Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Commentary : ‘Kalbaryo’

Commentary : ‘Kalbaryo’

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: April 08, 2009

FOR 23 years the urban poor have attempted in their annual “Kalbaryo” to understand how the sufferings and death of Jesus are repeated in the sufferings of the poor and how his resurrection is repeated in the efforts of the poor to free themselves from poverty.

In 1987 the first Kalbaryo was held on Smokey Mountain when it was still an active dumpsite. Scavengers were working under clouds of flies, though it was Good Friday. It was steaming hot and the smell was that of a battlefield of rotting corpses. Smokey Mountain was the symbol of the country’s poverty, so it was appropriate that Kalbaryo be held there.

The actors playing Jesus, Mary, the Holy Women and the Roman soldiers climbed through the garbage to the top and there re-enacted the crucifixion. I watched the scavengers. Some were kneeling.

There were thousands of people at the bottom of the hill, and then at the last moment the Centurion, played by a young woman, Tata Lacson, prostrated herself on the garbage.

The crowd gasped and then was silent, as if they had somehow understood. From the beginning the Kalbaryo has used drama, songs and dance to try to grasp this mystery of identification with Jesus in his death and resurrection. Art is often a better teacher than textbooks.

Another year the Kalbaryo started in Leveriza with the Alay Kapwa group of Sr. Christine Tan, and then went to several other urban poor areas. By the late 1980s and early 1990s the Kalbaryo had become a very professional dance that took place at high noon in Mendiola. The dancers wore Christ masks that pictured Jesus deep in pain and disappointment.

In the script the same words were used by Pilate to condemn Jesus and the Manila authorities to condemn the urban poor: both were called “trouble makers, malcontents, opportunists, outsiders.” There was absolute silence, though thousands were present. Only the buzz sound of the motorized camera shutters was heard. Policemen took off their hats and came nearer to see and hear more clearly.

Some years only a hundred or so people participated. Another year a group planned to sing the “Pabasa” all night in Quezon Memorial Circle Park as part of the Kalbaryo. There was a call late at night that the organizer of the singing was all alone in the dark of the Circle. When the other women got there they found her singing away bravely. She was delighted to see the other women, because once the Pabasa is started it shouldn’t be interrupted and she had been afraid she’d be alone till dawn with just the cats and dogs of the Circle.

Another year the Kalbaryo was held in the Cabuyao relocation center. Some 5,000 or so families had just moved in; they had been evicted from Makati, San Andres and other places along the railroad tracks. They had no light, drinking water, school, market, clinic or jobs. Their income had dropped by 20 percent. Next to the relocated people was another garbage dump, which when it rained heavily sent a black toxic liquid from the dumpsite into the people’s homes.

About 1,000 people followed the priest through the Stations. We came to the foot of the garbage dump where the death of Jesus was enacted. We couldn’t go further because the people were not allowed on the dump. The dead Jesus wearing a bloody mask and robe was carried into a nearby house for his burial. He was freshened up; the mask was removed and he was dressed in shining white clothes. When he re-appeared, resurrected and smiling as any young man might smile after a great victory, the people cheered. It’s easy to believe they saw a connection between Jesus’ victory over pain and death, and their efforts to improve their very bad situation.

In the next few years the overall situation did improve thanks to the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, the National Housing Authority, the local mayors and barangay captains, but mainly because of the people who demanded improvements and cooperated with government when it sought to help. These were the same people who celebrated the Kalbaryo.

Last April 1 the urban poor once again marched with Jesus in triumph on a horse from Liwasang Bonifacio to Plaza Miranda accompanied by a 30-foot cross and crowds celebrating as they did on his entry into Jerusalem. There was a program of song, dance and drama in Plaza Miranda, interpreting certain Stations, such as Simon of Cyrene and Veronica’s veil. There was a reading of the Charter of the Poor which contains the issues the poor believe must be agreed upon with the government and civil society. They include a ban on forced evictions without good relocation, land tenure security, basic services for all, decent houses, jobs and food.

Finally Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales said Mass in Quiapo Church, with other priests and bishops.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is

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