Rural Philippine Village Life
How do they spend their money?
Smack in the center of a dark night sky over rice farms, hundreds of kilometers away from the provincial highway, Sta. Maria village glows and beams out light in a two-day party because of one family’s devotion to one woman.
That woman is Catholic Church icon Mary, the devotion to whom the Sunga family of migrant Filipinos has kept alive in this village for six generations.
“It’s not the barangay that directly benefits from it [donations by overseas Filipinos] but the Sta. Maria church where the image of Apung Maria [Mother Mary] is housed,” Arlina Sunga said at the plaza named for her husband Arturo who was murdered three years ago.
Arturo’s elder sister Charito had the plaza built to honor her brother. Since then, the plaza had been the center of activity every year not only to honor Arturo but, most especially, to fund the local church activities, Arlina said. Donations during the two-day celebration reaches to about P100,000.
“Everything is given to the priest for the needs of the parish. It has reached that amount with the influx of tourists and balikbayans [return migrants] of the town,” Arlina said adding that farmers and poor families also donate despite their meager income.
Still, it is the Sunga family, who reaches into their pockets to fund the celebration that is capped by nonstop ballroom dancing, which begins as the last sliver of light leaves the horizon. “This is just the first reason why we work and save a lot in the US,” Teresita Sunga-Timban said.
Sunga-Timban is a psychiatrist practicing in the United States. Her husband Demetrio, a surgeon, owns three health centers, headquartered in Michigan where the two also live.
“We have been coming in and out of the country at least twice a year for three years now,” Sunga-Timban revealed.
They fly to the Philippines for the fiesta in April, for her 97-year-old mother-in-law’s birthday in September, and for her 95-year-old mother’s birthday in December.
“We have to be here during those months especially now that my mother and mother-in-law are in their old age,” Teresita said. “Aside from the family being devotees, we also use the time as our yearly reunion with family and friends.”
This year’s fiesta reunited five of the eight Sunga siblings.
CHARITO WAVES off questions on how much they are spending for the two-day celebration, saying “it’s not important”. In 2002, according to Arlina, doctors in the US diagnosed Charito with brain aneurysm and gave her a 50-50 chance of survival.
“She promised that if she lived, she would serve Apung Maria,” Arlina narrated.
Hence, nearly every year since getting a clean bill of health, Charito leads in raising money for the village. Most of the time, however, she shoulders expenses from her own pocket, from her salary as a nurse in the US, and from income from a healthcare center she also owns.
This year, some of that money went to the checkered linoleum covering the cemented plaza the size of a full-scale basketball court, to the hired dance instructors and for the costumes of two dozen dancers.
According to Arlina, Charito and Teresita funded the building in 2004 for a much bigger and more concrete Sta. Maria church.
Arlina recalled when the village would rely solely on donations for the fiesta expenses four years ago.
“But now everything from the [money] collection bags goes to church since the expenses for the fiesta is shouldered by Charito,” Arlina said.
She was referring to the satin pouches carried by some of the dancers that paraded in the first street march every morning of April 29. After the priest ended the second celebration of the Eucharist that day, villagers lined up in a parade of a crowned image of Mary.
The locals, from little children to the old people, would go about from the church to the marker for the village and back. A marching band leads the parade where some dancers thrust the money pouches to villagers and visitors watching at the sidelines.
Another band leads the second parade at 8:00 in the evening and ends at the plaza, playing to keep people awake until 4:00 a.m. the next day.
“Nobody sleeps around here this time,” a villager says.
Fireworks display formally ends the celebration, at least for those still awake at this hour.
IT’S EASY to get to this village even as midnight arrives and for those nearly as blind as mice: just follow the horns and drums of the orchestra that the Sunga family hired.
Most of the familiar tunes are: cha-cha, mambo, swing, waltz, rumba, and pop music.
The glitter of sequined white and red gowns is also blinding, especially for those outside the low bamboo fence separating them from the special guests and visitors invited to the dance.
“A lot of balikbayans goes home during the fiesta,” Sunga-Timban said pointing out people in barong tagalog and ballroom dress: “He’s from New Jersey, USA; she flew in from New Zealand.”
One of the persons she pointed at sashayed towards her, stopped, slightly bowed and extended an arm: the invitation for a dance.
Sunga-Timban rose and tucked her flowing red gown on the heels of catcalls from Arlina and family friends.
At the instant the band played, Sunga-Timban and her partner joined other pairs with hired dancers –ten males in tight-fitting pants and ten women in blue gowns slit to the thigh– in beginning the night of revelry.
“I belonged to a dance group who would lead the dance procession from night until the wee hours of the morning. All of us young and old alike would tirelessly dance back and forth in the streets all in praise of Apung Maria,” Sunga-Timban said.
She resumed her pointing, mentioning one pair dancing as her childhood friends who are now US immigrants.
“She’s a pharmacist; he’s an accountant,” Sunga-Timban said adding these are Filipinos who are now US citizens but still go back to Sta. Maria village.
She pointed out that some of them, like other Catholic devotees, seek the intercession of Mary, praying to receive also what Charito did for her health. But for two days every year, at least, their dollars light up this poor village. /MP