IT ALL STARTED with an invitation to see the Moriones. So for five days I find myself in the “Heart of the Philippines.”
That’s what the residents of Marinduque call their province, a heart-shaped island separated from the coast of Quezon province by the Tayabas Bay, and is just about located in the center of the archipelago. Here, a 120-kilometer circumferential road snakes through scenic views of the coastline, isolated beaches, charming villages, and a mountainous interior with a flourishing wildlife. It has what an adventure-seeker or a solitude-lover seeks. But the province’s true calling card is the religious Moriones festival held every Holy Week.
A few days before Easter, a different sight starts to emerge in Boac, the provincial capital. Men dressed as Roman legionaries walk the streets, their faces behind masks, their red capes flowing from their backs and their arms clenching wooden swords. The masks, known as moriones, are made with lively colors, showing a Mediterranean man’s features with prominent beard and a permanent scowl. Some are as simple as those made with papier-mâché, while others with much more intricate designs taking months to create with expensive wood, such as mahogany.
I have been hearing about the Moriones since learning about it in grade school, where the festival is taught in textbooks as one of the Philippines’ cultural hallmarks, but I might never have truly gotten the impetus to see the event or the place firsthand if not for the mask a former pastor of our church gave me. Two years ago, Pastor Francis de Jesus – who served for a time in our church – and his family moved back to Marinduque, where he spent his internship and early years in the ministry. I had just come from Kalibo at that time and I was telling him of my experience at the Ati-Atihan Festival. Not long after he had moved, I received a genuine Moriones mask from him and I took that as an invitation to visit.
It took me a while to finally go but I soon found myself on a bus to Lucena, then on a ferry, in an attempt to find firsthand what Marinduque is about.
IT’S THE THURSDAY MORNING BEFORE EASTER and I am drinking coffee in the shade of a veranda of the main house beside a farm, looking at light brown cows and black carabaos lazily grazing at the sun-dappled rice fields. My hosts, Romy Pielago and his wife Grace, are sitting across the table from me, while four young women – Ikay, Tala, Jen and another whose name I forget – fill the rest of the seats around the table. I’m having breakfast with the couple who owns this place – Grace Christian Retreat Center – in Barangay Amoingon, seven kilometers south of the town proper.
“Don’t think of yourself as a visitor,” Tito Romy says. “Feel at home.”
It’s really more than a host trying to make the visitor ease into his surroundings. This – as I’ll soon learn – is an expression of an island where kindness and graciousness are taken seriously. I’ve read somewhere that the people of Marinduque are very hospitable, but I shrugged it off as mere slogan. But as I’ll spend more time with locals, I’ll learn that there’s much more truth to that description than for which I initially give it credit.
Marinduque is a small island but it’s rich in destinations. I decide to spend much of my time in the charming capital, Boac, with visits to the other towns in the western coast. All along, I’ll have interactions with locals to get an undiluted perspective on what at the moment is feeling like one of the most underrated destinations in the Philippines.
I actually woke up at four in the morning to catch an early jeep to the southernmost town of Buenavista, where I was supposed to meet with Pastor Francis and some of his coworkers to hike up Mount Malindig. But as it’s the Holy Week and throngs of people are either going home for the long weekend or vacationing to witness the Moriones Festival, all jeeps are full – and that is considering that not too many jeeps, let alone any kind of vehicle, are passing through the seemingly desolate road. So by six, I returned to the retreat center just in time to see Tito Romy and Tita Grace, and the four ladies preparing breakfast. After a while, Tito Romy and the ladies leave the table.
“Those girls, they’re such wonderful ladies,” Tita Grace tells me. She stands and motions me to follow her. As we stroll in the camp grounds, she shares the story of their church’s – the Boac Gospel Church – young people, most of whom came from indigent families and are now about to graduate from college while undergoing training for church leadership. It has become the couple’s burden to help those young people finish their education while setting a profound sense of service. “We want them to have that sense that whatever we have, they have an access as well,” Tita Grace says.
She ruefully points out an unfortunate cycle happening in many small churches not just in the Philippines, but also in the world. Many members in rural areas leave eventually for large churches in big cities like Manila, especially since job opportunities here are scant. Other than government posts in agriculture, fisheries, environment and tourism, there’s not much career for young people who are more and more trained in modern courses such as information technology and computer sciences. Even their three children have all migrated out of the province as well, with their two daughters in the States and Canada, while her son is in Manila.
“You really can’t blame the young people,” Tita Grace says as we walk around her garden filled with various fruit-bearing plants. “But the result is, this exodus of people means the resources are going to big and established churches while small churches are left behind. That’s why we’re training these young people. Evangelism should start young. We want them to have that heart of caring and giving really ingrained in them, so when they help, when they are doing service, it’s because it’s really their desire to do so, and not just because they are obligated or feel forced. And so, one day, if they decide to leave Marinduque, they will have that heart to help the place where they came from. We want to start a cycle of service.”
I FIND MYSELF in the town center the next morning. It’s the Good Friday and I brave the late morning heat to join the seething tide of people. The Moriones start to appear in increasing numbers. In a street perpendicular to the town’s cathedral, a group of children in similar costumes sit in the shade of a large tree, awaiting instructions from somewhere as to how they’ll proceed with today’s parade.
“The Moriones is the reenactment of the story of Longinus,” Pastor Francis tells me one morning over breakfast. According to Christian tradition, Longinus was a Roman soldier who pierced the side of the crucified Jesus to ensure his death. Jesus’ blood fell onto Longinus’ blind eye, which instantly became well, resulting in his belief in Christ as the Son of God and proclaiming this to others. Naturally this put him at odds with other Roman soldiers, who hunted him and beheaded him upon capture.
Every town has its own reenactment of Longinus’ story, each with its own unique flourish to the the proceedings. “Gasan, for instance, has these giant morion figures, while Mogpog has floral headgears,” Pastor Francis says. “I actually think those two towns have more beautiful parades, but since Boac is the capital, it has much more crowds.”
True enough, within hours, the streets are engulfed by a seething tide of people, the Roman legionaries joined by penitents who flog their backs until they bleed, and some others carrying large crosses while they parade around town. The parade materializes from a distance and comes nearer and nearer, louder and louder, sending the wall of onlookers into a frenzy, and the energy becomes so intense I have to walk a few meters away from the crowd and into the covered basketball court to take a breath.
And then suddenly the parade has passed by, and I’m left wondering what just happened. The Moriones festival is the embodiment of a Filipino fiesta. It’s a folk religious event filled with exuberance where local people run the show, demonstrating their faith through a series of unique features such as this. For a few days, the frustrations and difficulties of the regular people are traded for a week’s worth of Roman Catholic-inspired festivities.
But the Moriones is more than just a grand event. From its origins as a Lenten play introduced by the colonial Spanish, it has evolved into a cultural landmark that expresses the identity of the residents of Marinduque.
ON EARLY SUNDAY MORNING IN AMOINGON, the rising sun peeks from the tall palm trees in the distance, its rays painting a golden hue on the lawn of the Grace Christian Retreat Center. Families dressed up slowly trickle in, taking their seats on the main house’s veranda, which today serves as the venue of the Boac Gospel Church’s Easter sunrise service. A few of these families, I learn, are from the mountains, who go to sister churches and occasionally join the mother church’s activities, if time permits. There’s a palpable sense of excitement.
Soon, the congregation sings songs centered on the resurrection of Christ, backed by the strum of an electric guitar. At around 6am, Pastor Julius, dressed in white long-sleeves and black pants, talks about the resurrection of Christ and what it means for Christians everywhere – the defeat of sin, the triumph of God and the eternal life waiting for those who believe in these things.
As for me, being with the locals for a few days is transforming my trip into a downright touching experience. There’s just something magical between the Marinduqueños and their island. It creates moments when you simply feel you are part of everything around you. And you don’t have to be a local to really experience it.
My moment occurs on a few hours just before I depart, witnessing a baptism at the nearby beach headed by Pastor Francis and Pastor Julius, where 22 members of the church are formally welcomed into the church’s family. After the rites, the place instantly turns into an informal affair, where baptismal robes are exchanged for swimwear, young people run into the freezing water, and others chat by the shore over the sound of the blowing winds. I stand there with a smile on my face, touched by the hospitality shown by the people I’ve met. A few moments, I start to walk away with Pastor Francis to prepare for my return to Manila. Ikay and Jen see me, then yell their warm farewells from the sea. I yell mine back and vow to keep in touch. With my heart feeling at home, I’m pretty sure they’ve already embraced me as one of them.