tangled to a long rope inserted in the pagoda of the Ina. These boats then pull the pagoda from the central market district going to the shrine – cruising approximately 3 kilometers of the entire stretch of the river.
Usually, by 3 pm, devotees start to line the banks of the river. Many houses and even commercial buildings along the river open their doors to guests from all over the region and even other devotees from other places. For many, opening up the doors of the residences is an act of hospitality, a common performance during any fiesta celebration in the archipelago. Nonetheless, for many visitors, this will enable them to have a closer view of the Inaas she passes by the river.
Everyone is carrying candles and handkerchief in anticipation of the passing of Ina. Devotees and pilgrims are shouting “Viva La Virgen” as the pagoda being pulled by the voyadores ridden in the colorful boats pass by. As Ina passes by, devotees and pilgrims raise their handkerchief and wave it to the direction of the pagoda. The shouting gets louder as the pagoda gets nearer the location of the pilgrims and devotees.
Once the image is transferred back to its shrine, a Holy Mass will be celebrated presided by the bishop of the Archdiocese of Caceres. The bishop is normally accompanied by the priests from the different parishes of the Bicol region.
Devotees normally use tradition as the reason behind prohibiting women to participate in the regata. Interestingly, there are some reasons which are amusing such as Ate Linda’s remarks: “reyna si Ina. Dapat siya lang ang babaeng bida.” [Ina is the queen. She should only be the female protagonist in the ritual-festival]. Manang Maring, a candle seller at the Naga Cathedral narrates that sometime in the 1980s, the pagoda sank.” She continues: “may isang babae kasi na hindi napansin ng mga tao na nakapasok sa pagoda. Mukhang lalaki kasi. Parang tomboy kasi. Nagtampo ang ina” [There is a girl who joined the pagoda. Nobody noticed because she looked like a girl – tomboyish look. The Queen got jealous, that’s why.”