When I was in grade school, the month of May meant three things: the tail end of the biennial summer league in my town, the annual beach excursion of my barangay and Flores de Mayo (Flowers of May).
The summer league was an active and fun outlet for teenagers and adults, for there were games like basketball, volleyball, football, and even chess. The town plaza and the adjacent football field were overflowing with fans and foes, shouting the most flattering chants or the cruelest insults in Karay-a. I was the water girl and cheerleader of my cousin who played basketball and of my brother who played football, and I represented my barangay for a game of chess. I lost in my one and only match to a very intelligent girl four years my senior. That loss earned me my very first sports jersey, a white and yellow beret (which everyone pronounced BE-RET, with the sound of T trailing in the end) against a rather shocking shade of green that flattered no one.
The beach excursion (yes, we used that phrase) was a time for my neighbors to bond and to celebrate whatever win we had in the summer league. Women cooked and packed food, not in Styrofoam boxes, but in big kaldero (pots) and kawali (pans) covered with precisely cut Gaisano plastic bags. Men brought beer and softdrink. Children brought Tupperware, spoon and fork, a change of clothes and sometimes, a bath towel. All rode the jeepneys rented for the day. Children sat in the middle of the jeepney, on wooden benches or on the metal floor, facing each other while clutching small plastic bags with Tupperware, spoon, fork and change of clothes. Some brave boys sat on the roof of the jeepneys like the kings of the world while wind blew their unruly hair.
The day was spent in the beach, with only a handful swimming and most settled a meter or two from the shore one hand on a tabo (dipper) pouring saltwater on their hair while the other clung firmly on huge black salvavida (life raft). Although Iloilo occupies a large part of an island, we rarely saw the beach. Our water experience was limited to the two rivers that flow through our town, and they did not have the clearest water nor the smallest rocks, so we were not mermaids or mermen. After half an hour in the water, with hair wet from the tabo shower, the less adventurous escaped to huge cottages, shivering with lips almost purple, and waited for lunch to be served.
To while the time, the youngest and the oldest and the shivering ones who conquered the beach for all of 30 minutes sat on the brownish black shore building sand castle or doodling with twigs. Women prepared the food, cleaned the snotty children and shooed flies from the now uncovered kaldero and kawali. Men played with kids in the water or drank beer and traded exaggerated stories.
At 3pm, after double checking the kaldero, kawali, Tupperware and errant children who might be left behind, the jeepneys trudged their way to Iloilo City and back to our town. At 6pm, we arrived at our homes, exhausted from the travel, with sunburn on our arms and lower legs (which were exposed from our shirt with sleeves and shorts that fell an inch above our knees, exposing more skin would entice unwelcome stares and gossip) and a little fever, but with smiles on our faces.
If the first two activities involved a lot of shouting, cursing and horsing around, Flores de Mayo was (and still is) on the opposite end of the spectrum. I am not from a religious family, but my elders saw to it that I participated in Flores de Mayo. From Monday to Saturday of the entire May, I missed my afternoon teleserye (Agila and Valiente) and some of my duties as water girl and cheerer because I was in church spending my time with Virgin Mary.
Those days involved waking up early in the morning to hunt for flowers beautiful enough to be offered to Virgin Mary. My brother, younger cousins and I visited the flower gardens of our neighbors, of our aunts two streets over and the town library. Sometimes we had fully-bloomed red roses and orange daisies. On rare occasions, we had orchids, but mostly we had santan or gumamela. On our direst times, we climbed the tree in front of the library to cut branches with budding violet flowers, which we collected to make garlands while we ate our lunch. I am sure Mama Mary did not like us to steal flowers for her, but the most beautiful flowers or garlands offered the previous day were used to adorn her three-foot tall statue. It was a proud moment to find one’s flower, albeit stolen ones, on her person. 🙂
Flores de Mayo did not only involve flowers or stealing them. Once the bell pealed at 130pm, we went to our respected pews. We were grouped according to age, and we listened to nuns and Religious teachers as they narrated Bible stories, with pictures! They checked our attendance and gave us quizzes every end of the week.
After the Bible stories and sharing, we sang and prayed. We also had a 15-minute recess which was my favorite because the town market is next to the church. I bought all my Hello Kitty cardboard cut-out dolls and her clothes using my Flores de Mayo allowance.
We occupied the first half of our cavernous church after recess. We sang, prayed the novena and sang some more. Then one by one we offered flowers to Mama Mary. At the end of each session, we received a handful of toasted bread or cookies for our religious fervor.
On the last day of our Flores de Mayo, we had awarding ceremonies for the honor students (those with the highest total scores in the weekly quizzes), complete attendance and most religious. I did not have ribbons for the last two but I was first honor in my group in my last two years once I realized that I had to listen to the Biblical stories to answer the tests.
At the end of May, I marveled at the pageantry that is the Santacruzan, a procession where the most beautiful women were garbed in shining outfits replicating the images of saints. The most interesting part was finding the Holy Cross. I wondered how Reyna Elena and little Constantine located the small wooden cross in a sandy hill between the church and the municipal hall right away. The hill was made up of what must have been at least three dump trucks of, well, sand, from one of our two rivers, and was tall and wide. My young mind questioned that for three years. With that thought the Mays of my childhood ended, and I was off to high school.
For more photos of these gorgeous flowers, please read Orchid Show.