Peñafrancia and the Maritime Connection



The biggest and said to be the most festive religious ritual in the world are water rituals. Unfortunately, the Pandemic put that to a halt in the past two years. The waters remained still, sometimes disturbed by visiting typhoons or tropical depressions. All that will be gone for now. Fiestas with parades on streets and water are back. 


Filipinos love to celebrate every milestone, big or small. But, we cannot do without water, whether bottled, in cups or cans, pure or mixed with a favorite blend. It is water everywhere. Festivals are merrier when held along bodies of water like rivers and oceans. 


The Sinulog Santo Niño Fluvial in Cebu, Apung Iru Fluvial Festival in Apalit, Pampanga, the Kahimoan Abayan Festival in Butuan City, Agusan Del Norte, and the Pasalamat Festivals of Pagadian, Zamboanga del Sur, La Carlota, Negros Occidental, and Bicol’s own Peñafrancia Festival, are among the most exciting water rituals because they come in colorful floats on water. In all these, the Fluvial Parade is the highlight and the most awaited event. 


The Peñafrancia Fluvial Procession in Bicol is one of the country’s oldest and most enduring religious festivals. The celebration in Bicol doubly marked for every family I know in my circle is that the Peñafrancia Festival is celebrated in September which is commemorated also as Maritime month worldwide. The maritime community in Bicol joins millions of seafarers around the globe for safe seafaring and a protected coastal environment. 


INA and the fluvial parade


The Image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, Patroness of the Bicol Region, or INA, as lovingly called by devotees, is plucked out of the Basilica Shrine and brought to the Naga Metropolitan Cathedral in a procession along the Naga River. A wooden Pagoda carries the Image, pulled by a hundred adorned boats in varied shapes and sizes as it navigates along the river with manually-rowed or sailed watercrafts or power-driven boats manned by hundreds of Voyadores. Thousands of devotees are eagle-eyed along the riverbanks, waving colorful kerchiefs and banners. The festivities begin with a nine-day novenario to the Divino Rostro, a local icon of “the Divine/Holy Face.”


Bearing a common historical and cultural bond these water-ritual traditions can be traced back to Spanish colonial times during the Galleon trade and maritime expeditions. The devotion to the Our Lady of Peñafrancia connects to countless stories of discovery, healing, and subsequent narratives of Bishop Francisco Gainza. He institutionalized Traslacion and Fluvial procession in September 1864. The centuries-old religious rituals continue to this day. A projected two to three million people from here and abroad will gather for a series of Masses, parades, water and land processions, civic and military parades, and other events. The DTI invited JaimEliza, and other MSMEs, TBM social enterprises to the one-week Gainza Trade Fair at the Robinsons. 


The Dragon Team of maritime cadets and officers of Mariners joins the “REGATTA SA SALOG” or boat racing competition. With the Majorettes Contingent, the snappy Mariners Drum and Lyre Corps lead the pack of Civic Parade participants from hundreds of schools all over Bicol. 


For a fleeting second, one forgets Covid-19 still lurks. Is the Pandemic already forgotten? 


The intimate connection


Water, life, environment, nature, healing, reuniting, solidarity, safety, and care connect the people during the Festivities. The connection is face-to-face but mainly spiritual, synergistic, and intimate. For days captivated by the Fiesta, alas, many devotees are back in their lives still poor, and struggling to make ends meet in these most difficult times.


The intimate connection evokes sociocultural symbolisms of life, creation, solace, comfort, and care. Water is a significant part of this connection. It’s our natural habitat; it surrounds our region. Most of all, it’s 90% composition in our bodies. Without it, we die. We are all Marineros and Marineras. We live in a maritime country, that is, the Philippines. I recall my Mommy Eliza cheering from her wheelchair as she watched our Beloved INA onboard the Pagoda afloat the Bicol River onscreen. She used to say she felt the warmth of care and nurturing when people from all walks of life reached out to touch the Image, shouting “Viva La Virgen!” at the top of their voices. Then, she cheered as she saw the Mariners cadets on board their boats with the Philippine Coast Guard ably escorting the Fluvial Procession to safety.


Health, environment, and maritime safety


The Festival is an occasion to highlight this connection. It also reminds us of the importance of health, environmental protection, and maritime safety as a response to taking care of life and our environment. The lived experiences during the Peñafrancia - good and bad - show the interconnectivity. It requires a safe body of water and able navigators to traverse the whole procession safely.


Remember the Colgante Bridge tragedy in Naga City on September 16, 1972, that killed hundreds of devotees watching the Fluvial procession along the Bicol River, many from drowning and fatal injuries? Remember the floods that inundate communities because of soil degradation?


Timely interventions to protect our natural habitat and environment are urgently needed. TBM’s HEAL (Health, Environment, and Alternative Livelihood) program jibe well with other community-based initiatives like the Kawayan sa Kalikasan at Kabuhayan (KKK) in Albay and the DILG’s Local Government Regional Resource Center-Multi-Stakeholders Advisory Council partnered with the UNDP’s SHIELD to build institutional and community resilience to hazardous events and climate change. A great way to make fiestas safe and sound! Viva La Virgen!