Panagbenga @ 18: An odyssey to the heart and soul of the Cordillera

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013


THE 18-year odyssey of the Baguio Flower Festival or the Panagbenga, as it is now more popularly known, has not been without its misunderstandings, misgivings and misadventures.

But whose journey is free of challenges? A Panagbenga unhampered by obstacles is almost unthinkable. The hardships this most-awaited celebration in the city faced and continues to face are what defined the Panagbenga into what it is now - world-class.

Eighteen years now and the Panagbenga is truly coming into its own. How did this blossoming of age come to pass? The answer, it seems, may have been much closer to our hearts than we have previously thought.

***

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Confucius

***

It was in 1995 that lawyer Damaso Bangaoet Jr. proposed a flower festival to directors of the then John Hay-Poro Point Development Corporation.

A city untouched by Spanish colonialism, Baguio was lacking a fiesta to celebrate a patron saint, unlike other premier cities in the country – Cebu, Davao and Bacolod.

A festival of flowers in a city known for its blooms. The directors immediately warmed up to the idea.

The festival, it was decided, will be held in February, a perfect time to draw tourists to enjoy the nippy weather in the country’s quintessential and forever Summer Capital.

With the overwhelming and positive response of the city government and of the different sectors of the community, the Panagbenga, although faltering, took its first humble steps towards becoming this city’s legacy.

***

“The path to our destination is not always a straight one. We go down the wrong road, we get lost, we turn back. Maybe it doesn’t matter which road we embark on. Maybe what matters is that we embark.” – Barbara Hall

***

To say the Panagbenga was without its trials would be a blatant lie because as the Baguio Flower Festival blossomed into a bigger and bigger celebration, controversies were not far behind.

As more and more organizers were taken in to assure the success of the annual spectacle, issues like proper auditing of funds and even political affiliations almost threw the Panagbenga off course.

But those with sincere intent were not deterred.

Trying to get the Panagbenga back on track the Baguio Flower Festival Foundation Inc. embarked to manage the Panagbenga “to boost the tourism of Baguio and the rest of the Cordilleras through showcasing various events, exhibitions and activities that promote the history, traditions and values of Baguio and the Cordilleras which is sustained in an earth-friendly manner.”

Its vision remains: “The Panagbenga Festival shall be known as the ‘best festival’ in the Philippines becoming the benchmark for excellence in the conduct of other festivals in the Country.”

A worthy undertaking, indeed.

***

“A journey, I reflected, is of no merit unless it has tested you.” Tahir Shah

***

For many years, the Panagbenga suffered from an identity crisis.

While it was established as a show window to the culture of the Cordilleras, the festival lacked the identity of the region it was supposed to promote.

The native garbs donned by the street dancers did not make up for the lack of character of their dances.

Add to this the proclivity of the marching bands and drum and lyre participants to play pop or novelty songs. Apart from the Panagbenga hymn, lovingly and generously penned by Dean Macario Fronda, the street parade was just that – a procession of sorts.

But this is not to discount the effort and dedication of parade participants, especially students. Under the searing sun or under the heavy rains, they keep on, also resolute on their respective voyages.

But the festival was neither this nor that. It was a mish mash of everything western, colonial, in the guise of a regional festival.

It was undeniable, the Panagbenga was truly wanting of its genuine Cordillera color, sound, texture and character.

And to find these, a journey home was in order.

***

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” Marcel Proust

***

In 2011 the Baguio Cultural Society was created to ensure the authenticity of the cultural performances of the street dancers.

In 2012, Panagbenga had its first open category for the street dance competition. The Baguio Cultural Society set the guidelines for the contest and prescribed songs and chants in the vernacular.

The open category certainly opened doors for new opportunities. And, as if only waiting for the invitation, participants from the different provinces in the region eagerly boarded their buses ready to show this city, the country and the world what it meant to be in a truly Cordilleran festival.

This year’s grand street dancing and float parades surpassed all expectations.

The dancers more graceful, more telling; the chants more captivating, more awe-inspiring; the costumes, more vivid; the participants, more proud.

In other words, genuine.

The parades were rich in hues, vibrant, full of character and yet uncompromising in the aspiration to show off the highlands’ splendor.

The Panagbenga was never meant to be just Baguio City’s festival alone. It never will be.

Because just like the many local migrants who made it on foot to Kafagway and have made their homes here, the Panagbenga just like Baguio must continue to open its arms to its sons and daughters from Benguet, Kalinga, Apayao, Abra, Mt. Province and Ifugao.

For this is who we are, the perfect tapestry of a diverse ancestry.

The Panagbenga has come full circle and has found its way back home.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on February 27, 2013.

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