Saturday, February 21, 2009

Captivating Capiz-Aswang Festival

Aswang Festival

On October 29 to 30, 2004, Capiz inaugurated the Aswang Festival, organized by a nongovernmental group Dugo Capiznon, Incorporated. It was a Halloween-like Fiesta as a prelude to All Souls Day and All Saints Day festivals. It was, however, condemned by the Catholic hierarchy and some local officials, as an act of adoring the devil. When former Capiz Gov. Vicente Bermejo assumed as mayor of Roxas City in July 2007, the controversial festival was stopped.

Canada's High Banks Entertainment Ltd.’s filmmaker Jordan Clark, 36, traveled to Capiz to film a documentary entitled ‘Aswang: A Journey Into Myth.’ (shot entirely in Victoria, British Columbia’s downtown). The Docu-Movie/suspense film stars Filipina-Canadian stage actress Janice Santos Valdez, with a special appearance of Maricel Soriano. The documentary's proceeds will help raise funds to help restore power in Olotayan Island, Roxas City and support patients of dystonia parkinsonism in Capiz. Capiz has the highest prevalence at 21.94/100,000 cases, which translates to one for every 4,000 men. Aklan has the next highest rate at 7.72/100,000. The figures suggest that XDP is endemic in Panay, particularly in Capiz.

FOR the third time, the controversial but culturally important Aswang Festival was held in Roxas City, Capiz, toward the end of October, in keeping with the spirit of All Souls’ Day, celebrated in the west as Halloween.

As in previous years, the annual festival was greeted with disfavor by local church leaders. In a Pastoral Letter, the local parish proposed a boycott of the festival. On the second day of the event, church followers held a vigil and prayed for rain to stop the activities.
It drizzled a bit, but it did not dampen the enthusiasm of the people who flocked to the center of the town to see the colorful parade and watch the body-painting contest. The Viva Hot Babes, who flew all the way from Manila, performed provocative dance numbers in skimpy attires, thrilling the audience.

According to the organizer of the festival, the Dugo Capiznon Inc. led by Cheryl Ann R. Lastimoso, the church was against the event because it purportedly “promotes belief in aswang and scares the children.”
This is not true. I do not know where members of the clergy in Capiz got that idea because when I asked Lastimoso what the objectives of the Festival were, she said matter-of-factly: “We have three main objectives: first, to reverse the negative image of Capiz as a haven of aswang and remove the stigma attached to the word. We consider aswang simply a myth, with no factual basis. It does not exist except in the imagination of people.

“Second, to promote economic growth by helping small businessmen. We do this through trade exhibits during the festival.

“Third, to promote Capiz as a good tourist destination by highlighting its famous sea food products, fine beaches and other local scenery.”

The festival included an educational component via a symposium where the aswang idea was discussed from the historical, cultural and paranormal aspects. Three resource speakers were invited to shed light on the topic: Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, executive director of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts; Dr. Alicia P. Magos, faculty member of the University of the Philippines Visayas; and this columnist.

Guidote-Alvarez appreciated the cultural significance of the festival as an indigenous alternative to the western celebration of Halloween. She saw it as a good opportunity to remove the stigma attached to Capiz by confronting the issue of aswang rather than being embarrassed by it.

She cited Romania, which suffered for a time by being identified as the birthplace of Dracula.

The Romanians decided to make it a tourist attraction, staging festivities centering on the vampire story. This is what the Dugo Capiznon would like to happen to the aswang myth.

Dr. Magos spoke of the historical origins of the word. During the Spanish era, she said, those who rebelled against the Spaniards were labeled aswang (based on the legend of “Agurang and Aswang” representing good and evil), so people would get scared of them and not follow them.

During that time, aswang referred to the brave Filipinos who fought the Spaniards. They were actually the good guys. In time, the word acquired a negative meaning. Despite the fact that there is no hard evidence to support belief in a monstrous creature called aswang, the idea persisted.

For my part, I talked about the penchant of Filipinos in particular, and Asians in general, for believing in supernatural creatures. Although I said I had not found any evidence of the existence of aswang, there were other supernatural creatures whose existence could be proven, like dwarves and other nature spirits.

Guidote-Alvarez tried to bridge the communication gap between local church officials and the organizers of the festival by talking to the Monsignor about the real intent of the group in staging the event, which was the opposite of what the church feared.

According to her, the Monsignor listened sympathetically to her explanation and somehow understood that there was no intent to promote belief in the aswang.

If the clergy in Capiz had only taken the trouble to read carefully the noble objectives of the organizers of the Aswang Festival, instead of jumping to conclusions, they would not have taken such a negative stance. The church has nothing to fear about the aswang because it does not exist.

Speaking about the attitude of the clergy in Capiz, Jojo Robles, editor in chief of Manila Standard, remarked to me during a dinner hosted by Gen. Lastimoso and family for their guests in a beach resort in Roxas City: “Some people simply have no sense of humor.” He’s absolutely right!

 Aswang Festival 2005
Aswang Festival 2005

Aswang Festival is a culturally significant and controversial celebration in Roxas City, Capiz intended to change the negative connotation attached to the province popularly called domain of aswang by turning the monster into Capiz' premier attraction. This annual festivity runs towards the end of October, in time for the yearly observation of All Saints Day or undas in the Philippines. It has been commonly known as the local version of American Halloween celebrations.

During this time, people of all ages await the parade of participating individuals wearing costumes of the most horrifying mythical creatures like tikbalang, wak-wak, and kapre. Going simultaneously with this event is a trade fair of the famous Capiznon sea food products and other local delicacies.

In 2004, the first-ever Aswang Festival received tremendous negative feedback from the local church, which strongly disapproves of belief in such mythical creatures. But the organizers defended the concept of the festivity. According to them, the festival is aimed at changing the negative impression of Capiz as a home of aswang by recognizing it only as a myth and hopefully removing the stigma attached to the word. It intends to showcase Capiz as one of the country's top tourist destinations having its fine beaches and scenic landscapes. Also, through the trade exhibits, entrepreneurs of small businesses can promote local products to help uplift the economy of the province.

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