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Guess which famous Philippine landmark you can see outside the window

The last time I was back in Leyte was a year ago; it was just a layover to a quick weekend trip with my high school friends to the neighboring province of Samar. The last time I was really back home, was the year before that. I don’t go home often. I haven’t really called that place home for a while now, to be honest, but when I found out that my mom was buying us tickets to visit over the weekend, I felt a bit of excitement.

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My mom is from a big family. Here’s an old family portrait of her and my aunts and uncles, with my grandparents (the two at the center of the picture) and my great grand mothers. My mom is the second one from the top right.

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Here’s a picture of my mom right out of nursing school (above). There are shelves of pictures at my gradparents’ house of their children, grandkids and great-grandkids (below).

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I grew up in Leyte. And by “grew up” I mean that in the literal and figurative sense. I was there during the formative high school and college years. Weekdays were spent in the small but busy city of Tacloban, while weekends were spent in my Mom’s hometown—in my grandparents’ home in Dulag, a town that is about forty-five minutes to an hour away from Tacloban. This is the place we have come to visit.

My grandparents have passed on years ago, but I still refer to that house as “their” house. I can’t help it. My mom and my aunts and uncles always told us stories of how my grandfather built the house without a real plan in mind that’s why the design is all over the place. It’s been built, extended, renovated and re-renovated. It looks quite different now from what I knew it to be. I suppose you could call it our ancestral house.

Once inside, you’ll see pictures of my great grandparents, my grandparents, their children—all nine of them!—with various framed graduation certificates and awards. There are also pictures of us, their grandchildren. And now, their great grandchildren.

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We have a big extended family. The next generation: My nephew and niece playing with an old chess set we have at the house

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There were modern toys, too. My nephews were busy with the computer.

That particular weekend was the Dulag Town Fiesta. My mom and her sisters will share the title of Hermana Mayor next year, so this year, the current Hermana was passing the statue of the Virgin to our family.

I’m sorry. You must be scratching your head. Hermanas? Let me explain. As you may be aware, in the Philippines, there are Fiestas held almost every month in the different regions of the country. In some cases there are two or three or even more in a month. We have it to celebrate events in the life of Jesus and Mary and to honor patron saints.

Yes, this is a very Catholic tradition. I’m not going to write in depth about that, but will refer you to this very informative wiki entry of how the practice came about.

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My Lola (grandmother) was a meticulous woman. Here’s an old telegram she sent in preparation for the 1985 Dulag Town Fiesta for which she was the Hermana Mayor

Now, what that wiki entry does not explain is the concept of a Hermano—or in the case of Dulag, Hermana. Basically, in layman’s terms, the Hermano Mayor (literally translated means “eldest brother”) serves as the host of the Fiesta. The assigned Hermano sponsors (partially, or I heard some in full) masses, padasals (prayer meetings), and other activities that lead up to the main Fiesta celebration. These may include games, basketball leagues, shows for the people, even beauty pageants. You get the picture. On the day of the Fiesta, they prepare a banquet in their home, and anyone—and I really do mean anyone—can come over and eat, no questions asked.

It is an expensive tradition, but it comes with great honor and responsibility. Like being a superhero! Also it is said to bring good luck to the Hermano.

The Hermanos are selected by the Fiesta Committee, or the Comite de Festejos, years and years in advance. In most cases the host can be male or female, but in Dulag, for the Feast of the Lady of Refuge, the honor is bestowed to women only; Thus, Hermanas. And next year, as I mentioned earlier, my mom and her sisters are taking on the task.

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Even with the influence of my grandparents or my aunts, I’ve never really been religious. I haven’t been to mass in give or take three years. I wasn’t even planning on going to church that Sunday, but after my mom’s subtle comments about lending me pants so I can attend the service (I only bought tank tops, shorts and a lone sundress), I conceded to wearing my sundress with a borrowed shawl into the jam-packed church. We ended up outside, on the side of the building, watching from the open windows of the church. My mom and her sisters took their place in the front row.

I must say, even with my mixed feelings about the Catholic Church, I did miss this tradition. The Catholic Mass is a beautiful service, and on special occasions, they kind of step it up a notch. I’ve attended masses like this before, but I still get a little amazed at how it all goes down during town fiestas.

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Lechon back home is my favorite kind. The pig is raised by my family. It’s cooked in our own backyard, spiced generously, skin crisped to perfection.

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The food was stored in the dirty kitchen, to replenish the empty platters out front

After the two-hour service (yes, two hours!), we returned to our home and it was time to feast on the delicious food that they have started preparing the day before.  For that day’s feast two pigs were roasted (Yum! Lechon!) and another was made into the various dishes that made the buffet table. There were fish, chicken, pansit, dessert… Basically, a lot of food.

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There were also a lot of people. Something that I never paid any attention to when I was younger was just how much people flock to our home during fiestas. I knew it was always a lot, but it still surprised me. I always assumed that the visitors are guests of any member of the family, but it turns out, some of the people who were there just come over even without invitation. My aunts and I got to talking about this later and they told me about how our grandparents’ home has always been known to host people during fiestas for years and years. Hermano or not.

Have no doubt, we are not a rich family, but ours is an old one. My grandparents have always been sticklers for tradition and they have passed this on to their children. I’ve come to observe my aunts and uncles and all of them are great hosts. They walk around, talk to the people, and entertain them, offer food and drinks. They welcome people to our home. That’s just how they were raised.

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The church, except for the handful praying or taking pictures at the altar, was pretty much empty when we arrived before three

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The 2013 Hermana Mayor (left) with my Mom and her sisters

A little before three, my mom and my aunts called us over so we could go to church for the Salubong. Salubong, literally translated means “to meet.” This is where the current Hermana turns over the statue of the Virgin to the next Hermana in the church, after which, the Virgin is brought to the next Hermana’s home and is met by their family—thus Salubong.

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My mom led the procession (above). The ladies of the Comite de Festejos (below) chatted, while they waited for the statue of the Virgin Mary to be loaded unto Her pedestal for procession

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The last time the statue of the Lady of Refuge was at our home was in 1985, when my Grandmother served as the Hermana. It was the year I was born and I ended up getting baptized in Dulag during that visit. There is a short ceremony, prayers are said, and the committee meets to talk about next year’s plans.

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My nieces and nephews had flowers ready for the Salubong

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The feast doesn’t end there, though. There is still food to be had. Guests come over till dinner time—and even later. Plus, there are drinks: beer, wine, rhum, whiskey and of course, the traditional tuba, or palm wine. When we were younger, my sisters and I would usually sleep over at my grandparents’ the night of the fiesta and celebrate with my cousins until the wee hours of the morning, but that night, we had to leave earlier than usual. My sister and I were flying out the following morning on the first flight back to Manila.

There’s always next year, though. My mom already reminded us to file our vacation leave early. Next year’s Fiesta is on a Monday and it’s going to be a big one.

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The statue of the Lady of Refuge in the altar at my grandparents’ home. This will be Her home for the year

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PTB Blog Carnival

This post is my entry to Pinoy Travel Bloggers’ Blog Carnival for November 2013, with the theme Memories of Visayas hosted by Grasya Bangoy of Grasya.com.

11 thoughts on “Of Hermanas and the Traditional Philippine Fiesta

  1. Wow this is great…im 61 yrs old but i can still this tradition in our place when i was in grade school yet…today it is mis understood..now that im president of our chapel.. im going to introduce this again….

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