Performing Catholicism, Performing Ambivalence

In 2003, I was admitted to the master’s program (theatre arts) of the UP Diliman Department of Speech Communication and Theatre Arts of the College of Arts and Letters.

My thesis was on the nailing ritual in Cutud in the province of Pampanga. 

The nailing ritual was not my original research plan.

I initially wanted to unearth/rewrite the lost santacruzan script of my grandfather Jacinto “Sitong” Pineda. Incidentally (or fortunately), my friends wanted to see the nailing ritual in the summer of 2004. I have not seen the ritual myself. Witnessing it the first time in 2004 paved the way for a new direction in my research plan.

Nails piercing the foot of the performer performing Kristo (Photo: SAPT)

For almost three years (2004 – 2006), I constantly visited Cutud to build rapport with the locals. In between visits, I wrote the chapters of my thesis. One chapter was presented in a colloquium on Philippine Performing Arts hosted by the College of Arts and Letters in 2005. 

In March 2006, I successfully defended my thesis (I am ever grateful to Prof. Amihan Bonifacio-Ramolete for being a patient advisor and now a very supportive colleague) titled “Ang Ritwal ng Pagpapako sa Krus: Panata at Dulaan sa Bawat Turok ng Pako” (Nailing Ritual: Theatre and Devotion in Every Pierce of the Nail). The thesis was cited as CAL’s Best Graduate Research during the 2006 Commencement Exercises. 

Through the help of Prof. Ramolete, a chapter of this thesis (retitled, “Cutud’s Ritual of Nailing on the Cross: Performance of Pain and Suffering) was published in the Asian Theatre Journal (University of Hawaii Press) in 2008.

When I applied for the Ph. D. Anthropology program in UP, my research proposal was “Performing Ambivalence in Kapampangan Catholic Communities.” One community that I intended to investigate was Apalit. I wanted to look at how ambivalence is manifested and performed in the annual fluvial parade in honor of Apung Iru (St. Peter).

The limbon or ground procession commences after almost six-hours in the Pampanga River (Photo: SAPT)

In April 2007, I wrote my first essay on this subject for a post-graduate in Philippine Anthropology. Thanks to Dr. Floro Quibuyen who constantly checked any research outcome coming from my fieldnotes in Apalit.

The essay was presented the first time in Beijing, China for the Asia Pacific Tourism Association conference. A revised version was presented in Seoul, South Korea for the International Federation for Theatre Research Conference. I then revised the essay and later was published in the Philippine Humanities Review (Volume 10, Special Issue on Philippine Performance and Theatre Studies, 2008).

In summer of 2010, a rereading of both rituals (titled, “Libad nang Apung Iru and Pamamaku King Krus: Performance of Ambivalence in Kapampangan Cultural Spectacles”) was published in the TDR: The Drama Review.

The essay was later developed into a book chapter for my book Performing Catholicism: Faith and Theatre in a Philippine Province. Published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2016, it had an international launching at the Frankfurt International Book Fair in October 2016. In 2017, the book was nominated for Best Book on Art in the National Book Award of the National Book Development Board and the Manila Critic Circle.

The ivory image of Apung Iru (St. Peter) in Apalit, Pampanga (Photo: SAPT)
Knights of St. Peter reaching out to other members at the banks of Calumpit River, the first site of the fluvial procession (Photo: SAPT)
St. Peter is finally transferred in the pagoda (Photo: SAPT)
Other devotees in another pagoda (Photo: SAPT)

In a review published in the Southeast Asian Studies, Sociologist Darlene de Leon Espena (Singapore Management University) remarked: “The book is a compelling read as it offers a nuanced understanding, which deviates from traditional and orthodox Catholic scripts, of the convoluted landscape of religious and cultural processes in the Philippines. In a skillful interweaving of his ethnographic observations, personal insights, and theoretical musings, Tiatco successfully unravels the agency of the people and their role in meaning-making and the production of context for Catholic rituals that simultaneously engage and interrogate the official narrative and message of the Catholic Church. Without a doubt, this book is a significant contribution to the fields of performative studies, Philippine studies, and religious-ethnography studies. It encourages us to look deeper and closer into the inner workings of cultural translations and performances that are occurring at the ground level and therefore attempt to better understand the ideological, cultural, and social underpinnings of certain cultural performances that are otherwise discounted (sometimes) as heretic, problematic, or crude interpretations of orthodox Catholic doctrines.”

The selection below is an excerpt from the essay originally published in TDR: The Drama Review:

The different panata (sacrificial vow) in the two rituals show how the communities negotiate with Catholicism. These negotiations are examples of Lila Abu-Lughod’s “writing against culture […] against the homogenizing discourse of [Catholic] culture” (in Alcedo 2007:112). Catholic tradition has several doctrines that have been internalized by its followers. The externalizations and physicalizations of these doctrines vary depending on how the performers interpret Catholicism. And these interpretations are continuous and ongoing contestations of the community with their local lore or narratives (Tiatco 2008). In Apalit, the ritual/festival is a contestation of Apung Iru’s heroism against the Catholic narrative of St. Peter. These negotiations involve all the actors in the ritual/festival: the kamarera, the KSP, the parish priest, the devotees, and even Apung Iru.

There are two important elements in the Catholic notion of celebration and performance in Apalit: food and water. Previous priests in Apalit have criticized the community’s extravagant food consumption during the ritual/festival. Vincente Catacutan recalls that one priest reminded the Apaliteños of the economic crisis that the community (and the country) was experiencing. But the people responded: “It is the banquet that Apung Iru himself prepared” (see Bahdenhop 2006; and Catacutan 2006). Fr. Larry Sarmiento acquiesced to the traditional way of celebrating. Also, as previously mentioned, the pollution of the river and the incidents of drowning from past celebrations were used by a former priest to persuade the people to end the water performances. The Apaliteños are actually well aware of the pollution of the river and the danger of drowning. Most do not allow their children to bathe in the river. But when the performance begins, the divinities present at the ritual/festival transform this dirty space into something sacred.

In Cutud, although the Catholic Church strongly opposes the ritual nailing to the cross, the community is not persuaded to discontinue it. Their devotion to the ritual is strengthened by the different crises that the community has encountered and overcome—the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, the threat of rich landlords to dislodge the residents of zones 3 and 4, national elections, typhoons, etc. In the nailing ritual, the community integrates folk theatre and Catholic doctrine. As mentioned earlier, the performance is on Good Friday, a very holy day for Catholics who use the day for reflection and meditation. The Church also recommends its congregations to undertake some sacrifice as an observance of this very holy day. In response to this call, the performers unequivocally consider the nailing on the cross to be the ultimate form of sacrifice.

Pamagdarame (flagellation) ritual at Barangay Cutud (Photo: SAPT)
The berdugo in the ritual of pamagdarame (Photo: SAPT)
Jesus is condemned to die on the cross (Photo: SAPT)
The nailing on the cross at the foot of the burol (Photo: SAPT)

Other sacrificial practices observed in the performance are walking with Kristo to the burol, joining the ritual of pamagdarame (flagellation), and memorizing the long lines of the play recited by the major actors. The performance is the community’s instrument for reflection and meditation as it mimics the passion and death of Jesus. The performers observe moments of silence, and they abstain from red meat (pork and beef) prior to the performance as required by the Church for Holy Week, or even all of Lent. However, after the performance, the participants hold a banquet to celebrate Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. The villagers prepare sumptuous meals as if Good Friday were the town’s fiesta. The Church criticizes this festivity reminding people of the required abstinence on Good Friday. The response among residents is that there is a reason to celebrate since Jesus redeemed mankind by dying on the cross.

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