Thursday, July 09, 2009

Lechons, our national pride, on parade

Where else do you see roasted suckling pigs, better known as lechons, paraded during a cultural event in North America but in the City of Toronto? This year, about 30 lechons were marched in a parada ng lechon at Nathan Phillips Square in downtown Toronto to celebrate Philippine Independence Day last June 12.

A Hispanic-style cuisine, lechon originated from the Spanish term, which means roasted suckling pig. Lechon is a popular cuisine in the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking nations in Latin America and, of course, Spain.

The most common way to cook Philippine lechon is to roast a whole pig or piglet over charcoal or wood. The pig is then drenched in oil using a brush. In provinces in the Philippines, the brush is made out of banana leaves tied to a long wooden stick. Brushing the pig with oil makes its skin pop and crunchy.

This parada ng lechon in Toronto may be first in North America but it has its origins in the town of Balayan, Batangas, in the Philippines, a Tagalog province about two hours drive south of Manila. This tradition started in 1906 when the town of Balayan decided to feature a parade of lechons as the centre stage of the town fiesta every June 24th, the feast of St John the Baptist or “Pista ni San Juan.” It is the only town in the whole Philippines where roasted pigs or lechons are paraded during the town fiesta. The roasted pigs are paraded like beauty queens around town, much to the delight of spectators including thousands of local and foreign tourists who flock to this southern town every year for the parade.

But why lechon?

The roasted pig has been traditionally the main course during fiestas or any major gathering in the Philippines. It is not unusual for lechon or a whole roasted pig to grace any Filipino fiesta table. The parada ng lechon in Balayan started as an old thanksgiving custom, as lechon is always at the centre of merry-making whenever someone finished college, got wed, got elected to office, became a lawyer or doctor or when one recovered from a grave illness and attained good health.

On the day of the parade, hundreds of lechons are gathered in anticipation of the celebration of the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. After the roasted pigs are blessed, along with the townsfolk in the name of their patron saint, the lechons are paraded dressed in wigs, sunglasses, raincoats, or as boxers, Katipuneros, beauty queens or according to whatever theme the participating social organizations choose.

As it is the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, there is the usual custom of “water-sprinkling” where people douse water at each other, a tradition called “basaan.” Kids play with water guns of all sizes and fire trucks are free to hose down anyone – all in the spirit of thanksgiving.

The sheer madness of the occasion is enough to arouse mischief among pranksters who would toss water or beer over the lechons, drenching not only the lechons but also the bearers and onlookers as well. Some will even dare to snatch a free sample of the roast pig’s prized crispy skin. To prevent this from happening, some participants cover their lechons with barbed wire.

After the parade, the lechons are then brought back to their respective club headquarters for a festive celebration of drinking and feasting. As an occasion of thanksgiving and sharing, organizers give away sliced chunks of the lechons to the crowd.

However, whether the main rationale for bringing this tradition of parada ng lechon to Toronto is to commemorate thanksgiving for achieving our independence from Spain remains a question. Perhaps it was more the pure mayhem of marching roasted pigs to attract people’s attention that inspired the Toronto organizers of the Philippine Independence Day celebration.

Food has always been an integral part of celebration of cultural events. At best, the organizers could have presented different tables or stalls featuring samplings of Filipino food and delicacies, including lechons cut up in ready slices to be given away. But to parade these roasted pigs uncovered, especially when the threat of influenza H1N1 or the swine flu is still with us, is a bit insensitive and reckless. This call for caution, however, is not meant to spread the wrong impression that pork should not be eaten at all because pigs carry the H1N1 virus. Rather, the parade of lechons, we believe, should never take away the significance of the Independence Day celebration from displays of patriotism, love of country, or service to the nation.

Achieving our independence from colonial Spanish rule is not just an ordinary day in our country’s history. For the first time, being free meant we can rule by ourselves. It should therefore be an event we should proudly and appropriately commemorate, not by holding a Santacruzan or marching with lechons on the street, which only rekindles our enslavement to the vestiges of our Spanish colonial past. Somehow this tells us we have never been really independent: imitating our former masters only perpetuates our further abasement. Our national hero Jose Rizal once said the subjugation of Filipinos turned them into “a race without mind or heart.”

Independence Day should be a time to look back in our history as a nation. To remember those who took great risks to free our people from the bonds of a colonial and oppressive government. To remember our heroes who fought to create our country like none other. From the first uprising against the Spaniards in 1574 by Rajah Lakan Dula to the proclamation of our independence from Spain on June 12, 1898, by Emilio Aguinaldo from the balcony of his home in Kawit, Cavite.

Take the example of the Americans when they celebrate the fourth of July. They have a parade which consists of several bands, fife and drum corps, floats, military and special units, giant balloons, equestrians, drill teams and national dignitaries and celebrity participants. It’s a parade that draws the attention of Americans to the real meaning for their holiday—a patriotic, flag-waving, red-white-and-blue celebration of America’s birthday.

On a smaller scale, how about Mexican-Americans who will celebrate their mother country’s independence on September 13, 2009 (not Cinco de Mayo) in Minneapolis? They have even identified their purpose in celebrating Mexican Independence Day: to empower and promote Latino business in the Twin Cities; to provide financial assistance for higher education to the Latino volunteers who help organize the celebration; and to educate the community about Mexican history.

As usual, they will have a parade (not a Santacruzan or parada ng lechon), booths featuring sponsoring organizations, local Latino businesses, food vendors, schools, churches and nonprofit organizations serving the Latino community.

Costa Rica’s Independence Day celebration is another example worthy of emulation. Their celebration is very family oriented, without the military overtones that used to dominate their parades before Costa Rica gave its army the boot more than 55 years ago. No more sights of fighter jets and tanks. In their place, there is a procession of children from all the nearby schools, from kindergarten to high school. The children wear traditional dresses in vibrant colours crafted by their mothers who walk the street with their little ones, and once in a while dart about to fix the things that mothers like to fix. This is a great way to educate the children about their country’s history and independence, not through a Santacruzan and a parade of lechons.

The same goes for Colombia where celebrations centre on traditional regional folk dances and music, and revolve around Colombia’s flag. In Finland where they have a similar flag-raising tradition at Tahtitorninmaki (“Observatory Hill”), their celebration is much more austere and low key. Many people in Finland mark the day by lighting two candles in their windows—a custom with historical significance—since it symbolizes their silent protest against Russia. It is, however, a much more elaborate commemoration in Israel to mark David Ben Gurion’s declaration of an Israeli state on May 14, 1948. The celebration includes an official ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem with a speech, flag ceremony, a march and the lighting of the twelve torches, the torches representing each of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Filipino-Canadians in Toronto, especially the organizers of Independence Day festivities, seriously need a lesson in history to make our celebration more meaningful, eventful and truly memorable. Our children and future generation deserve better.

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