The Sinulog and Sto. Niño of Carmen

This was one invitation I could not refuse. I had just finished my “Kabilin”  television episode on the Sto. Niño and Sinulog in Cebu City (aired on SugboTV Channel 14) when the request to judge the Sinulog sa Carmen came via a call from my friend Manny Gumban, the tourism officer there, and Deo Generalao, director of this annual event. Carmen Mayor Martin Gerard Villamor, I was told, was also looking forward to meeting me to discuss the story behind the Sto. Niño there and was adamant that I should be there to witness the original Sinulog festival of Cebu.

Two things made me curious: the claim that the Sinulog there is much older than the one in Cebu City and the legend about the Sto. Niño of Luyang, an old settlement located next to the town center. The first one is quite easy to confirm and is within living memory, but the second one has been handed as folklore down the generations.

It was in 1974 when the Sinulog sa Carmen was born; the one I witnessed last Sunday was its 39th annual competition. This annual event was started by a parish priest, Fr. Jose Motus, who hailed from Kalibo, Aklan, home of the Ati-Atihan Festival, which alas is now eclipsed by the Grand Sinulog Parade in Cebu City with both happening on the same day. Fr. Motus, with the help of local residents led most prominently by the current mayor’s father, Virginio “Benyong” Villamor (himself a mayor of Carmen until his untimely demise in 2008), started the event that last Sunday counted six local contingents and 11 non-Carmen contingents, an increase of four more from last year.

During its launching in 1974, it was at first called Ati-Atihan sa Carmen but was quickly renamed Sinulog Festival the year after. This most certainly and without doubt makes it the predecessor (or as the current mayor calls it “the uncle”) of the Sinulog Festival of Cebu City, predating the latter by a full five years as a festival of the same name. This festival is now held on the fourth Sunday of January, perhaps bowing to the much larger and more commercialized one in the capital city.

But why of all places did the parish priest and the prominent citizens of Carmen decide to host their annual Sinulog? The answer lies in the presence of a Sto. Niño, an image sculpted allegedly using some kind of dark wood, making the image much darker than the one at the Basilica del Sto. Niño, the image given to Juana, wife of Rajah Humabon or Hamabar, in 1521.

Legend has it that the one in Luyang was also left behind by either Magellan or Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the Spanish conquistador who effectively placed Cebu under Spanish control beginning in 1565. There are even murmurs that the Sto. Niño of Luyang was given ahead of the one in Cebu City.

Mayor Gerard Villamor handed me a folder containing narrations in Cebuano handed down to Mario Giangan, a local police officer, from his grandparents. The recounting of oral history tells of the importance of Luyang as a coastal settlement that was a center of pre-Hispanic trading between locals and Chinese as well as other Asian merchants —a fact apparently bolstered by the looting of burials for their ceramics and gold carried out in the 1970s. Equally important is the presence in Luyang of the single extant Spanish-era watchtower in Carmen.

The oral history of Giangan does not mention Magellan or Legazpi but talks of the coming of Spaniards with a miraculous Sto. Niño who defended locals against the dreadful slave raiding carried out by the Moros. It also recalls the role played by the watchtower that still stands there. Whether true or not, this account refers to the period between the late 1590s —the beginnings of the Moro raids —and well into the mid-1800s, when these raids effectively ended.

Barring other versions of the story, this tells us that the Sto. Niño of Luyang may in fact have been an image brought there some decades after the coming of Legazpi, perhaps by an Augustinian friar who had established a mission station or a visita in Luyang. One, alas, cannot assert with finality a date for this image unless a radiocarbon sample is taken from it, something which I doubt the people of Carmen and most especially of Luyang will ever allow.

For the moment, there is no doubt that the image exists, raised high at the altar of the chapel in Luyang and, with it, the Sinulog that equally without doubt began right there in Carmen.

What is to be done that is doable then? For one, it is time to rehabilitate and preserve the watchtower of Luyang as a reminder when the miracles of the Sto. Niño de Luyang began to play out, miracles which reportedly continue to this day.

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Let me end by congratulating the winners of the 39th Annual Sinulog sa Carmen. My thanks to Mayor Gerard Villamor, Manny Gumban, Deo Generalao, Paulo Anupay, engineer Allan Navarro, Dax Barlaan, and the people of Carmen for the singular opportunity to be with them, albeit briefly. Pit Señor!