The Lady called “Ina”
September 15, 2009, 11:50 pm
Filed under: essay, history | Tags: , , , , ,

The feast of Our Lady of Penafrancia celebrated on the third Sunday Of Sept. is massive if size of pilgrim crowds were to be counted. Her devotees remain fervent and faithful to the end and never miss to rise with both fervor and passion to celebrate her feast. It is no ordinary event: miracles happen and always witnessed to and attested. Most of these miracles do not happen with dancing suns; most often these are mere answered prayers–a cure for illness or a blindness of heart, a dream realised, a loved one returned. Like their own feet, the devotees of the Virigin believe, she walks with them on the muddy dusty grounds they prowl when hungry, sick or forlorn. And when she appears to them to soothe, console, or heal, she is no stranger. What bars them then from touching the hem of her cloak, or from calling endearingly so, “Ina” (mother)? While the feast is held in Naga City in Bicol, southwest of Manila, most devotees scattered in the world celebrate it, too, with a novena and mass and a procession often ending in a pot luck dinner. Here in Vancouver, BC, Bicolanos have been attending the novena and mass at St. Patrick’s Church on Main St., the first parish that welcomed her pilgrim image on a visit in June 1997. The novena ends on Sept. 19th.

On seeing her for the first time two decades ago, I was startled by her piercing eyes. I beat my breast and shaded my eyes suddenly feeling guilty. But I had no time to dwell on sins I could not recall.

Our Lady of Penafrancia, Bicolandia's patroness


          The climb on narrow wooden steps up her throne at the top of the cathedral’s main altar was tight, dark, and hot from the warmth of bodies touching breast-to-back in our wait to kiss the hem of her gold-threaded cape. Each devotee had only a minute of whispered prayer. In front and back of me were men and women breathing their prayers, eyes red and liquid from crying; mine were dry as those of a callous reporter on an assignment to write about this famed festival in Naga, honoring Bicolandia’s Nuestra Senora de Penafrancia. I had to write of the experience first hand.

            I arrived in Naga two days before the altar climb. On my first dawn, my host roused the photographers of the then National Media Production Center’s Philippines Today International and me, to the murmurs in the half-light. We were hustled to stand watch by the gate for a dawn procession.

             By the gate under a canopy of hissing bamboo leaves, we peered at a penitential procession moving toward us like a bouquet of lights floating in the night. Up close, these were the lighted tapers that barefooted women, veiled by the dawn yet cracking, held to their breasts, and now lighting their faces; they prayed trance-like. I felt my hair stand perhaps from the eerie sight. And then, I had goose bumps from a cold gust brushing my limbs.

            By mid-afternoon of the same day, our hosts bundled us up, leading us like blind through a sweaty crowd massed on the sidewalk toward the basilica. We stole into a building and were made to lean on a broken window that opened to the cleared up street. Within an hour, the procession called Translacion, reared a head like that of a fallen beehive that swarmed. The buzz of prayers pitched each time the throng chorused, Viva la Virgen!

            Like hundreds of bees crawling over each other, the men, who alone could join in, bobbed and dived to reach up for the Virgin’s feet or the hem of her cape. From where we watched, the  image seemed to rise and ebb as in a wave in a black ocean of heads wrapped in a haze of dust and hot breath.

              Up close, when the procession came under that window, I made out the swarm as that of hard muscled men whose sinuous arms writhed with longing, their faces contorted with grief or remorse, perhaps. Among us who watched, women were quietly sobbing and softly crying. I kept my eyes on the spectacle, and often shifted my eyes to my feet, embarrassed that I could not wring out a sob from my breast.

           On the ninth day, all of Bicolandia lined the banks of the Naga River. We were packed on the bridge within sight of the cathedral, squinting from the glare of the afternoon sun already floating on the water. Humid vapor rose from the ground after a rain that the folks said always fell when the river was not high enough for this fluvial procession.

           Soon the Virgin was brought down her altar at the Metropolitan Cathedral, sent off the festooned river landing, and set on her pedestal on the garlanded barge. (Today, the procession begins at the Metropolitan Cathedral and ends at the Basilica.) Bands struck tympanis and bells were rung as the barge sailed down. In the distance, I could make out no more than a clump of white blooms with a jewel in its heart glinting in the heat. 

            The river turned into a fluid highway of throbbing lights set on boats more hard-muscled men paddled. They call themselves, voyadores, or the Virgin’s escort on her queenly parade. No woman is said to survive if she were to sneak in disguised. 

            The crowd on the riverbank had thickened by then. Women and children seemed to have sprouted like some strange growing flowers whose roots were deep because they held up straight as reeds on the incline. Where the barge of the Virgin passed, the crowd would bend as if brushed by a breeze. Shouts of Viva! would explode in the air, and then fade out. 

            In the crowd, I saw cupped hands dip into the water where the barge was passing; and as in baptism or cleansing rites, the blessed water was doused on a child, a sick adult, or on the sorrow-filled breast of whose hand dipped. Our host whispered to me, as if it were a secret that hundreds of healings happened this way and prayers granted, too. I hurried through a prayer I cannot now remember; I was merely tagging along, riding on the passion of the crowd whom the Virgin held in her mysterious sway.

             The fluvial procession took three hours. By the time the Virgin’s barge crept to the landing by the side of the Shrine, the day had fallen on lighted candles that made of Naga an upside-down star-pierced sky. Thousands and thousands of prayers and blown kisses by this time littered the river. The crowd had dispersed, sweaty and sunburned, to the bus and train stations for home. No one has been known to drop like lead from fatigue; the Virgin is said to revive and strengthen each devotee who came to Naga for her.

 Ten years later, I was back at the Virgin’s Shrine still an onlooker. By some uncanny twist, I had signed in to help raise funds for the restoration of the shrine. My late husband, architect Felix N. Imperial, Jr. had given his services for the restoration plan; it was, for him, a spiritual homecoming and homage to the province of his ancestors, a land he never chanced to visit or call home.

             Pushed face-to-face with the Virgin again, I realized how tiny she was – not even two feet tall. Her body is of beaten silver, the face and hand propping the Child Jesus, of polished ivory. A golden cape hangs stiffly from her shoulders like wings, and an aureole frames her face.

             Her skin is shaded like that of the native cimmarones, the bandits or outcasts of the time. Legend says it was for them that the Shrine by the river was built; they asked for it. In this way, they could steal in to pray, and sneak out just as fast. At that time, a chapel was being planned not by the river, and the image was being carved from a picture a young priest, Fray Miguel de Covarrubias, carried, a send-off gift from his parents when he left his province, Pena de Francia in Spain. According to legend, the sculptor killed a dog and used its blood to color the Virgin’s skin.

             The legend goes on: Fray Miguel is said to have prayed to the Virgin to help bring the dog back to life, begging her with the same innocence and fervor his parents did when as a boy, Fray Miguel once lay dying. And the dog did swim back to the banks from where it was tossed lifeless. From these folks who are said to have seen the miracle, and declared to have experienced healings too, began the devotion to the Lady of the River.

             Among Bicolanos other non- Bicolano friends and I worked with for the restoration of the Shrine, we would be lost in their talk about someone they called Ina like she lived and walked with them. It seemed she wove in and out of lives, dropping miracles like soft rain on desert patches. Not all her miracles seemed life-turning twists; most that I gathered were a child’s wish, a plea for a son’s passing the board exam, a civil case resolved, a hoped-for trip made to come true, a recurring illness gone, a prodigal son come home, and a father’s peaceful death. 

            In five years, my husband and I would speak of her like the Bicolanos, and call her Ina, most times choked with emotion recounting that dawn in 1991 in a room at Manila Doctors’ Hospital, when she came floating in to tell Felix not to despair or feel abandoned because she will always be there, and healing him of a near-fatal stroke. By then, I had turned into one of those I had watched unmoved in that coverage of her feast ten years ago: each time I would get near her uncanny life-like presence, I would get teary, whimpering like a child. 

            So like a kin, the Virgin of Penfrancia has been lavished with unabashed show of emotion. So like a queen, she has been crowned twice in the only way humans know how. Her feasts are celebrations profuse with gestures to honor her. And among us who feel quite like close kin, we would fuss about flowers at her altar, colors to spangle her throne, and lights to illumine her tiny dark face. We would work like whirling tops below her throne where she remains standing on her tireless small feet, gazing through the vigil lights and on the faces turned up in prayer with her unblinking, compassionate eyes. No one knows exactly how or when this queen, this mother, comes down from her heavenly chair yet unseen, to touch and heal and say, I’m here. Yet, thousands who had come to her or called for her swear she never fails.

911 Revisited

 Visit to a Hallowed Ground


I looked on a shallow dish of dirt, raked and dug out, and still seething. From where I stood at the portico of St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street from across what used to be the World Trade Center, I gazed and gaped incredulous. How could it seem so small, so nothing now? 

That now hallowed ground I had once walked on, eyes up where the twin towers held up the sky, was raw like a vulture’s leftover meal — the vulture that had zipped into it from the same sky.

The smell of burning still tarnished the air: it was sharp and pungent. Thin spirals of smoke still seeped off the ground where the dying has not ended. There was a stench in the downtown train I thought must be someone’s mess or as the friend I was with said, could be the cleaning agent used. And then, I realized it was the stench of decaying flesh.

For the first time on this visit to New York, three months after the disaster that the world now calls by its date, September Eleven, I finally lived the nightmare.

I could not recognize turns on the streets I learned by heart a whole summer I lived in New York. I had to let go, and be led on by the steady stream of people, moving about in a daze like me. We have walked into a city that was pummeled, ripped, and blown in parts; it felt strange.

The buildings around the World Trade Center, once glinting towers now scarred and wearing ashes have turned old and looked haunted. Delis and coffee shops serving breakfast at 8:45 that morning have grown frost where they had stood still.  (In which of them had I once shared with a friend the tastiest sticky bun ever one morning we walked this far?) But I had yet to find the remains of that day.

We had stopped at every cross street that opened to Ground Zero, and hung our heads. We had stalled, holding back tears, where instant graves had blossomed on wrought iron fences or granite walls. The graves drew out the grief, and tears gave names to what were earlier anonymous faces: A wife to one of those still missing stumbled into a huddle, and crumbled to the ground, touching a framed picture adorned with ribbons now frayed and fading. She had visited this grave each day since. A brother to one still lost crept from behind us quietly planting another candle where what he lit last night was dying. He had no way of telling if his brother was among the dead; he was still missing like many who walked into that ordinary summer day but whose bodies have not been found.

A wind ruffled the pages of a letter a grandmother had pinned on a young woman’s framed portrait, detailing how her oh so innocent two-year old son regaled the family with stories of a visit to the zoo in last weekend’s tearful dinner. A scrap of lined paper, bold scripts now blotted, was a young boy’s inspired poem on the heroic death of those he didn’t personally know. The ‘graves’ were now a mosaic of grief; none of us who strayed into them could stay around for long.  

Memories of the nightmare played on. On these same streets, thousands of wounded had limped, transformed by terror and grief. Some had lost their hair in the fire, others, half their faces. The sirens had screamed, flying through the night and days from then on. New York congealed into a mass of the helpless hurt, the faceless who came to help, and the cops and firemen who gave their lives to others whose names they had no chance to ask. Blood flowed from cut limbs, and also from veins held up for the taking. This city of spunk and internal faces broke into a weeping, sobbing, moaning humanity. We, who lived through the nightmare whole days on end on television, could only imagine half the reality then. 

From St. Peter’s portico, we glued our eyes on those giant combs of steel, the cranes that moved clumsy marionette arms; the diggers had not stopped sifting for remains. They had gone deep underground, out of our sight. After this visit, when they hit what used to be the Cortland subway stop, five more bodies turned up. But where we huddled, necks craned to Ground Zero on this visit, there was nothing else we could see out there. What I kept staring at instead, and like perhaps those strangers around me did, were spots on the ground that held memories, my own. 

At the atrium that winter--its last

At the atrium that winter--its last

Through the haze of the silent grieving I shared with strangers around me, I combed for my own souvenirs from the ruins. I glimpsed my first in the steel skeletons of what was once the atrium, the Winter Garden. When it glinted under the autumn sun, I felt a leap in my breast. 

One whole summer on one of my New York visits, that garden with its palm trees and benches was a “beach” where friends and I picnicked on tiny packed lunches. We had seen a couple of bridal entourage from Chinatown sashay from the marble steps, the bride’s gauzy veil and train twirled and knotted up in her arm, to pose for pictures. We had watched babies put to sleep on the benches, and toddlers let go of their carriage to crawl on the steps. We had sat beside someone who came to work on stuff he pulled out of a sagged backpack. We had walked here like most, to read the Sunday New York Times, and that ought to be the whole day. 

I sought for the South Tower in what was now a hollow span in the sky, and, with scrunched eyes, retraced my steps that last time I rode the escalators up the lobby of the third floor, or was it the fourth?  It was on my birthday the year before. A friend and I had huffed first to St. Peter’s for the noontime holy mass, crashing into a side door, right off the subway stop, to the lower church. (When I walked up the portico on this visit, I could not recognize the church, except for the name; I did not know it was the oldest Roman Catholic Church in New York or imagined it had a portico.) 

In the haze, only one of the two towers--to last forever

In the haze, only one of the two towers--to last forever

That day was planned like this: from church, we would cross the street and skirt around Borders bookstore, cross the fountain between the towers, and slip through one of the South Tower’s revolving doors to get tickets to a Broadway show; it was a birthday gift. I picked “Kiss me Kate” from the line-up of shows up for discount in the Tickits booth on that lobby. The line had snaked when we got there. 

In the crawl, I feasted on the view from the glass windows that opened to the sky. (Was it from here I first saw the gothic spires of Trinity church rising delicate like a filigreed cone against the angular buildings around it?) Another line on the other side of the lobby had stretched its tail; the line was for those who wanted to fly up the elevators to view New York from the ‘top of the world.” I had vowed to do that some other time. But I was sick the rest of that summer and did not go back. 

I flew back to New York two days before September Eleven, but I was driven away by friends to Baltimore soon after I wheeled out my suitcase from JFK International airport. We took the Verrazzano Narrows off the southern edge of Manhattan. The sky was its usual glorious New York glow, something really other worldly on summer nights: the skyline seemed cutout against that sky, and the windows of skyscrapers as always, backlit. 

I traced with my eyes the rhythm of the tower tips on the sky, and had decided how flawlessly it flowed: the Citicorp and IBM huddle way down west, the Empire State, Chrysler, New York Met Life midtown, and the black towers of the World Trade Center on the southeastern end. Curving into Verrazzano, I felt the towers had seemed within my arms’ reach. My friends told me – a bit prophetically it later turned out – “Look at the towers for the last time, at least for now,” and I did. 

Two days later, over a bowl of breakfast cereal, I watched the North Tower spewing fire, oozing black smoke, as an airplane the size of a dragonfly on my host’s small television screen kept on its steady flight path into the South Tower. Before my eyes, the tower burst into flames, tiny figures flying off; and then, it imploded, falling on itself in giant billows of smoke and ash. For weeks like many unknown to those who died, I watched and grieved for a weeping New York on television. Up until this visit, I was caught up in the endless weeping with America.

When that president of Cantor Fitzgerald sobbed before the camera for the one thousand employees he lost that morning, I wept. When the Beamer widow spoke of her husband on camera and never once quivered or winced in pain, I also wept. Even the sight of the American flag hoisted on every home front made me cry. Imagine how “America the Beautiful” sung in almost every show drew out the tears too, or how the “Star Spangled Banner” that wrung the hearts of thousands in baseball fields – and who would let out one huge sigh when an eagle was let to soar on that last line — when the World Series had resumed and the Yankees played, touched me. I was so drawn in the humanity of tears that I forgot why I too, was crying. 

Three months later, on this visit, the open grieving seemed done. On the streets, beyond Ground Zero, I scoured for a reason for my tears. There was little I could pick up. I realized then that my sorrow was only for the death of my paltry memories. How could I have known that in those gleaming towers that I thought of merely as landmarks for two summers, thousands of real human beings made their living? 

How could I have known that in this city where people looked inside and hardly ever showed a hint of feeling, thousands were husbands, wives, and kin who were loved deeply? How could I have imagined how coming face-to-face with senseless destruction of that magnitude felt?  How could a summer visitor know?


Copyright © 2001 by Alegria Imperial

War Film premiered in BC top-billed in WWII filmfest

West Coast Heritage Month

 “Unsurrendered: 100 Voices”, screened for its world premiere in Vancouver last year and “Manila 1945: The Forgotten Atrocities”, winner, Best Documentary Award in Historical Category, 2007 Myrtle Beach International Film Festival South Carolina, USA  both by Ma. Miguel “Lucky” Guillermo, will top bill the West Coast’s “Philippine Heritage Month” this October. Also included is “Secret War” also by Guillermo, making up the third billing that will highlight the WWII Filmfest in Los Angeles and San Diego, which is part of the celebrations.

war memories

Before the filmfest, Seafood City, the major sponsor, will present the films in a road show at its newly opened mall at Concord in northern California. A benefit show will also be staged at the newly established Intramuros, a theatre-restaurant at downtown So. San Francisco. Beneficiaries of the dinner-concert proceeds are Ayala Foundation-USA and the Stingray Memorial in northern Philippines.

In Vancouver, both films shown at the 2008 World Peace Forum (WPF) rolled to an audi­ence of peace activists com­posed of intellectuals, historians, researchers, professionals, artists and students. In attendance were members of BC Alpha (Associa­tion of Learning and Preservation of World War II History in Asia) and Vancouver Save Article 9 Committee. For its world pre­miere at Marpole Place, “ Unsur­rendered…” played to members of the Philippine Veterans and Ex-Service Men Society of BC as well as members of MOACS (Marpole Oakridge Area Council Society), which included a retired professor of the University of Columbia and friends of Canadian war veterans.


Guillermo in his introduction of “Manila 1945 …”reflected how unprepared the Filipinos were, thus, “When people refer to “the war” in conversations now, it is often unclear as to what they are talking about. Not long ago, how­ever, it was The War, WWII, that is. And for those of us who lived in the Philippines before that war, during, and after, there was no other war.”


audience at the 2008 World Peace Conference, Vancouver

audience at the 2008 World Peace Conference, Vancouver

At the WPF, “Manila 1945…”drew out discussions that focused on “true paths to peace.” Elsie Dean, WPF organizer, said of the film “… we talk about the war but it is films like this that make us see war up close as it should …as we don’t know much about it”. The film presents with actual photographs and film footages from US archives the brutal acts committed by the Japanese in February 1945 on Manila, already declared an “open city”. Around 100,000 civilians as recorded, died, a figure that places Manila second only to Warsaw in extent of destruction.


Part of Guillermo’s introduc­tion revealed how he and Parsons “spent a lot of time researching on this subject. We do not subscribe to the old, politically-correct or revisionist version that the Japa­nese were innocent of the mas­sacre in Manila of February, 1945. The killing of Filipino civilians, men women and children, was a deliberately orchestrated series of events. The truth is, Japanese military were not trapped in Ma­nila dungeons, and well into Feb­ruary, they had escape routes.”


More than “ingredients” for peace, the films drew out emotional responses. At the screening of “ Unsurren­dered…”, Erie Maestro, member volunteer of Canada-Phil­ippines Solidarity for Human Rights and Migrante B.C., stated the legacy she would want to pass on to her chil­dren: “ how my father then a mere high school boy, joined the resistance. I t must be remembered that UD efforts focused on the European front, and after the Americans surrendered to the Japanese, no aid came from the US until MacArthur decided to return. It was the guerilla men and women, like my father, who continued the resistance against the Japanese during the war. It was the organized Filipino guerilla movement and the Filipino people who helped the guerillas liberate the Philippines; it was not Ma­cArthur. The Americans were the ones who surrendered, not us.”


Among the Filipino veterans at the Marpole Place world premiere, most relived guerilla days as teens: lanky boys joining up, young women crossing enemy lines to bring food, men hiding in bamboo groves. Riveting accounts rendered the audience speechless, especially in the truth­ful retelling of how in the midst of defeat, the guerillas started fighting each other, some turning in fellow Filipinos to the enemy.


But the film’s ending clinched emotions: how in that fierce fighting the guerillas waged alongside the Ameri­cans, and promised recognition on equal terms, the Filipi­nos to this day under the US Congress Recission Act have been denied of their claim. Miguel (Lucky) Guillermo, artistic director, is the son of a noted guerrilla leader in northern Philippines, Antonio Guillermo aka “Silver”. Peter Parsons, scriptwriter, is the son of Cmdr. Chick Parsons who organized the submarines that supplied the guerrillas with everything they needed. Other documentaries about WWII they have collaborat­ed on are: “Ships from Hell”; “Anchored in Freedom; Enshrined in Friendship”.