Unlike the extravagant pageantry of the Sinulog in Cebu City, Dinagyang in Iloilo City and Ati-Atihan in Kalibo town in Aklan, Marinduque marked the golden anniversary of its own version of the Feast of the Sto. Niño with hundreds of children joining the street-dancing parade and performances.
Sunday’s celebration at the Santa Cruz town plaza highlighted the children’s dynamism and early devotion to the Child Jesus.
Accompanied by their parents and guardians, the young performers swayed to the beat of drums and bamboo percussion instruments while shouting “Hala Bira” and prancing around with make-believe spears and swords. Their faces and bodies stained with charcoal and multicolored paint, they wore colorful tribal costumes made from indigenous or recycled materials.
Fourteen groups, each composed of 25-50 children aged 4 to 12 years, joined the competition.
Organizers said the annual event had already evolved from being a purely adult-dominated festivity 50 years ago to one in which children were under the limelight.
Ronnie Diana, who hails from Aklan, helped organize the first Ati-Atihan celebration in Santa Cruz in 1963. At that time, he said, 12 Aklan natives who had worked with him at a fishpond just outside the town proper stained themselves with charcoal and danced in the streets with a Sto. Niño image.
Diana remembered that his friends were jailed because officials and residents were unaware of the Ati-Atihan tradition. “It was through the intervention of a priest that we were freed,” he said.
Nowadays, Diana reiterated a wish for residents to be drawn more to the occasion’s religious value than the call of commercialism. “We have no intentions of copying the original. What we did before and what we are doing now is simply to encourage residents, especially the children, to become devotees of the Child Jesus and to embrace its essence,” he said.
Reacting to the festival’s critics that the town’s version of the Ati-Atihan would never be at par with the glitters and fanfare of the Sinulog, Dinagyang and Ati-Atihan which have attracted millions of tourists through the years, Diana said Marinduque’s version was more of a religious tradition than a tourism showcase.
Without any financial help from big firms, it has been able to survive, he said. He attributed this to efforts of elder devotees who wanted to preserve and enhance their devotion to the Child Jesus.
Dindo Asuncion, provincial tourism officer, believed, however, that the province’s version has the potential of becoming a regional tourism showcase. “We are not at par with the Sinulog or the Dinagyang, but we can market our festival to residents of our neighboring provinces,” he said.
Diomer Dy, founder of the Barangay Maharlika Ati-Atihan Group in Santa Cruz, said the festival could generate more tourists because there were visible improvements in terms of the participants’ costumes and performances.
“This year’s festival is merrier, more colorful and beautiful and we have more participants and more spectators,” Dy said.