“Ma iba ka, Jun?” I asked my bosom classmate Jun Quijano yesterday. “Are you coming with us?”
Three weeks from now, we are going to meet again to attend the Tri State (New York-New Jersey-Connecticut) Penafrancia celebration in New Jersey. We have been doing this every year in the US.
Later today, I am going to ask another bosom classmate, Nicol Miraflores, the same question. It has been my custom to pick up Nicol and Jun and drive us to New Jersey to join fellow Bicolanos honoring our Ina in a foreign land.
This resiliency of Marian devotion among Bicolanos, Naguenos in particular, is amazing. We have assimilated it in the early years of our lives through the family, the school, and the community. It has been contracted and imprinted unabashedly, and we have willingly allowed it to remain in our lives no matter where we went or what would happen.
Indeed, our lives revolved around the Penafrancia Fiesta.
In my childhood days, early September was a time to get our banigs ready so that we could sleep on the floor while our visitors used our beds. It was a time to “floor-wax” the sala and “lawn-mower” the grass outside.
We practiced double time during the NPS drum and bugle corp drills. I was baton leader with a cape and a Pershing cap so I could partially hide my face from the crowd of onlookers -- if they only knew how embarrassed I was.
After the parade I had to hurry back home to help my mother prepare dinner for the guests.
Every year was a different scenario. In High School, Penafrancia was preparing for the Procession of the Traslacion. A black rosary in our pockets was obligatory as part of the spiritual equipment of an Atenean. We’d wear long faces like the Knights of Columbus when our Jesuit moderators walked alongside us, even as our hearts fluttered when we passed by the Colegio de Santa Isabel.
September was also a time to iron my uniform, polish my shoes, belt buckles, officer’s saber and all for the military parade. Again, I was adjutant of the Ateneo de Naga HS PMT unit, feeling triumphant over everything except my embarrassment which I never outgrew.
September was the best time to be in the centro with my Bagumbayan friends to watch the carnivals and mingle with the street vendors and ogle at the strange-looking long-haired Lamplighters World Peace Mission missionaries walking barefoot in Plaza Rizal.
The Fluvial Procession was -- and still is -- my favorite event. One day, from across the noise of the handkerchief-waving crowd, I told my father: “I want to join the voyadores.”
“Papaibanon taka sa sarong taon,” he said.
The quick reply caught me off guard. I thought he would say no way. What with all these drunken devotees in their bancas, and did I know how to swim? But his response was reassuring. My father had always been a devotee of Ina. His knee-jerk words before he lost consciousness after being critically wounded during the war were “Ika na po an bahala, Blessed Mother.” He regained consciousness the next day. Many years later, when he died in old age the last words he was uttering were the Hail Marys from the Rosary. And the very last words spoken aloud by my brother Caloy to his ears when he breathed his last were Viva la Virgen.
So the next fiesta I went to the house of Tiong Steve Beguia. Tiong Steve was the president of the New Era Labor Union, a labor union of the Naga railroad station workers. My father helped organize the group and was its adviser. Their labor group had a boat reserved to pull the pagoda every year alongside many other boats.
“Igdi ka lang sa kataid ko. ” Tiong Steve told me as we boarded his boat.
“May bago kitang kaibanan. Dae siya dapat mabasa. Baka maangotan kita ni Marianing.” I thought he was serious. He was not.
“Ako an bahala diyan ki Manny!” A familiar voice came from behind the boat’s keel.
It was our close family friend and fellow Marian devotee Dr. Tony Zantua. We were in the same boat--literally. Doc Tony, from an illustrious family in Naga, was also an adviser of the New Era Labor Union who had chosen to practice medicine in the barrios. He was seated beside another Tony (Jordana). Doc Tony was confidence personified (later he pulled me aside and said that he did not know how to swim).
What a blessed cruise. Now I knew why the Voyadores would do it year after year. You have to participate in this triumphal cruise in order to know how it feels. I was soaking wet when I walked home that early evening. I knew in my heart that I was not going to catch cold. Like I said, I was really soaking wet but to me it felt like Asperges from the waters of the sacred river. I prepared myself for a scolding by my mother, but as soon as I showed myself up in the house, the whole family and relatives broke into rowdy rounds of applause and cheers.
Decades later, in 2010, it was Our Lady’s Tricentennial Year, and I wanted to join again. This time, thanks to the late Archbishop of Caceres, I was given the highest honor to be with our Ina in the Pagoda itself. I travelled with my family back to Naga just for this joyous occasion, and I will never forget that honor for as long as I live. Imagine, a mere nobody like me in Ina’s Pagoda on Her 300th anniversary!
It is time to call Nicol for our yearly appointment. Not to ask “maiba ka?” but to tell him the time I would pick him up. For in all these years my bosom friend has never failed to come along to honor our Ina.
And Jun Quijano’s reply? “Pirmi na.”
It happens every year. It will happen again this year. As long as the Bicol River flows. For September is the month when Her Son cordially invites us to go to His Mother’s banquet; and His Mother, Our Ina, cordially invites us to come to the banquet.
How can we refuse?