Crucifixion in the Philippines is a devotional practice held every Good Friday, and are part of the local observance of Holy Week. Devotees or penitents called magdarame in Kapampangan are willingly crucified in imitation of Jesus Christ’s suffering and death, while related practices are carry wooden crosses, crawling on rough pavement, and self-flagellation. Penitents considered these acts to be mortification of the flesh, and undertake these to ask forgiveness for sins, to fulfill a panatà (Filipino, “vow”), or to express gratitude for favors granted. – Wikipedia
I honestly didn’t know what to expect when Jericho and I made our way to Pampanga yesterday morning. I had been reading about the real-life crucifixions as part of the Lenten rites all over the Philippines, Cutud, especially, and had wanted to see one for myself for the solemnity, the drama, the stories behind the penitents for mortifying their flesh as an act of contrition every Good Friday. Artemio Añoza, a faith healer, introduced voluntary crucifixion as part of the Via Crusis (Way of the Cross) Lenten street play in San Pedro Cutud in 1962, but the voluntary crucifixions started years later. While this expression of Folk Catholicism has been strongly discouraged by the Church, the San Pedro Cutud Lenten Rites seems to keep getting more and more attention with each year that goes by.
9:00 AM: We set off from Las Piñas, a cooler of drinks packed along with a few bags of chips for the journey, hoping to beat any sort of traffic we might encounter along the way. Stopped to gas up and a McDonal’d Drive Thru for breakfast, and was surprised at how clear the roads were, unlike Jericho’s trip up to Tagaytay the day before for his Visita Iglesia with family. I fell asleep in the car halfway through NLEX.
11:00 AM: Arrived in Sta. Lucia, San Fernando, Pampanga and found a safe spot to park, away from the main road – the home of a barangay council member named Jessie. They had their own crucifixion rites with three men volunteering to be nailed to crosses – Danilo Ramos (46), Fernando Mamangun (47), and Melchor Montoya (45), and had just finished when we arrived, and people were leaving, either on their way home or on their way to the bigger even happening in nearby Cutud.
11:30 AM: Mang Jessie was nice enough to get a tricycle for us who took us through a shortcut, away from the congested main road, through a dusty path where we had to walk for half the way there, as a car had gotten stuck in the soft sand and wasn’t going anywhere for a while. This also happened to be one of the hottest days of the year, and my cap, umbrella, sunglasses, and scarf did barely anything to protect me from the infernal heat. After a 15 minute walk, we could see the makeshift Calvary, a whole bunch of tents to one side, and a growing crowd of people, waiting for the arrival of the penitents.
12:00 PM: Jericho and I got a pretty good spot near the side of the crucifixion site, as near as we could get since the area was fenced off. The official media, politicians, and their families and friends had better spots inside the fence under big tents, although I still saw a few succumb to fainting from the heat. It was stifling hot. Next to me was a local woman, her mother, and four small children, the baby wailing her eyes out from the discomfort of being somewhere she really shouldn’t, while the frustrated mother shouting at her child to keep quiet. While waiting, I found myself flicking their umbrellas away from my face, as they seemed totally oblivious to their surroundings. Eventually, more and more people crowd behind us – a father and his daughter duo, trying to get a better view of the “stage”, someone who smelled strongly of chicken shit, and foreign tourists, their heads rising a good foot up from the rest of the crowd.
While waiting for the devotees to be crucified, there were others performing the ritual of pamagparaya, or self-flagellation devotees would kneel in front of the cross, whipping themselves with a burilyos – a self-torture device made with polished bamboo sticks – until their backs bleed, walking barefoot under the scorching hot ground, their faces covered with a black cloth. If that isn’t enough, in order to begin this gory ritual, those who made the vow of pamagparaya must first get their backs wounded with a panabad – a wooden paddle with pieces of broken glass attached to it. Standing this heat is penitence enough.
12:15 PM: A truck filled with big speakers parks towards the back of the site, and crying and wailing can be heard coming from the machines. A few minutes later, someone dressed as a Roman soldier gallops up to the site on his horse, and the rest of the morbid cenaculo (Passion play) procession soon followed. After a short skit in Kapampangan, the sentries bring down the crosses to prepare for the big finale. One of them pass out and a stretcher is quickly brought out and taken away.
Now when this happened, the press, politicians, and everyone else who were sitting comfortably under the big tents with the good view started coming out from under the tents, and blocked our view. Nobody was having it, and people were shouting at them to sit the fuck down so other people could see, which at first fell on deaf ears (assholes), but after a few choice shouts in English, Tagalog, and Kapampangan, the police in charge of security had them sit down on the grass if they didn’t want the angry mob behind them to start throwing things other than empty water bottles to get their attention. Yeah, coming to Cutud expecting an experience other than a circus was downright stupid.
12:30 PM: The men playing Dismas and Gesta, the two thieves crucified with Jesus, were soon brought out, dressed in taupe robes, each one tied down to their cross by the arms, legs, and waist by thick red cloth. Each cross was then hauled up, the crowd mumbling their dismay at how they weren’t crucified with nails. I overheard the father behind me telling his teen daughter, “Tinali lang? Hindi man lang pinako? Ano ba yan.” (“They just tied them? They didn’t use nails? What is that.”) He was disappointed not to see and hear shrieks of pain. That isn’t normal.
12:45 PM: Next was the scene everyone had been waiting for with bated fucking breath. Ruben Enaje (56) is a carpenter, sign maker, and former construction worker who had been getting crucified yearly since 1986. And this year is no different. While the men playing Roman sentries tie him down, all I could see were his legs. He would let out a shout when each nail would be hammered into the palms of his hands, his feet jerking and squirming from the pain. They hoist him up slowly, the bloodstained white cloth fluttering behind him, and in that moment I am not reminded of Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity, but how much people have exploited the faith for their own ends – whether it be fleeting fame, a display of machismo, or a promise for an exchange of pain for a “wish” (usually in the form of health). While most of the crowd shouted in awe and glee, I was slowly losing my lunch. Seeing this bloody ritual firsthand – how is this ok?
1 PM: Jericho and I leave – we’ve both had enough. I didn’t want to stay to see them nail the poor man’s feet and see him strung up ’til 3 o’clock. We slowly made our way to the exit along with the rest of the crowd. On the way out, I could see vendors selling burilyos for Php 300. What a ghoulish souvenir. We walked part of the way back to Sta. Lucia, where our car was parked, but after having to pass by the second lone pamagparaya devotee, with his raw, open back, spraying blood in every direction (you could see white cars with splatters of blood on one side), we found ourselves a tricycle and got out of there as fast as we could.
1:45 PM: Back at Mang Jessie’s, the mood was a lot lighter, and he offered that we rest and get a bite to eat before we hit the road again. While the rest of the Philippines goes into mourning for the death of Jesus Christ, the Kapampangans hold their Maleldo Festival, which is the happier side to the Lenten rites. He led us to his garage where he and a few other relatives and friends were gathered around a table filled with pancit, palabok, grilled fish, eggs, grilled ampalaya (why?!), and a few other dishes hidden under foil and overturned plates. While I really appreciated the gesture, I wasn’t in the mood to eat after witnessing theVia Crusis. I settled for a serving of dirty ice cream, which was delicious (cheese!). They should really have more of the stuff back south.
We get to chatting with Mang Jessie and his family about the cenaculo and their thoughts about it (his family compound is right across from where the yearly crucifixions are held in his town in Sta. Lucia. He doesn’t care for it much and went as far as to say that you couldn’t even pay him to go there. “Para gawin ng tao yan, isipin mo kung gano kagrabe mga kasalanan nila.” (For someone to do that, it makes you think what kind of sins they must have.) He had an interesting point. Also, it blows Irish Catholic guilt right out of the water. It should be renamed Kapampangan guilt – they are a whole other level of hardcore.
3 PM: We say our thanks to Mang Jessie and his family for being so warm and accommodating, and pay him for using his parking space. He refused to take it. On the way home our appetites finally return, so we stopped by a Subway at the Petron station for a bite to eat, reflecting on the two sides of the Maleldo Festival we got to experience. On the one hand, while we intentionally went to Pampanga to witness the gory rendition of the Passion of the Christ, the way most of the people there took happiness in seeing other people in pain was mortifying. On the other, experiencing someone open his home to total strangers, offering us food and drinks without asking for anything in return makes you realize that you don’t have to follow in Christ’s last hours on Earth in order to be Christ-like.
5 PM: We’re back in Las Piñas, and Jericho drops me off at my place before heading home himself. I’m greeted by my loving dog who’s always happy to see me, and we both pass out snuggled together on the bed.