Standing in a dry creek that runs through dry farmland. (Tarlac)

It was a weekend of contrasts.  I’ve been doing alot of contrasts lately.

It was a weekend where I saw people beating themselves bloody for Jesus, met my paternal grandfather’s side of the family (who were mostly landless farmers), found out that a distant cousin committed suicide, and then returned to the city for a get-togther in the newly renovated, and super swank, and super empty, Manila Hotel.

It was Easter Weekend.  Interestingly Holy Thursday and Good Friday were the most important days.  Everything was shut down, even the RT (Manila’s ‘subway’).  Easter Sunday almost seemed like an afterthought.  The Philippines is a country that has suffered alot.  And it shows in it’s religious practices where the nobility of suffering seems to have more stress than redemption.

On Good Friday in Tarlac I saw a regular stream of men with covered faces dragging crosses down the street. There were also men (faces also covered) who whipped themselves bloody as they went from church, to chapel, to church asking for forgiveness (and getting beatings from other men with palm fronds while laying in the Jesus-Christ-Pose on the church floor). These were the penitents. They hoped their suffering would lead them to forgiveness for whatever sins plagued their mind.

The “pabasa” was the soundtrack to it all. Women on church loudspeakers singing the story of the Passion for three days straight (stylistically it kindof sounded like the Muslim call to prayer).

I had seen this before in a visit to Pampanga years ago.  There they even have people nail themselves to crosses. Foreigners, and many of our foreign-based kababayans, see in this only stupidity and spectacle.  I see the blood of Philippine history alive (and splattering on everything in it’s path) in the present.

I met family on this trip for the first time.  I met the families of the brothers and sisters of my grandfather.  I even met some of my grandfather’s sisters.  My lolo had passed back in the 90s so it was amazing to me to meet living siblings, it reminds me that nothing is really that long ago.

I saw a family tree, going back to my lolo’s father, so to the late 1800s, before that much is  unknown.  And I remember how for many of us, tracing our ancestry is difficult because of our spanish last names.  My given name is Felipe.  It’s a name given to my family out of a book by Spanish authorities in 1849, erasing our links to our family’s past.

My family in Tarlac are mostly landless farmers.  They til the soil for a local landlord, a hacienda owner.  They borrow money from her (with significant interest), they buy seedlings and fertilizer from her (at a premium), they give her a portion of their harvest (whether or not there actually is a harvest).

This has not been a good year.  A major drought has hit the already hard hit agriculture industry in the Phils.  This is, after all, a country where 75% of the population are involved in agriculture.  It’s the same country where little to no help is given to the majority landless farmers.

My lola’s fam for example (my lolo’s sis) was only able to harvest 50 sacks of rice this season (there are three in the year).  50 out of the usual 250+.  She laments over how they’re going to pay off their debts.

The country today is the largest rice importer in the world despite having been once the largest exporter, and the place where modern rice technology was born.

I saw all this on Good Friday.  Figuratively or literally, the Filipino people everywhere seemed to be whipping themselves bloody.  Suffering is godly right?

A bucket of alcohol where the penitents periodically dip their whips so as to disinfect (and add to the ouch I’m sure).

The Felipe reunion that weekend got cancelled last minute because a distant cousin had committed suicide.  He had just turned 17, and because he didn’t have the money to pay off a small debt (so the story goes, there’s obviously more to it that the family isn’t sharing) he hung himself in the family’s kitchen.

Some of the closer family still got together for a Saturday gathering.  It was great, all things considered.

Plans were made on Sunday with more family members from out of town that came in for the cancelled reunion for next years.  They wanted to ensure that no matter what, it happens–because lets face it things are not going to get better anytime soon.  I hope I can attend.

It was an interesting weekend.  Alone it left me with alot to think about. But of course… that’s not how it ends.

My cousin and me next to the land our grandfather used to till.

I return to Manila Monday.  Hours after returning to Malate, I attend an anniversary party for our friends Carlos and Tessa Celdran in the uber-posh, uber-empty Manila Hotel.

We had a multi-course dinner in a private room (served by super attentive waiters), sat by a heated pool by Manila Bay (that came right out of a James Bond flick), and sipped cocktails and smoked cigarettes in an old-school lounge (that would make a great film noir set).

In 24 hours I moved through a spectrum of Philippine social strata, and being me, wondered why all of this was the way it was.

Ruins of my grandfather’s childhood home to the right. My aunts home to the left.

One day I was in a simple home that except for the electricity could have have been a hundred years ago, the next I was in a modern hotel.  To be honest I don’t feel 100% comfortable in either world. I’m fine with this because I wouldn’t want either to be the normal, for me or for the country.

We have had a long history of pain in this country, for many this pain is more basic than others.  I always hope that enough of us will care enough to want to change this.

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All photos: ©2010 alex felipe  / All Rights Reserved.

Please contact the photographer with use inquiries.

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An unedited vid from Manila Hotel’s lounge:

Learn more about the Philippine drought in this vid from Al Jazeera:


*originally published in Project Balikbayan