The Batalla Festival of Macabebe, Pampanga
“Kuya, director ka ba? (Big Brother, are you a director?)” asked an inquisitive barrio urchin, one of about a dozen hyperactive children who had been following me around for the last ten minutes. Few photographers, even amateur ones like myself, have probably set foot in Dalayap, a far-flung barangay deep in the marshes of Macabebe, Pampanga. As places go, Dalayap is far from accessible. If you have the stamina and the time to spare, you can actually travel there by foot, following the pilapil for a few hours. We had arrived, alternatively, by river banca (outrigger canoe), after navigating the convoluted waterways of the Pampanga River Delta.
Perhaps it’s this inaccessibility that accounts for the obscurity of Batalla, the feast for Dalayap’s patron Sta. Rita. Batalla usually happens on May 22, unless the whim of seasonal floods moves it back. While the feast is celebrated in other nearby barangays, it’s in Dalayap where the feast takes on a feverish frenzy.
Batalla kicks off like your typical small town fiesta. A Catholic priest celebrates mass at the chapel at the town plaza then a procession kicks off, with predominantly Methodist townsfolk marching to the east bearing a statue of Sta. Rita on their shoulders. In perfect timing with the sunset, before it hits the footbridge at the end of town, the procession makes a U-turn, and that’s when Batalla truly begins.
It starts off as a dull rumble from the end of the village masked by the blaring of the brass band. You feel the atmosphere change slowly but distinctly from mildly solemn to something disconcerting. The band plays kuraldal tunes, increasing in volume and tempo as the procession nears the plaza. Only, it’s not an orderly procession anymore but a wild throng, a frenzied mob of sweaty men who are jumping about, thrashing around and chanting “Oi! Oi! Oi!” while deftly transporting the dangerously swaying Sta Rita to the center of the town. The women and children seem to have dispersed into the sidelines, save for a hardy few who brave the maddening crowd at the center.
When the crowd arrives at the town plaza, its roar is deafening and the movement is furious. Arms flail about. Elbows and knees fly. People run and leap into each other recklessly. To minimize injury, rubber slippers are worn on elbows while barangay tanods (civilian police) try to keep things in check. The townsfolk form the world’s wildest Conga line as fireworks explode in brilliant light, raining sparks down. The band plays faster and the dancing gets even more riotous. It’s not a fiesta anymore, it’s a mosh pit with fervent slamdancing, complete with a religious icon swimming atop the crowd instead of a rock star.
Then, in an orchestrated order amidst the seeming anarchy, an ages-old ritual tug-of-war is performed by the crowd, playing out the struggle between Muslim Kapampangans and Christian Spaniards from history past (hence the name ‘Batalla’). The image of Sta. Rita is pulled violently toward the chapel but the crowd resists, tugging Sta Rita back toward the plaza. It is here when the dancing is at its most intense as tensions between the two sides mount. After an eternal back-and-forth struggle, Sta. Rita is calmly allowed into the chapel, not by defeat in battle but by the will of the people.
Batalla is a textbook example of Catholicism being mutated by folk religion. Scholars from the Center for Kapampangan Studies believe that its origins may lie in a pre-Hispanic tribal dance that was Christianized upon the arrival of missionaries, which was then appropriated by townspeople for their own religious purposes. Despite the violent frenzy that characterizes Batalla, you can see utter devotion in the faces and actions of Dalayap’s townfolk. There’s always an unabashed gentleness when a dancing devotee reaches out to touch the image of Sta. Rita, an honesty that’s kind of hard to forget. In an age when even religion is mass produced on an assembly line, bland and boring, Batalla is a welcome change.