In Search of Iloilo City 2013

The thoughts and experiences of the students as well as the contributions of the alumni can be found at www.insearchofiloilo.blogspot.com.

This year’s edition of “In Search of” took 16 students, their chaperone, and pathfinder Dr. Yeoh Seng Guan to the city of Iloilo in the Philippines from the 19th to the 31st of January, 2013. Students were also joined by five SASS alumni for part of the journey.

                                                                 
     Travellers with Monsignor Meliton Oso at Jaro Cathedral Archdiocese Centre

The study trip was hosted by staff and students of the University of Philippines Visayas (UPV). Students were lodged in the Gender Development Programme (GDP) Building and another dormitory on campus grounds, and were accompanied by five student guides under the leadership of Dr. Rosalie Arcala-Hall, who also assisted in the planning of the trip with Dr. Yeoh.

The trip was built around the local Dinagyang Festival, a street cultural and religious festival held annually in honour of Señor Santo Niño (The Holy Child Jesus). The highlight of the festival is a tribal dance competition; the Ati-Ati competition participated by high schools and other local communities. Student-travellers were to study the social, cultural and historical aspects of the festival, as well as some of the issues confronting the city.

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The trip was divided into roughly three parts: an introduction- gaining background knowledge on the culture and history of Iloilo; the body- meeting with several communities of Iloilo, and the Dinagyang festival itself; and a final chapter set in Manila. Each of these parts contributed to the whole of our journey in search of Iloilo.

                                      
Students were housed in the GDP Building (top right), next to a cinematheque (top left) where they hosted a Malaysian film festival which was well attended by UPV students.

For our introduction to Iloilo, we attended several sessions that gave us the context necessary to situate our understanding of the people and the festival. On our second day in Iloilo, we were taken on a heritage tour of Iloilo. We saw the history of the town- its growth from the arrival and assimilation of the Chinese mestizos, the influence of 300 years of Spanish governance in its architecture, language and culture, the trade booms of sugar and weaving, and the later American influence prior to the Philippines’ independence. The next day we listened and learnt about the natives of Iloilo and their customs prior to the arrival of the Spanish and Catholicism, and traced the history of the island to the present day. Our understanding of the social and economic issues that Ilonggos face was furthered the next day when we attended a session given by a priest crusading for the poor.

Armed with this knowledge, we were ready to make visits to several communities in Iloilo. We first visited the Ati, the marginalized indigenous people of Panay. The community we visited live in Jordan, on the paradise island of Guimaras. The contradiction of the beauty of the island comes in the form of its forgotten natives, who struggle every day against the discrimination of the other inhabitants of the island, and their very right to stay on their ancestral land. Constant conflict with local landowners and the authorities have turned them into a nomadic people who badly want a place to call their own.

                                            
The Ati dream for their children- education, and an improved quality of life

We next met the urban poor of Iloilo, and visited the places they work and live in. Our group split into three smaller teams that visited areas as diverse as a landfill, government housing relocation projects and a seafront community that made their living from working as stevedores at the port. The plight of the poor made a large impact on all of us- several of the travellers were reduced to tears, and all of us had to adjust our initial naive impression of Iloilo as a festival town. The daily realities of the people we met are harsh- putting food on the table is a constant struggle with the meagre honest wage they earn, and having a home sometimes means little more than a single room shack which floods to waist level in the rainy season.

  
The single room shack prone to floods, and the elderly couple who live in it. At bottom right, a young girl at the Calajunan landfill, where her parents work

From this backdrop of social reality, we approached the stage of the Dinagyang Festival. The festival perhaps can be best described as being everything that the two communities we visited were not: rich and privileged. No expense is spared for the gorgeous costumes and props created for the dancers. Sponsors are everywhere- on buntings, media broadcasts, official wear and free merchandise handed out to the crowd. It is from start to finish truly a spectacle- each team is bigger and better than the one before, and out not just to win the competition, but the hearts of the crowd, who are able to participate in the street dancing with them on their way between the four judging stages.

The many colours and faces of the Dinagyang festival

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Ati-ati competition is that it is named after the Ati (or Aetas) - the indigenous people- whom they represent by smearing their bodies with dark paint, donning curly wigs and tribal-inspired costumes. The festival itself is held in commemoration of the sale of the Ati’s native land to settlers and the conversion of the population to Catholicism in the advent of the Spanish Conquistadors. In previous years, the real Ati were not invited to perform nor were they channelled any of the Festival’s considerable monetary proceeds. This year, the organizers of the Festival appear to have taken a step in the right direction by inviting them to perform in a cultural showcase during the festival week. At one level, it could be said that the Dinagyang festival is about the building of team spirit and discipline among the high school students that participate in it, and their love for music and dance. At the religious level, the populace comes out in droves, each bearing their statue of Santo Niño during the week’s festivities.

Piety, pageantry and parody- contrast the bright costumes and painted faces with the simplicity of the Ati traditional showcase performers, pictured bottom right.

After this immersion in the slow and joyful Ilonggo way of life for 10 days, travellers were confronted with the stark contrasts of Manila. Louder, larger, darker and poorer, Manila was truly an assault on the senses of our group. If we thought that we had seen reality in Iloilo, Manila was perhaps a little too real for us. The urban poor were literally everywhere- street corners, boxes, motorcycle side cars, the beachfront, outside exclusive apartment buildings, and in one particularly memorable instance, sleeping inside a large municipal flowerpot. While in Iloilo there had been room for the urban poor on the fringes of the city, in Manila they were stacked up on top of each other with little breathing space. The pervasive poverty in the Philippines was further reinforced by two short films we watched on the subject at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Top left and bottom centre: the urban poor are lost among the staggering amount of people in Metro Manila, which has a population of 11.85 million

It would be wrong to say that Manila was completely alien and confronting. The streets and the food of Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown, looked, felt and tasted the same as that of Petaling Street. The people moved slower, and sounded much as they do at home. There were great big malls, beautiful churches, welcoming pubs, and a rich history to learn about. Arguably, Manila gave us the final context we needed to understand our journey in Iloilo.
When we left Iloilo, it was with an unexpected sadness. Driving towards the airport in Iloilo in the still and silent predawn darkness, we were seized with sorrow at parting with our student guides, who had become friends. The various places we had walked past, eaten at, and written about were to be left behind. Driving towards the airport in Manila in the lunch rush hour, we were stuck in a traffic jam. An enterprising man walked up and down the gridlock, offering a tray of bonsais for sale for Chinese New Year.                                                                                                                                               

The thoughts and experiences of the students as well as the contributions of the alumni can be found at www.insearchofiloilo.blogspot.com.
Written by Chrishandra Sebastiampillai, Editor-in-chief
Pictures from www.insearchofiloilo.blogspot.com.