We do everything in our power to get what we truly desire. Even if they find themselves like fools, many childless couples are more than willing to dance to the saints of Obando, Bulacan just to have that one child they have been praying for years.
The Scriptures have more than one story about barren women granted what they deeply desired. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, bore Isaac in her old age (Gen 16-21). Isaac married Rebekah who never bore children in their 20 years of marriage, until the Lord blessed them with two children, Jacob and Esau. Isaac pleaded to the Lord to grant that wish (Gen 25:21). Rachel, the true love of Jacob, finally had Joseph and Benjamin. The wife of Manoah had Samson (Judges 13) and Hannah had Samuel after years of supplication at the Temple. And the most famous was Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, who found herself blessed when she bore John the Baptist in her womb (Luke 1).
And thus to the most devout during the Spanish Period in the Philippines, when there was no way to determine who was infertile among couples, the women were usually to blame. And so, in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, Dona Pia, the wife of Kapitan Tiago, went to Obando to do that fertility dance to Sta. Clara, Sta. Maria de Salambao and San Pascual Baylon. Upon the advice of Padre Damaso, that pilgrimage gave us the damsel Maria Clara, whose birth caused the death of her mother. Whether it was a grant by the saints or the cause of a coerced coupling, Maria Clara and Obando went into history. Maria Clara was a combination of the two saints who granted the couple’s wish for a child. The unmentioned third saint was punished because he did not grant a son, the wish of both Kapitan Tiago and Dona Pia.
To this day, people still sing and dance the song to its most senior patron:
Sta. Clara, pinung pino
Ang pangako ko’y ganito:
Pagdating ko sa Obando,
Sasayaw ako ng pandanggo.
Sta. Clara, pinung pino
Ako po’y bigyan ninyo,
Ng asawang labin pito,
Sa golpe ay walang reklamo.
What’s the story of Sta. Clara and the Obando fertility dance?
Rewind to pre-Hispanic era.
As in Scripture, virtue is found in fertility; only later in Christianity do we find value in virginity. As Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, the wife of Manoah, Hannah and Elizabeth suffered social scorn, barren women in Philippine pagan society belong to the lowest social rank. When there was no science to intervene or discover if the condition is actually not the woman’s but the man’s, or herbal medications to make pregnancy possible, the recourse was to do the fertility dances to their anitos.
When a Franciscan built a chapel dedicated to Sta. Clara, the fertility dances continued. Mission work took the cue from St. Gregory the Great: pagan rites could be neutralized by establishing a Christian counterpart.
The second personage was San Pascual Baylon: his name “Baylon” was close to the word, “baele” thus he became the saint “who dances” and thus, the dances became Christianized. His patronage coincided with the establishment of Obando. In the past, there was Barangay Catangalang, named after the red mangrove forest found in the area. It was part of Polo. When Polo separated from Meycauayan in 1623, Governor General of the Islands, the Marquis Jose Francisco de Obando y Solis, decreed on May 14, 1753, that Catangalang would carry his name. With the change of name, the parish priest allowed a tribute for the making of a church that would replace the visita of Sta. Clara. The new patron was someone known to have danced before the statue of the Virgin Mary: He was no other than San Pascual Baylon.
The third personage was Our Lady of Salambao. Salambao means a fishing net. The legend had two fishermen, Juan and Julian de la Cruz who caught the image of the Immaculate Conception in their salambao. Days later, the parish priest of Obando got the image and enshrined it in the new church.
And thus, with these three saints, Obando became a pilgrimage center. And so the religious pageantry began. Patrons of Obando would leave food outside of their houses for the pilgrims in their nine-day novena. During these days, pilgrims could expect board and lodging from the residents of Obando. Unfortunately, the hospitality in the once secluded town had ended with the advent of modern transportation and commerce.
But like many traditions people find meaningful, the dances continued to flourish today and especially celebrated on from the 17th to the 19th of May. The songs are still dedicated to Sta. Clara who witnessed the transfer of attention from anito to santo.
And what does the Church say about this? There is no official condemnation.
As a priest, I agree. Traditions like the dances are community events whatever their history. They are supported by the people who found these traditions meaningful and worthy to practice until eternity. It survives because every year, there are success stories of childless couples finally having the baby they’ve been waiting for. Many so-called “intellectuals” will cringe from this type of popular piety, but wait till their deepest desires can’t be had even with the best of medicine and their show of money.
What’s a little tryst in Obando compared to the millions one spend for the sole wish that would fulfill one’s life?
However, many do not have a million.
They only have God.
And there are written and oral stories that support what we all know: With God, nothing is impossible.
Sometimes, you have to be a fool to show how much you really desire what you are praying for.