The Month of May and the Season of the Queen in the Philippines

The excerpt below is from my essay “Panata, Pagtitipon, Pagdiriwang: A Preliminary Contexualization of Cultural Performances in the Philippines” published in Humanities Diliman: A Journal of Philippine Humanities, a Scopus-listed journal published by the University of the Philippines Diliman. The journal is open-access, please click here for the current issue. To access the full essay, please click here.

 The santacruzan is a popular cultural performance in the Philippines performed in different Catholic communities of the archipelago during the month of May. The month of May in the Philippines is a transitory period from the heat of the dry season to the start of the wet season (or the monsoon) locally known as the tag-ulan. In Abe Florendo and Zardo A. Austria’s coffee-table book Sagala, Florendo and Austria describe the month as a period in the archipelago when “the blazing tropical sun turns the fields of grain into golden brown and coaxes the flowers to bloom and the fruits to ripen on the boughs, suffusing the air with a fresh fragrance — in farms and homes, at elegant banquet tables and modest vendors’ stalls — and tempting everyone with a luscious fleshiness,” signifying the festive environment that the season brings to the community. May is also popularly known as the month of flowers in the archipelago. 

The Catholic Church also marks May as the month of the Virgin Mary in the predominantly Catholic country.  Beginning in the 13thcentury, the Christians (and Catholics) have been dedicating the month of May to the Virgin, proclaiming her as the Queen of the Heaven and Earth. In modern times, Pope Paul VI continued envisioning May as the month dedicated to the Virgin.  He wrote in his 1965 encyclical message that the devotion must be used as a means of obtaining prayers for peace.

In the Philippines, the combination of this devotion to Mary and the festive mood brought by colorful flowers results in a month-long secular festivity called santacruzan or flores de mayo (flowers of May).  In many Tagalog communities it is called sagala. In other regions of the country, santacruzan is known in several names: dotoc in the Bicol region, katapusan or pag-aalay in the Southern Tagalog region of Batangas and Laguna, sabatan in Pampanga. 

According to Florendo and Austria, the performance is believed to have originated from Malolos, Bulacan where the community in olden times performed an annual komedya titled “Tibag” by an unknown author. The play narrates the legend of Queen Helena and her court as they search for the holy cross or the wooden figure where Jesus Christ was crucified. Today, the santacruzan is no longer a reenactment based on a staged komedya but a parade of muses representing the play’s important characters, particularly Reyna Elena and his son Constantino. 

Traditionally, the santacruzan is a parade or a ritual pageant where young women don costumes of elaborate gowns, representing mythical characters, historical and cultural figures, and different names attributed to the Virgin Mary. Accompanied by the townsfolk singing devotional songs for the Virgin Mary (often the popular Latin prayer “Dios te Salve” and “Ave Maria”) and by young men (commonly family members) holding sulô (torches) to illuminate the night, each woman is accompanied by two men carrying an arko, a decorated bamboo arch covered with colorful flowers and papier mâché.  On top of each arch is the character title the muse represents.  At the end of the pageant is the court of Reyna Elena and her son Constantino guarded by a group of 12 men, commonly called dose pares

(Photo: UP EIDR Project Philippine Performance Archive on Cultural Performance)
(Photo: UP EIDR Project Philippine Performance Archive on Cultural Performance)
(Photo: UP EIDR Project Philippine Performance Archive on Cultural Performance)
(Photo: UP EIDR Project Philippine Performance Archive on Cultural Performance)
(Photo: UP EIDR Project Philippine Performance Archive on Cultural Performance)
(Photo: UP EIDR Project Philippine Performance Archive on Cultural Performance)
(Photo: UP EIDR Project Philippine Performance Archive on Cultural Performance)
(Photo: UP EIDR Project Philippine Performance Archive on Cultural Performance)
(Photo: UP EIDR Project Philippine Performance Archive on Cultural Performance)
(Photo: UP EIDR Project Philippine Performance Archive on Cultural Performance)
(Photo: UP EIDR Project Philippine Performance Archive on Cultural Performance)

Following the muses is a group of young girls commonly clad in angel costumes or sometimes also in gowns. They hold placards spelling out Ave Maria, pertaining to the different titles associated with the Virgin Mary. In many traditional santacruzan, a total of 15 titles are paraded: from Divina Pastora to Reyna Candelaria and other names known in the Catholic world. After the Marian titles is the Reyna de Flores or the Queen of Flowers, typically assigned to a young lady who is also considered to play the role of Queen Helena. In some areas, a beauty pageant is held prior to the santacruzan in which the winner is assigned to be Reyna Helena and her runner-up, Reyna de Flores. 

Reyna de Flores is then followed by the court of Helena commencing with a lad riding a horse. In some areas, he is named Heneral Roldan, believed to be the general of the court.  He is followed by the dose pares, or members of the army, whom he leads. After this group of young men, Reyna Elena is accompanied by a young boy named Constantino. The grandiosity of Reyna Elena and Constantino are marked by their appearance under a grand arko with four handles and sometimes held by four boys. 

 In Angeles City, to hark back on santacruzan’s history as a street play reenacting the search for the holy cross where Christ was crucified, a Moorish prince named Goido prevents the court from proceeding and accuses the Reyna Elena and her company as trespassers. In the end, Goido allows the pilgrims to proceed as he falls in love with the queen. 

In San Luis, Batangas, the pageant starts at the village’s kapilya (small church).  The delegation begins with musicos(brass band) playing popular tunes.  The band is followed by a group of hired teenage youths performing the ati-atihan and a group of young majorettes. The actual pageant then follows, beginning with small children dressed in colorful gowns. With them are flowers to be offered to the Virgin Mary at the end of the pilgrimage inside the kapilya. The hermano and his family members are next in line.  On the hermano’s hand is the emmie, a symbolic object passed on to the hermano by the fiesta committee to signify his primary role of financing and sponsoring the year’s pageant-ritual.  Next in line are the sagalas or muses.  To distinguish their roles, they wear sashes the hermano has provided with the inscription of the roles assigned to them.  As in the traditional santacruzan, the cultural, historical and mythical figures walk before the Marian titles. In addition to the common Marian titles, the San Luis santacruzan includes other Marian titles such as the Lady of Caysasay, Lourdes and Fatima. Unlike the traditional santacruzan, the young girls costumed as angels are lined up only after these Marian titles, carrying their placards spelling Ave Maria. Immediately after the angels are Reyna Elena and Constantino, played by the hermano’s daughter and son. 

 Since the introduction of Catholicism in the Philippines, this tradition and cultural performance has lived on for more than 100 years. Today, the pageant ritual has evolved in several typologies.  In Marikina and in Malabon, the annual santacruzan is performed by the bakla and transvestites.  In Pasay City, at the Mall of Asia, the Fashion Designers Association of the Philippines host an annual santacruzan where members of the association compete among themselves as they interpret the different characters of the santacruzan through elaborately designed gowns and costumes.

The santacruzan as a cultural performance is centered on pagdiriwang. In recent years, it has evolved into a spectacle featuring the most beautiful women in a village. Each village has its own rendition of the performance, making it a pagtitipon.

However, panata is also highly engaged since it is still a very religious ritual-performance. For instance, beauty queen Yvethe Santiago (Binibining Pilipinas Supranational 2014) has been participating in the santacruzan since her younger years. In May 2016, the Designers Association of Quezon invited her to be the province’s Reyna Elena, which she promptly accepted. Over the years, she developed a career in modeling. This paved the way for many more invitations for her to participate in different santacruzan and sagala, which she accommodated as long as her schedule permited because for her, taking part in the santacruzan and in the sagala are acts of panata stemming from generations of devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Analogous to the barefoot procession she participated in when she was young in her home province of Albay, she thought of walking long distances in 5- to 6-inch heels and wearing heavy gowns (including, during her participation in Lucena, a 20-kg gown) as forms of sacrifices, especially if these combined with enduring the heat of the sun or the downpour of rain. 

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