Friday, May 7, 2010

Bathing in Spectacle, the Bañamos Way

(photos originally uploaded by scare reyes' yufielbi 10)
Historical writings about Los Baños will tell us about its beginnings as a friar estate of the Franciscan order during the Spanish colonization until the American rule. According to Luis Camara Dery, in History of the Inarticulate (2001), Los Baños was a town (formerly called Mainit), which the friars do not really own – a case similar to most Philippine lands during the Spanish colonization. These Franciscans were able to secure vast numbers of lands to maintain their mission and order during the colonial period, thus forming parishes here in Laguna (in which a church was built) or a visita here in Los Baños (a vicinity with no church but with regular church visit and eucharistic celebration by a priest from a nearby parish).

Eventually the area grew in population as it became a hospital town with the construction of Hospital de Nuestra Señora de las Aguas Santa, portion of which can still be found near the present location of the church. The said hospital had served affluent families of Laguna and Manila during the historic colonial period, as well as the natives and friars, which were believed to have contracted sexually transmitted disease and sought the cures of miraculous wells of the hospital according to Dery’s research.

And because of the growing popularity of the hot springs and the hospital itself, the place was later on called Los Baños (meaning, “the baths”). Eventually, the said town, as well as nearby towns of Laguna revolted against the Spaniards through the consolidation and revolutionary efforts of the Katipunan. The whole province also gave birth to intellectuals and nationalists like Jose Rizal and General Emilio Jacinto – the former is our national hero.

However, emancipation from European colonial bondage fell short since a new colonizer came and made their own claims of these friar properties – this time with their goal of establishing grounds for colonial education. The Americans established UP College of Agriculture in 1909, transforming the town into a science and center for Agricultural Studies of the country and in the Asian region. Until now, UPLB is still a world-renowned academic institution.

The claiming, naming and renaming of the town of Los Baños by the Spaniards tells us the beginning and formation of the town/bayan, not only in its physical sense but also the consciousness of the people regarding their place. The same way, UPLB’s rooted-ness into the colonial design of the Americans is an important aspect in understanding the town’s progress, origin, and probably, its direction towards the future.


The Bañamos Festival, as a folk and modern expression of culture, and a performance as well, of the people of Los Baños, Laguna (a provincial town south of the capital Metropolitan Manila) can be read as a space and time of spectacle to speculate and interrogate the production of Philippine festivals, which have proliferated in the past years. In delivering such argument, we can explore and expose not only the flair and flavor of Filipino merry-making but also the dynamics of the cultural production of these festivals as spectacular phenomena that created the local colors and pageantry, underwhich the mobilization of politics, capital, modernity, and tourism happen.

As a critique, this essay seeks to reconfigure such positions through Guy Debord’s propositions about the spectacle (1995) and its process of unifying separateness or the illusion of unity from disparate realities produced by the present capitalist society, which seems to be sustaining its eventual recovery of power, wealth, and ideological production from what Karl Marx had predicted as its actual demise due to its own overproduction. By extending the notion of the spectacle to the concept of performance, we can see the relationship between what is produced and seen (perceived, for that matter), and the community, which creates and consumes the contemporary as contentiously folkloric in its seemingly modern and spectacular performance.

Though the name of the festival recognizes the importance of “the baths” as part of the town’s history and meaningful origin, there is no clear evidence that the people during or before the colonial times celebrated a festival similar to the present Bañamos. The town officials, however, insist, through the rationale of the festival on the souvenir program that the word Bañamos appropriately traces the founding of the town during the Spanish period. The then Franciscan friars who were captivated by the abundance of hot springs and steamy vents in the small settlement of Mainit set-up public bathing places with spring water believed to be holy and have curative effects. Thus, baths were so popular that they attracted tourists from Manila and other nearby provinces.

According to the souvenir program of Bañamos Festival 2006, the event was conceptualized and created, by the Los Baños Tourism Council in 2002, headed by Dr. Francisco F. Peñalba to further promote the tourism industry in Los Baños as one of the many towns in the province of Laguna. The municipal council believed that through strong, excellent, and aggressive tourism advocacy, the rich history and culture of Los Baños will help boost the town’s economy, as well as the province or even the nation, which is also a program under the Medium Term Development Plan for Tourism for local economies of the Philippine Government.[i] This is no different from previous attempts to strengthen community relations and local travel and tourism industry for national development as the Philippine Department of Tourism has anchored this industry as “an integrated sustainable tourism management plan for the Central Philippines, identifying viable critical environmental, infrastructure and community-based projects to link and integrate the tourism development of the area.[ii] Thus, Bañamos Festival, on its fifth year, becomes one of the many festivals that is said to promote local/national tourism, economic development, and more so, Philippine culture.

However, during the period of an ethnographic fieldwork[iii] and the actual festival, it seems that most of the people in Los Baños were neither much aware nor excited in holding the series of events. I was surprised since growing-up up North of the Philippines, I could recall that the mere mention of festivals or fiestas mean a lot to the people as a way of performing and embodying traditions and cultural practices. Yet, signs of jubilation and the usual cheers and jeers of the festive atmosphere were not as noticeable like in any other celebration, especially in the university area of the said town, which was declared as the “Special Science and Nature City” through Presidential Proclamation 349 in 2000 to recognize its important contribution in the development of science and technology for agricultural and environmental studies and preservation.

Yet, this was not the case in the town’s municipal plaza or town hall or what is referred as Bayan, which is a three kilometers ride away from the University of the Philippines Los Baños or UPLB, which is known for its agricultural programs among the seven constituent and autonomous units of the University of the Philippines-System or the “national” university of the Philippines after its newly-approved charter in 2007. UPLB is more popularly known as the campus or what the people or public utility vehicle’s signage would refer as the “college,” which is also the marked geographical address of the UPLB campus, which covers 147 square km. of land, including the mountain slopes of Mt. Makiling Forest reserve.

In front of the public plaza of the bayan, there were giant posters with faces of public officials, which also informed the community of the activities of Banamos. Events such as buko (coconut) pie[iv] eating contest, a local beauty pageant known as Miss Los Baños, Battle of the Bands, dance contest, and alumni gathering and homecoming of diasporic migrants and visitors. This even is very much akin to a an American community fair but with a very local and distinct flavor of the fiesta (Hispanic influence) atmosphere – with people from different classes intermingling in the area and with performances and activities held at the plaza or municipal stage.[v] Advertising was very much evident as a sign or marker of the festivity or the spectacular gathering with the as shown by different sponsorship of the events, mostly alcoholic and softdrink beverages and Philippine multinational companies. At that time, the town plaza, as well as roads leading to the poblacion (town proper), were decorated with banderitas (flaglets) with the alternating colors of red and yellow based on the color of a known brand of rum that sponsored most of the events held at the said public venue.

But in general, the town and the people of Los Baños continued with their usual daily lives and activities. Routines in the nearby semi-commercial/business district near the campus and inside UPLB remained the same for most employees, students, and people in the university. The highlight of the celebration was a street dancing and competition that was held on the last day of the festival.


Thus, understanding Philippine festivals or fiestas should lead us to the appreciation of historical and cultural praxis, traditionally especially since the Philippines was colonized by former colonial/imperialist powers and yet maintains a heritage rooted in a rich multicultural/multilingual Asian identities. But for this form of merry-making, the contemporary allure permitted by the large scale travel/tourism industry pushes the creativity of people or a community to promote local flavors in a grand (read: spectacular: globally visible) scheme, in which visuality as a communicated and commodified aspect of performing a festivity is as important as the reason for the celebration.

And so right now, Bañamos, as a festival, frames a language and a representation of this town in terms of travel, modernity and recreation, and through the modes of festive appropriation of folk images found in the historical narratives and the consciousness of the people of Los Baños. Though enthusiasm has yet to conquer the imagination of the people and the town, the festival is here to stay, aimed to bridge the gap between the community and the academic institution known as UPLB.

For its part, UPLB has mounted an exhibit inside the “College” entitled “Tuklas-Agham” within the week of the festival. The science exhibit has attracted students and guests, as well as officials from the town or bayan as UPLB’s contribution to the development of the locality, nation, and the Filipino people. This is clearly guided by the state university’s aim for progress and its eventful claim of Los Baños as an important space and community in the formation of national identity, academic excellence and cultural imagination.

The highlight of the festival is of course, street dancing, which dramatized the people’s participation and the performed aspiration, and why the festival was made for. Again, for much of the spectacle invested on the dancing itself, there was no clear ascription to the culture of bathing, nor the concept of “the baths” to signify the unique traits and colonial origin of the town. Instead, there’s the modern salsa beat, reminiscent of the Latin American pageantry and color, in which the competition among baranggays was stylized and heightened, an indication of the globality of the flow of information and influences among people in a supposed local ‘scape.’

Though on its fateful fifth year, Bañamos, will continue to bathe its people of the spectacle, amid the challenges of uniting the town/bayan and the UPLB and seemingly dispersed or disparate constituents, as long that there is a need for money or capital that will fuel the needs of the community for survival, mobility, and grasp on modernity. Plus of course, the craving of tourists and outsider of the Buko Pie, which could have been the town’s festival instead if not for the popularity of hot baths during the cold days of the long dead meztizo friars. (RRM)

[i] See the Department of Tourism Website:

[iii] September 10 to August 2, 2006, was the actual ethnography. The author is also staying in Los Baños, Laguna starting from June 2006 as an instructor of University of the Philippines.

[iv] A known native product or deli cacy of Los Baños, probably originating from the apple pie that the Americans brought during their establishment of this academic institution during the colonial period of 1900-1945.

[v] The plaza complex, known as the area where three seats of power is located – the church, the marketplace (or the place of trade), and the munisipyo or municipal hall (a Hispanic imposition that introduce governance in the Philippines) – is an evident foundation of the hybrid identity and development of Philippine towns. Later on, the Americans expanded the reach of this complex, extending the reach of a public school, health center, agricultural offices and other administrative units within the jurisdiction of the municipality. This will lead to a nationalization of such local administrative power and will be known in the national level as the Interior and Local government regulated and mandated by a department under the executive cabinet of the President of the Republic. Even in big cities or in highly urbanized areas, this geospatial configuration is still a relevant standpoint to which history, locality, and power are attributed in understanding the origin or foundation of a place/space in the Filipino context/culture.


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