From galleon trade to fiction: The stories of Ina nin Peñafrancia

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The Metropolitan Cathedral of Naga City, the mother church of Bikol. Traditionally, the image is transferred here for the novena masses in honor of Ina. Photo from THE COLLECTION OF MICHAEL PRICE/Courtesy of KRISTIAN SENDON CORDERO

Naga City (CNN Philippines Life) — In Bievenido Santos’ poem, “Heart of Bicol,” Naga, a thriving settlement by the bank of a serpentine river, is marked by three significant symbols — the tree of naga or narra, which is poetically described by the Franciscan friar, Marcos de Lisboa as the sangre de drago, which means the blood of the dragon or bakunawa; the river, where the annual fluvial procession is held every September, and the shrine of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, who is fondly called Ina. All three symbols are linked to this icon described in an old Bikol prayer as nagdadangadang siring sa kaagahan/ magayon siring sa bulan/ maliwanag siring sa saldang/ asin mangirhat siring sa hukbo na andam sa pakilaban (She is like the the morning rising, fair us the moon, bright us the sun, terrible as an army set in a battle array).

Many Catholic Bikolanos consider her as an indelible part of our identity and culture. In recent years, Bikolanos abroad have also organized their own fluvial processions in the Danube River in Vienna and in San Francisco Bay in the U.S. An image of the same icon was recently installed in the Vatican Gardens alongside all other Marian images. As keeper of this ancient figure, Naga continues to be the capital of the region.

If Mexican telenovelas would always carry a scene or two of a distressed character praying in front of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Bikolanos will surely not fail to include Ina in their visual representations. As Ina, she will connect and gather the tangible, like the abaca, butanding and the Mayon Volcano; and the edible, like the pili, sili, katnga, gata, the hotly debated Bikol Express, which in some recipes is now added with pineapple chunks. A political party-list group even uses pineapple in its logo to represent Camarines Norte alongside Ina, lording over the other symbols mentioned above.

A vintage photo of the old image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia with a priest and a woman devotee. Photo from KRISTIAN SENDON CORDERO

Interestingly, one account that I have heard about the origin of the devotion to Ina involves the same pineapple or the pinya. In this account, there is no mention about the creole priest Don Miguel de Covarubias who is acknowledged as the progenitor of the devotion in the church-approved version. Instead, the venerated image is said to be accidentally discovered by an unnamed and drunkard guardia civil on top a pineapple plant in Barangay Francia in Naga City, hence the name Peñafrancia. The guardia civil was converted afterwards when he gave the image to the bishop.

Another interesting story links Ina to the galleon trade. While sailing from Acapulco, no pirates, no typhoons, no plagues, could locate or destroy it because the Virgin endowed it with her protection, the manto of invisibility. It is said that the only time the galleon emerged again was when it safely reached the shore of Pasacao. The image was brought to the cathedral where a high mass, presided over by the bishop, was celebrated as a thanksgiving for the peaceful and safe voyage. Later on, a separate shrine was built along the riverbanks and only during the Traslacion that the image is transferred back to the cathedral where it was first venerated by the people. As for the ship that carried Ina to Naga, no one really knows what happened to it, except that some people claim that on moonless nights, one can see a golden galleon, glistening like a star on top of Mount Isarog.

These narratives of origins and discoveries, despite all its limitations, I consider these as part of the growing tales that locate Ina, nearer to the familiar and intimate landscapes. In other folk stories, she is seen bathing in a spring in Tandaay, Nabua where a miraculous well is still visited by some devotees. I suspect that these stories survive because these are the accounts that actually make this devotion to Ina complex and layered, the same as all other personal accounts of wishes granted, of healing and forgiveness, of freedom and love that Bikolanos deeply experience every September during the Traslacion and the fluvial processions, visceral and visible — and not virtual.

Over the years, I have come to see this devotion to Ina as something that is marked by its intensities and insularities: Since 1999, the local church has marked significant events related to the history of Peñafrancia. The 75th anniversary of its canonical coronation and the tercentenary anniversary of the devotion in 2010 easily come to mind. A massive arch called Porta Mariae, allegedly financed by some high ranking military officials, was built to mark the last major celebration. It is also said that some local fraternities have made joining the procession as part of their initiation rites. The final deal that seals one’s membership is when a neophyte is able to touch the image during the Traslacion.

However, in many instances too, in the local radio or in the social media, I have witnessed how Bikolanos would intensely storm the heavens for their region to be spared from a looming super typhoon or from an imminent volcanic eruption but would be scandalously quiet when it does not involve the Bikol region anymore. It seems that this public declaration of faith is limited to the Bikol agenda. For sure, there are many personal answered and unanswered prayers that people can cite, longings and desires that they have whispered to her image to prove their devotion. But what I am interested to see now is how this culture-specific devotion of the Bikols will evolve in the coming years especially with this pandemic, which will certainly evolve and return eventually, more determined, devoted to Death, and one can say, something that is probably against her. What will our rituals be like if the virus continues to haunt us until the coming years? What will it be like if the river because of our total neglect dries up eventually? What if the stories we attach to these devotion fade in time when people would feel safe and alive inside the virtual worlds we are now starting to discover?

A book of short stories about Naga by writer Carlos Ojeda Aureus. Photo from KRISTIAN SENDON CORDERO

While many of my social media friends have opted to post their photos from the previous Peñafrancia celebrations, I decided to re-read one permanent book in my personal shelf to mark this sacred season in our Bikol calendar. This is the first and only book (so far) by Naga-born writer, Carlos Ojeda Aureus. Truth be told, these stories in “Nagueños” have never left since that day I discovered it during the summer of 2000.

Reading “Nagueños,” I have a strong feeling that I have first heard about these stories in many “ecclesiastical gossips” that went through the thick seminary walls. With different fictional characters as memorable as the girls of Colegio, Aureus sublimely transformed for me what is supposed to be the quotidian and the routinary life. But what is far more interesting in these stories of Aureus is the novelistic design that it has generated by making it a novel on Naga, a sui generis of this genre. The city as a liminal and lyrical space becomes a silent witness that serves as vessel, a mother of stories, home for Sid and Tanya in “Flakes of Fire, Bodies of Light;” for the bachelor Mr. Caceres who is fond of eating Chocnut, and upon returning to Naga discovers the old flames of love and desire; for Naty Angeles, an OFW, who lost her faith after learning about her only son’s death in a hazing incident, and for Padre Itos and Rosing, scorned by the parishioners for an unconventional affair in the story Typhoon.

After finishing the book at that time, I had to go to the same spot in the second floor of the minor seminary where the beleaguered priest sealed his decision to leave the priesthood, which incidentally will happen after the fluvial procession. Like Naty Angeles, I too, would eat my toasted siopao at Plaza Quince Martires and wait for the bells of San Francisco to toll. I would also find myself looking for those secret corridors and hallways in Ateneo, Seminario and the Parokyal that could give me this rare experience of seeing the city in another frame. Catholic, sacramental, baroque, tragic and comic, this is the Naga in Aureus "Nagueños," something that becomes evident in the same September processions and something that I also discovered in these new fictions.

Naga is never the same way again for me after Aureus. Because fiction’s gift is to enlarge our sense of reality, or probe it, is something that I realize and I owe it to this book. Stories are like stars scattered in the universe, and with our limited gaze, we impose them names and tales to give us some meanings to our lives.

Despite the prohibition not to carry a “non-spiritual reading material” inside the chapel, I brought this book with me, and I remember that after finishing the story, “The Night Express Does Not Stop Here Anymore,” I looked at those stars adorned in the crown of Ina, and from it, I looked at her eyes to constellate a face, a place, a memory. With the Traslacion and Fluvial Procession not happening this year because of this pandemic, I once again bilocate to the pages of Aureus and in these tales of hope and redemption, I would discover, over and over again, the quiet beating heart of this city.