A childhood memory becomes a jumping point for the many festivals that add color to Negros Oriental.
I always have this idea of Dumaguete in a festive dance. Constant, swirling, colorful, packed with secret joy. Once, when I was a boy of perhaps five or six, I remember my mother decked in an extravagantly crafted sinamay dress--a postmodern hybrid of dalagang bukid and Scarlett O'Hara, what we readily think of as "native," barring questions of authenticity. But I didn't think in those terms then, of course, only that I was unprepared to behold the sight of my mother--my mother!--and how she was acting strange and out of character. I remember her whirling about with something like girlish glee in the middle of our living room in the house we were renting from old Tia Tansing near the dead-end of Sta. Rosa Street.
"What are you doing?" I think I must have asked.
"Dancing!" she said.
"Why are you dancing?"
"I'm off to dance in the streets!"
"Why will you be dancing in the streets?" I, too, was becoming confounded by my sudden role as my mother's interrogator.
"It's the Buglasan!" she weeeee'd away, as if that answered everything.
Buglasan? I had no idea what she was talking about. I knew only that she went off towards downtown with some of her kumares, all similarly dressed. And that soon it rained. And that the bunch came back later that night perfectly wet. And perfectly joyful.
Perhaps because of that, I have always thought of the Buglasan as an excuse for joy. My mother's laughter is all I hear when I think of that word, an echo from the past that has stayed with me. Years later, I'd behold the bigger spectacle that Buglasan Festival has become--the drum beats, the crush of people, the skirmish of colors on the streets--and above the din, it is her laughter still that I behold.
Buglasan--which takes its name from the ancient pre-colonial name of Negros Island, which was a wilderness of craggy grass called "buglas"--is the province's mother of all fiestas, always held sometime in October, and has become the festival that gathers together all the other smaller festivals from around Negros Oriental spread throughout the year.
It is a veritable cornucopia of celebrations--many of them religious, but a lot more of the secular variety, always celebrating harvest, or natural wonder, or plain fellowship. From Jimalalud, there is the Hambabalud Festival, derived from the hambabalud tree, which the town venerates. From Bayawan, there is the Tawo-Tawo Festival, which celebrates the scarecrow (tawo-tawo) as sentinels of the city's rice fields, and its prosperity. From Basay, a bayside town down south, there is the Kapaw Festival, which gives thanks to the annual duot--or an extraordinary large press of schools of fish--which gives abundant catch, or kapaw. From Canlaon, in the mountains of the north, there is the Pasayaw Festival, a retelling of the story of ill-fated lovers Kan and Laon. From Bindoy, there is the Libod Sayaw Festival, a pageant in folk dances that goes around the main thoroughfares of the town (libod), to end in the plaza. From Sibulan, there is the Yag-yag Festival, which celebrates the land crabs and their egg-laying (yag-yag) in the sands of the Cangmating shoreline--a metaphor of thanksgiving for the continuing cycle of rich marine life. From the same town, there is the Gapnod Festival, which involves a fluvial procession of lights and venerated images.
From Sta. Catalina, there is the Sakubhan Festival, a thanksgiving for its annual sugarcane harvest. Also from the same town, you have the Tag-ilis Festival, which is a colorful dramatization of the old barter and trade (tag-ilis), set against the town's sugar cane fields. From San Jose, there is the Ayuquitan Festival, which centers around a dance celebrating the original name of the town, which is taken from inokitan, or "bird pickings," the rice husks and fruit peels left by foraging local birds. From Zamboanguita, there is the Baolan Festival, which consists of an elaborate thanksgiving ritual for the town's vast farm lands called baol. From Guihulngan, there is the Guihulngan Festival, which retells the legend of the town's bell--used in the old days to warn town folk of incoming marauding Moros--which was dropped (guihulngan) at sea by the angry invaders. From Amlan, there is the Budyas Festival, which celebrates an old ritual--given to St. Peter and St. Paul--invoked for the good fortune of fishermen. This consists of a ritual blessing of fleet and fishing implements, followed by a fluvial procession of lavishly-decorated boats transporting the patron's image from the first to the second chapel of Tandayag. From Tanjay, the province's oldest settlement, there is the Saulog Festival, where a procession depicts a moro-moro and the intercession of St. Peter, riding on a white horse, who saves the town from pirates. From Bais, there is its mardi gras called Hudyaka Festival, and also the Sipong Festival, a thanksgiving rite for the fruits of labor from the fields and from the sea. From Dauin, there is the Kinaiyahan Festival, a lively street dance and field presentations depicting the town's unique natural attractions. From Pamplona, there is the Kasulad Festival, derived from kawit, sugong, and salad--tools used for harvesting coconuts and processing fruit and tree. From Siaton, there is the Inagta, which celebrates the descendants of Negros' dark-skinned original inhabitants. From Dumaguete, there is the Sandurot Festival--a beachfront ceremony, which celebrates the city's cultural melting pot of Spanish, American, and Japanese influences. The name comes from the local word pakig-sandurot, which means "fellowship."
Buglasan, it can be said, has everything to do with the splendidly garish display of color and merriment and the "native" percussion beat that has its conception from the Ati-Atihan model. When it comes to town, it is celebrated with much gusto, and for one week in October, the disparate parts of Negros Oriental gel together in an excuse for fiesta.
This is one of two local festivals you know by heart when you are a Dumagueteño. The other is of the academic kind--Dumaguete being known as a University Town--but which is nonetheless equally colorful and riotous, if not busier, as the other fiestas.
In December, two universities hold their street festivities approximating the wildness of the mardi gras. The Negros Oriental State University celebrates the Hugyawan during the first week, which involves a spirited relay of street dancing around an annually-selected motif. In the third week, Foundation University unleashes the provinces' oldest festival, established in 1949--the Kasadyaan Festival, an elaborate parade, which is also considered the longest of its kind in the province.
And every August, venerable Silliman University, 110 years old this year, celebrates its founding for almost the entire month, culminating in the 28th. It's called Founders Day--but that might as well be a misnomer since the university's thousands of alumni, spread out all over the world, make going to Dumaguete an annual pilgrimage and festivities start out from the very first day of August, and rolls out till the last day. It includes a wide-range of events and traditions, including an elaborate small city of booths built at the old soccer field, parties everywhere in town, a beauty pageant older than the Miss Universe, a cheering contest pitting all the colleges, assorted sports meet, an avalanche of class reunions, and what-not. In August, Dumaguete buzzes with so much activity it ceases to be a small city.
And we eat, and we laugh, and we dance, and we make most of merriment.
Above it all, I still hear my mother's laughter--and all seems good.
Basta Pinas, Suroy Dayon!
Ian Casocot is a multi-awarded writer, having received honors from the Don Carlos Palanca, NVM Gonzales and PBBY-Salanga Awards. His first novel was longlisted in the 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize. He currently holds a faculty post in Silliman University.