Fiesta of the Philippines – guest writer Allen Moretsky

fiesta The Filipino Fiesta is an integral part of the family and the community such that to really understand the culture of the Philippines one must include the fiesta in one’s study of the Filipino people. The Fiesta is an annual event in the Philippines. Each small village and subsection of large cities and towns has its individual fiesta. The closest I can imagine in the US is a block party, but the Fiesta is so much more then that. This annual event is more important then Christmas, birthday or any other holiday. It is the time when the Filipino family and community really comes together. This is the time when the financial benefactor, the FilAm who lives in American or the Filipino who lives overseas returns to the fold of the family. It is a given that more then 80% of the income of the Philippines comes from overseas. During the Christmas season and during the Fiesta, when these foreign “dignitaries” return home, the income of the family and the community soars. When I travel the Philippines I often see nicer homes nestled in among the shacks that locals build. Inevitable the nicer homes are build with foreign money. Either a son who is a seaman or a daughter working overseas or married to a foreigner. The time when this money is very apparent is during Fiesta. But foreign money aside, if the Filipino does not have enough for Fiesta, he is apt to borrow for just this one occasion. Often the family pig, if there is one is sacrificed for this fiesta. The center of Filipino culture is the family and the most important day of the year for getting together with the family is the annual Fiesta.

My friend, Leia, invited me to the Fiesta for her small Barangay of Tubunan on Leyte. She invited me some days in advance. On the day of the fiesta she text me by phone at 2 AM. She and her family were up at that early hour to start the preparations. Many families in the Philippines keep a pig “for fattening” to be eaten on fiesta day. True to form, Leia’s pig was butchered Saturday at the ungodly hour of 2 AM. If a family is rich, in addition to all the pork dishes that are served, the family will serve lechon. Lechon reigns supreme as the delicacy of choice in the Philippines. Locally it sells for 250 P/kilo while pork, chicken, fish all sell for 100 per kilo or thereabouts. Lechon is prepared by killing the pig and then cleaning and gutting it and then putting it on a spit, usually of bamboo to be roasted slowly over an open fire of coconut husks, wood, charcoal or some other flammable substance. The result is a very crunchy skin enveloping wonderfully tender meat and fat.

I arrived at the pre-arranged time, noon on Saturday. Fiesta Day typically starts in the afternoon or evening of one day and ends the next day. It is supposed to be a religious day. It has to do with the patron saint for the Barangay. When I arrived in Tubunan there was a big banner over the main street announcing the religious fiesta, but I think that is an exaggeration for most families. Many do attend a mass, but I think the religious part is not so great.

So I arrived at Leia’s house at noon. Everyone was busy preparing food out back on the seaside. Of course the men were drinking as the do most of the men during the Fiesta. Meanwhile Leia made me a couple of special dishes. She fried up some egg rolls that were already prepared. She also fried up a few pork ribs. With this I had the much looked forward to Filipino fruit salad. This is cut up fruit pieces from a can of mixed fruit in heavy syrup. To this a ton of mayonnaise is mixed in and sometimes some shredded green coconut and perhaps some macaroni. Funny that this should always be the desert of choice to Filipinos.

Food of the Fiesta

Well, I might as well get the food part of this out of the way now. Filipino fiesta food and food for special occasions is almost always multiple kinds of pork dishes. For example this afternoon the table was laid buffet style so that everyone took a plate and fork and spoon. (Another Filipino oddity, there is never a butter knife or anything you can cut with included in the silverware setting.) There was the inevitable huge plate of rice. Then there were sundry other bowls, 3 contained pork soup, 3 pork intestines, 3 pork stew – a mixture of carrots, pieces of pork and pork fat and some other cut up vegetables; often there are other variations of pork dishes as well. For families who can afford the addition of lechon, there may be a whole roasted pig on a platter. If this is the case then there will be a communal knife sticking in the pig’s back with which to carve pieces of skin, fat and meat. One thing I really have a hard time with is the huge amounts of plain pig fat that people consume. When I go to the market people seem not to notice that one can buy pork meat rather lean or with lots of fat. Seems to make no difference to most Filipinos. In addition to all the pork dishes there will also be the fruit salad mentioned above and either sponge cake or perhaps some kind of pound cake and perhaps a custard cake. Note the lack of any kind of potato or vegetable dish.

However you may find a loaf of plain white bread for some unknown reason. So that’s the party food for Fiesta and most Filipino special events.

Drinking at the Fiesta

The Filipino fiesta would not be complete without the full complement of drinking that goes along with it. There are a number of favourite drinks. First and foremost is tuba. Tuba is the fermented wine from the sap of the coconut tree. It sells for $1/gallon. A man climbs the coconut tree early in the morning to siphon off the sap from the top of the tree. He usually climbs the tree with a hollow bamboo container to put the sap in. This job is no joke. Last year I attended the funeral of a man who fell off of a coconut tree. Climbing is not the only danger from the tree. When Leia and I were walking through the town, a coconut fell missing me by inches. This also is no joke. These coconuts must weigh in with husk and nut inside at about 6 to 10 pounds or so. Falling from a height of some 20 to 30 feet, well what can I say. At the very least that would case a severe headache. When the tuba is newly harvested, it is a rather sweetish substance, but between the morning and the evening or one or 2 days at the most, it will turn from a sweet syrup of a drink to an increasingly strong alcohol and thence to vinegar. Not understanding the rapid fermentation process of tuba, I once put some in a coke bottle and carried it with me to a friend’s house. When I tried to open the bottle, the bottle erupted from the intense pressure inside. Tuba is often mixed with Coke.

The next most popular drink is Tanduay, the local Filipino rum. A very good rum and very cheap at less then $1 for a litre. Of course rum with ice or rum and coke or rum and some juice is the typical mixture.

The next drink of choice is one of 3 kinds of local beer, Red Horse, San Miguel and Beer na Beer. They all cost roughly .40 for a small bottle and $1 for a large, one litre bottle. There is also a local gin, called Ginebra. So these are the major drinks and believe me they are not only consumed at the fiestas. Drinking is an every day affair here for many people and relatively cheap.

For those of you who smoke, let me tell you about that. Cigarettes are real cheap here and they can be bought individually. A single cigarette costs between one and 4 cents depending upon the brand with Marlboro, Winston, Phillip Morris. A package of 24 cigarettes ranges from .20 to .30 US. There appears to be no sin tax here and if this is any indication of what the real costs of cigarettes should be you can imagine the relative tax in the US when this .20 box is selling for $4.00 .

So w
here ever you go during Fiesta you will encounter groups of men and sometimes women drinking and smoking. It is not at all common to see everyone with their own glass pleasantly sipping. No the Filipino shares one class and shoots it. This is quite aggravating when the alcohol is a good brand. It does not matter if they are drinking the best cognac or the best wine or the Johnny Walker Black. The typical way to drink is to share the glass, usually with ice, and then down the glass in one gulp. There is also a fair amount of kidding that goes along with this and teasing and cajoling to make one drink one’s portion. I am always amazed that I don’t find more drunk people, but it seems that the Filipino has the ability to consume drink and then get up and go about his business be it working at the bank or driving a taxi.

So after my brief lunch, really a prelude to the happenings for the day, Leia and I visited some homes where we were ushered in and asked to share in drink and food. We visited one home, that of the rice mill owner and I had some rum there with some pork finger food. After one shot I was through. We started to walk the 50 yards back to Leia’s house when the parade started. True to form the Fiesta is a day for everyone. The children at school practice for weeks beforehand. So here we were in this tiny village where there is only a cement walkway not big enough for a car and the whole school comes marching by. First the pre-schoolers, then kindergarten followed by all the grades up through high school and the teachers trailing them. We headed for the basketball court and took our seats under the shade by the sea. The MC stated in with the pledge of allegiance. I never know what to do for that. I always stand out of respect, but I don’t put my hand over my heart nor do I want to pledge to a foreign flag. Silly though the whole thing seems. The talent show began with the pre-schoolers all made up with rouge and lipstick then on and on until we came to the high school students. In reality it was pretty bad except for a few funny incidents like some 12 year old boy being accosted by his 3 year old sister. She kept grabbing his pom pom. There were the inevitable proud parents take this photo op very seriously. Everyone seemed to enjoy the festivities.

Previous to the show a stage and huge speaker system has been set up in the basketball court. The MC announced the participants of the show. Of course it is very amateurish, but entertaining nonetheless. After the show I was tired and we went back to Leia’s where I took a long nap. I woke up to coffee with white bread and processed cheese, yet another Filipino delicacy.

I started to take note of all the people in Leia’s house and introduced myself to at least the elders. It was funny to keep asking and being told the same last name over and over. Seems that everyone lives one or 2 towns away. While I was napping there were many people cutting and preparing and frying various foods. About 6 PM we all had dinner, buffet style. Leia’s village is no more then 400 yards from one end to the other. I stepped out to take a walk and virtually every house had lots of visitors, friends and relatives all come home for the Fiesta. Also, every time I visited a home I saw exactly the same dishes with the exception of the lechon or roasted pig which was only in some of the wealthier homes. In a poor country like this what happens when a family does not have the money for the fiesta? Well, as another poor friend told me that when her family had no money for fiesta they would just visit relatives or neighbours and celebrate at their homes.

By way of example, Leia’s family owns some rice land up in the mountains about 6 hours by motorcycle. The land is share-cropped as is common here. The tenants get a portion of the rice and live on the land in return for working the crop with Leia’s family buying all seed and fertilizer. The tenants are dirt poor. They were invited for fiesta and stayed at the house and drank and ate for 2 days. I visited the local rice mill owner and it was the same at his home with all of his helpers eating and drinking at his home.

So after dinner we walked around and chatted with neighbours and relatives who have an open door policy during fiesta. So many people out on the sidewalk and wherever there was a table or bench to sit there were men drinking and sharing pork dishes. Eat and drink as they kept telling me and shouting “Happy Fiesta”.

The main attraction at all these fiestas is the disco. As I mentioned a stage and sound set had been erected at the basketball court on the seaside. About 9 PM a live band started to play. Beforehand the governor and mayor and all the Barangay officials were introduced. They would take part later on in the festivities. The MC kept on saying the honourable this or honourable that sometimes introducing school officials or other notable dignitaries. Lights had been set up in the court as well as a machine that dispenses a smoke like substance, strobe lights, bubbles, etc… There were a number of tables set up on the basketball court. Leia warned me ahead of time that I was responsible for financing the table at the disco. The table was 350 pesos and when I saw how much money people were spending I figured that I got off cheap at $7. So Leia, her brother and some other relatives including some small children all sat down at our table. We ordered on litre of beer and soft drinks and chips from the half dozen vendors who invariably set up and sell alcohol, snacks, cigarettes and candy outside the disco.

Once the introductions were over the band started to play. Having a live band is considered a real treat as usually there is only an MC playing scratchy tapes. The typical dances were the cha cha, waltz, boogey, and tango. For all of this the bayout or gays would come out and be the best dancers usually dancing with older women who knew the dance steps. I was later told that the gays were also dance instructors locally. Leia and I danced almost all the dances except for the tango which I have never mastered.

In between the dances were the fund raisers. A very strange affair indeed. It was always the same song, a takeoff of the Mexican hat dance. A couple of officials would be called to dance. They would be partnered up with some ladies chosen from the audience. Leia was chosen at one point much to her embarrassment. 2 wicker baskets usually used to toss rice were put on the dance floor and the 4 dancers pranced around the baskets. After a few moments the men would pull stacks of 20 Peso bills (.40) from their pockets and casually toss them up in the air, some of them landing in the basket and other bills landing on the ground. Soon the dancers were joined by people from the dance floor or the on-lookers who filed by the 2 baskets to drop money into them. Soon the floor was littered with bills. I am told that this money will be used to pay for projects in the Barangay or school. Actually I am not certain how that part goes, but what I did see was that once the dance was finished some people came and picked up the bills, placed them in the baskets and then brought them to a collector of sorts. This went on throughout the night such that there were a few dances and then more fund raising, finally culminating with Governor Gerry Boy Espina was being called upon. This guy started tossing money like you would not believe and then when the dance was over he went on stage and made a short speech about having grown up in Tubunan and how well everything is going. He finished by taking the mike and accompanying the band. He crooned out a very respectable slow song to which Leia and I danced. After this performance there was only one thing to do, he left and with him some 10 other officials also parted. After a couple more dances the band stopped playing. It was midnight. The disco music was turned on and all the dancers came out onto the dance floor. I was beat as I had stated the day with a long run so Leia and I returned to her house. I could not believe my eyes,
there were bodies everywhere. Rice mats covered every square inch of the house and there were fully clothed bodies lined up one after another sleeping on the mats. Well one more body added to the floor would not be noticed.

Next morning I awoke to the sounds of people cooking and drinking. 7 AM and they were starting where they left off the night before. The second day of fiesta is more quiet with the families sharing food and drink. The host family and their relatives cook and around noon time everyone eats dinner; the same dishes. When it is time to go home most of the food is given away to relatives who carry it all back.