Dr. Jose Rizal immortalized our town Obando in his novel, Noli Me Tangere. The story was that Maria Clara was conceived with the intercession of Sta. Clara, St. Pascual de Baylon, and the Virgin of Salambao. Since then, devotion to Obando’s Patron Saints has become a popular tradition. The sleepy town of Obando comes to life for three days in the month of May. Pilgrims pray devotedly and join the procession not just by walking but by dancing. And what a long dance it is! Under the blistering heat of the sun and in the company of thousands of people, the procession inches its way from the church around the town and back. The practice demands faith, humility, and a total resignation to the will of God.
But why the dancing? The legend was that St. Pascual de Baylon was so taken in his prayer and danced in a trance. Devotees swear by his faithfulness in helping those who have prayed for children. I myself have hosted childless couples who have been blessed by children after their pilgrimage. I also swear by the story of my great grandmother. She related that when Obando was hit by a strong typhoon, there was a stranger who gave residents nipa leaves so that their thatched roofs could be repaired. Nobody knew him and all that they could remember was he was wearing a buri hat. The following Sunday, they saw the image of the Patron Saint wearing the same buri hat.
The story of the Virgin of Salambao is also of great interest. The virgin was fished out of the waters of Obando from a fishing contraption using a net called “salambao.” The fishermen rowed their boat to the south heading to the town of Malabon, but the boat did not budge. They steered it towards the north heading towards Bulacan, but the boad did not move either. It was an easy sail when they navigated towards the town of Obando. The Virgin is enthroned as the Patroness of those praying to meet a loving wife.
Sta. Clara followed the ways of St. Francis of Assisi. She lived a life of poverty, prayer, and service to the poor. Legend was that when an army of rough soldiers attacked Assisi, the Saint, although very sick, went out to meet the soldiers carrying the Blessed Sacrament on her hands. Then on her knees, she begged God to save them. A sudden fright struck the attackers and they fled without harming anyone.
Our town fiesta this year was extra special. I have never seen such a huge number of pilgrims. The church was bursting with people who spilled into the churchyard for three days from morning until the evening. There was hardly a space to breath. And when the procession started, the pilgrims danced shoulder to shoulder to the accompaniment of the town’s bamboo band and several other bands. The music they played was of timeless chords and notes:
“Santa Clara, pinong-pino, kami po ay bigyan ninyo Ng asawa sa Obando, at magsasayaw ng pandanggo.”(Dear St. Clare, please give us a partner as we dance and waltz in prayer.)
The pilgrims swayed to the beat of the music. They raised their prayers as they raised their arms in supplication as if saying, “Dear Lord, have mercy.” Many clung to the carriages carrying the saints as an anchor of hope. Others tried to touch the garments of the saints. Believing that they would be healed, they touched their foreheads after, and all the parts of their bodies that were ailing. Many others lighted candles and prayed that their light would carry their prayers to heaven.
I braved the sweltering heat and inched myself patiently inside the church. It seemed that the walls shook as people cheered and chanted. The priest asked people who were asking for children to raise their hands. And then he asked others who were asking for partners, for jobs, for healing, for safe journey, for a better life, to raise their hands in supplication. Their arms fluttered and waved. I wanted to ask if those who were praying for a brighter tomorrow voted for leaders who shared their dreams as well. Or were they charmed by their handsome faces, their celebrity status, their lies, and make believe persona? But who was I to judge? Perhaps, I was also one of those who were duped and voted wrongly. And there I was praying with them that that things we made wrong would be corrected by a miracle. I prayed for Faith, that we would see clearly. Faith that we can be more kind especially to the poor and innocent. Faith that we may be brave. Faith that our beloved country would be safe. And faith that He will let justice reign in His time and in His ways.