We were on the deck of a ferry named MV Beautiful Stars, on a drizzly Saturday morning before the grand Sinulog festival day. It was the traditional fluvial parade, but not much was happening and we were uncertain of what we were waiting for. We’ve been on the ship since before dawn, idling the time away on the cramped passenger bunk beds while Mass was celebrated in the ship’s main hold below. Though people lined up the length of the deck’s railings, I could see through just enough to watch Cebu City in the blue overcast dawn. The city is decidedly distinct from Manila in how it is so close not just to the sea, but to the mountains as well. Cebu’s tallest towers are eclipsed by the mountains beyond when viewed from the sea. In Manila one could spend days without noticing the distant mountains, if one were to be completely lost in the urban jungle as I often am.
Someone in the group eventually found a way for us to get out onto the foredeck. While I was carefully stepping over the pipes and valves on the metal floor, a band started playing the festive notes of that trademark Sinulog melody to the channel’s salty air. That was when I saw the most remarkable of the many dances I was to witness in Cebu that weekend: a young lady, in casual shirt and jeans, swaying and swiveling while firmly holding with both hands a diminutive image of the Santo Niño. It seemed like someone merely handed her, a random passenger, the image and asked her to dance to fill the gap while the professional dancers were still preparing. It was a pure, spontaneous dance; not unique as it was the same dance that any lady holding a Sto. Niño would perform during the festival, but it was personal. Eventually the dancers in María Clara dresses and barong arrived, and performed their choreographed dance to everyone’s satisfaction.
Later on, the ship, which for most of the early morning had meandered across the channel, found a definite course. It was joined by an increasing numbers of vessels of all sizes, all decorated with festive banderitas. Some of the larger boats also had their own troupes performing the sinulog on-deck. There was a commotion when the crowd sighted the ship carrying the venerated Sto. Niño image, the one that belongs to the basilica in the city. Among all the hundreds or perhaps thousands of Sto. Niños of different proportions onboard the boats in Mactan Channel that morning—some fixed to the ships’ bridges, some being danced with, and some others as personal artifacts or family treasures—only one had the proud distinction of a place in history, and of being venerated by millions of the faithful.
It was only much later, when I was back home in Manila, that I learned what the fluvial parade was about. On the days before the third Sunday of January (the proper date of the Sto. Niño fiesta), the ancient image would be brought in a procession by land to the National Shrine of St. Joseph in Mandaue City, along with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a symbolic reunion of the Holy Family. The fluvial parade on Saturday is the return voyage of the Sto. Niño by way of the sea to its own shrine.
The sinulog dance itself is said to be a traditional dance that celebrates the native Filipinos’ acceptance of Christianity, as it was brought to the islands by a Spanish expedition nearly 500 years ago. It’s the focus of the Sinulog Festival, the institutionalized and official event built around the Sto. Niño fiesta. When I returned to Manila, someone remarked that this festival has surpassed in popularity all the other festivals in the country celebrating the Sto. Niño. Chief of those is the Ati-atihan Festival in Aklan; it is the Ati-atihan Festival that I remember learning about in class in grade school and reading in my hekasi textbooks, but unlike Sinulog I haven’t heard about it in recent years, nor have I seen any coverage of it on TV.
We did see an ati-atihan dance during the Sinulog. We were meeting some people at a charity called Asilo de la Milagrosa when the dancers came draped in fearsome black paint. Their presentation paired tribal costume and dance with a Christian image—a rather striking contrast. We watched them, and many other dancers in the grand parade through the city, troupes in vivid costumes coming from all over the Visayas and Mindanao regions. They differed vastly in their designs and routines, which were inspired by a wild collection of objects including sea creatures and bananas, though the common element of the Sto. Niño united them with the cause of all the celebration.
We visited the provincial musuem, Museo Sugbo, earlier on a late afternoon. We browsed a respectable, if musty, exhibit on the island’s history stretching from pre-Hispanic culture (stone age tools and Chinese porcelain goods) to the 20th century (World War II-era currencies and photographs). It left me with a deep impression of Cebu’s prime role in the birth of our nation, and the story of the Filipino people.
And of faith—the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, built near the spot where Ferdinand Magellan planted the first Christian cross in the islands, holds the Vatican-approved title of Mother and Head of all Churches in the Philippines. I could barely enter the church when we went to see it days before the feast, with so many devotees attending Mass.
The weekend when we went to Cebu for Sinulog was incidentally the same weekend when Pope Francis visited a passionately Catholic Philippines. He stayed mostly in Manila, which meant that I flew out of the capital to accidentally miss out on “Pope Francis fever” only to arrive in another huge celebration of faith. When the pope spoke of being moved by the warm display of the Filipinos’ faith, I cannot help but imagine how it was in Cebu nearly 500 years ago: the Spanish missionaries gifting the image of the Sto. Niño to the native royalty of Cebu, not realizing that their gift of faith would be wildly successful, inspiring the public to spill out onto the streets centuries later, dancing in celebration of their religion, and shouting Viva! Pit Senyor!