reprinted from South China Morning Post, May 25, 2006
You're driving around Manila at night and turn into one of our famously narrow, crowded streets. Seeming to float towards you amid the urban grime, you encounter a vision that makes you blink; a glittering parade resembling a cross between a fashion show and a fairy tale.
Don't worry about your alcohol level, check your calendar instead. It's May, The most important figure is Reyna Elena, the Empress Helena herself, usually played by the prettiest girl.time for the month-long Flores de Mayo religious festival. Its highlight is the santacruzan, the "holy cross" procession, which looks more like a beauty pageant than an act of devotion.
The custom dates back to the mid-1800s and honours the Christian legend of Empress Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine. In 326AD in Jerusalem, Helena allegedly unearthed the "True Cross" where Christ was crucified.
It's a safe bet that most devotees know little of this - what counts in a santacruzan is a chance for the community to put on a gorgeous spectacle. Each parish tries to hold a procession, which usually winds its way through the neighbourhood's streets. The parades tie up traffic, leaving motorists to grit their teeth.
Last Saturday, our community staged its procession and although small, it had all the elements of a typical santacruzan: a marching band, devotees holding candles and lights, and young women decked out in crowns and gowns.
The gorgeously attired girls are supposed to represent religious figures. Reyna caridad is the queen of charity; reyna del cielo, the queen of heaven; reyna paz is the queen of peace; and reyna Arroyo the queen who wants to stay in power forever. OK, I admit, I just threw in the last one to see if you were paying attention.
It is an honour to be selected, escorted by young men dressed as princes or resplendent in the native white shirt, the barong tagalog.
The most important figure is Reyna Elena, the Empress Helena herself, usually played by the prettiest girl. Curiously, although the real empress was nearly 80 years old when she supposedly found the cross, I can't for the life of me recall any procession where reyna elena was played by a granny. And I'm just hazarding a guess, but I doubt the real Helena wore the stunning numbers that sashay past in the parades.
With all the props, gowns and costumes, some of the marches can be elaborate and expensive. Nowadays, queens march inside rolling frames, complete with lights and shrubbery, while somebody at the back pushes a generator on wheels that powers the set.
Perhaps, given Filipino exuberance, some processions go over the top ... but things might get stranger yet. Recently, the church warned against having gays play any reyna. Too bad. It would give a new twist to the title "queen".