The following article will appear in the Youth section of Panay News, Dinagyang Edition
The scenes in Iloilo City during Dinagyang remain the same–tourists pouring in, the city government getting revenues from the influx of people from other parts of the Philippines and abroad, men painting themselves with dark soot and wearing costumes exuberant with colors and perform on major streets with riotous revelry-all these making a perfect bouillabaisse dubbed as the best tourism festival in the country.
However there is an ingredient of this mixture that is so fundamental that all of us often neglect.
I am a member of a tribe of Ati living on the mountains of Barotac Viejo; I am not a pseudo-tribe member we only see during Dinagyang. And unlike any Ati (the only mental picture of an Ati most of the “civilized” world has) begging on the sidewalks along Atrium, I am a college student studying in one of the universities in Iloilo.
The portrayal of the Ati community during the festival has become convoluted as time goes by that most of us forget the real essence of the celebration and take for granted the dark and short people that inspired what we now called as Dinagyang. My people have become victims of tokenism whose role has been relegated to a meaningless symbol of an exulted point in the history of the city and the province.
We are people from the periphery being placed in a made-up center every last week of January annually, as if being given consolation for the discrimination we have to endure all our lives. I, however, will not objurgate the lack of any historical relevance of the event, for the lack of social justification is already enough to place under a spotlight the anomalous hybrid of Catholicism and pagan practices of Dinagyang and its snobbery toward the plights of the Ati.
During Dinagyang I see amused faces of both tourists and locals holding their breaths while the supposed “tribe” members perform their versions of an Ati dance and simulations of the founding of Panay while the real Ati, who are begging on the sidewalks, have to contain their hunger for as long as they can before someone pays them attention. The festival permanently established its mark in Philippine tourism for being the best in the country while my people remain nomadic, without any permanent dwelling, moving from one place to another leaving behind our ancestral domains to fate while we brave the dangerous, uncertain, and harsh city streets.
Such are the contradictions of the Dinagyang. And for most of Ilonggo community, I also am a contradiction, a deviation from the normal role compelled on me by the “more civilized” people living on the plains of Panay: to remain a mendicant all my life, to wallow in illiteracy, to forever be insecure with the color of my skin and the kinkiness of my hair.
But I beg to differ. I may be an Ati who is made hostage to constricting roles I have to play in the Ilonggo society but I will not let this identity keep me from realizing my potential as a human person. The Ati construct that the Dinagyang replays every year is flawed and farcical. The colorful costumes and fancy choreography are detached from what is the real life of an Ati. The colors, merry-making, and carnival atmosphere are taunting the life we live.
I am living a life of an Ati since I was born in the hills of Barotac Viejo twenty years ago, and since then my daily life is a panorama of discrimination, marginalization, and being treated as a second-class citizen, no, not even that, because for most of the time we are treated as sub-humans. If my voice is filled with angst it is because we were made to feel this way.
I only hope this Dinagyang will allow all of us to see the fundamental reason for the festival, to let our local officials transcend mere accumulation of revenues and tackle relevant social issues involving my people, the Ati.
I look forward to the day of celebrating the Dinagyang where the Ati like me are treated as real brothers of Ilonggos living in the vast plain of Iloilo and such equality will not be just for a day but even after the euphoria of what has been prided as the best tourism festival in the Philippines.