This isn’t the usual article you’ll read about the city’s foremost tourism festival. You’ll read no patronizing praises here. And please do not expect me to give a running positive commentary on the colorful costumes, the world-famous mardi gras, the ati-ati tribe competition, and the religious and cultural relevance of Dinagyang.
While the entire of Iloilo City is on its toes making sure everything works according to plan, closing major roads here and there to make way for five judging areas scattered in the city proper, deploying policemen to ensure safety of tourists and locals alike from any attempts on terrorism, and major corporations competing with each other to get the most visible spots in the city to take advantage of this rare opportunity to triple their sales, it seems that there is something missing.
Where is the Ati?
This should not be misconstrued as a legitimate question, rather it should be understood as a rhetorical one. Yes, we see them sleeping on the overpass beside Atrium, begging on Delgado Street, or Ati mothers breastfeeding their malnourished kinky-haired babies on the pavement facing Socorro amid apathetic passing pedestrians and crazy traffic jam. This question, “Where is the Ati?”, does not call for obvious answers because if it does then it only becomes a question aimed at mockery.
Where does an Ati find himself in the bigger universe we call Dinagyang? Can he see his drab life reflected in the variegated colors of the costumes that are purportedly authentic? Can he see himself reflected in faux ati-ati tribe competition that gives an Ati a hard time recognizing his own dances? Will he even find himself in the list of target market of these multinational corporations?
It appears that the answers are all in the negative.
The Ati doesn’t exist. He is invisible not because he cannot be seen but because we refuse to acknowledge his existence. Dinagyang is not even a mere tokenism of the Ati legacy in the history of the founding of Panay. (A history that has been proved to be nothing but a legend.) In fact, it seems that the Ati is excluded from the entire celebration of Dinagyang; he is not a part of it.
The politics of Dinagyang is thought to be so complex by the powers-that-be in the Iloilo city hall for the Ati to comprehend. He is barred from participating in the dialogue because if he does then we will be confronted with the reality that Dinagyang is a sham. His culture has been made into a farce, desecrated to an extent. The Ati has been made docile and mute by poverty and hardship.
Dinagyang confuses him because it is found in the extreme opposite of where he is located. While the grease-painted bodies of the dancers are admired, even worshiped, the real Ati is avoided, ignored.
In the end, Dinagyang shall remain an empty celebration, a phony festival, a pseudo-feast if it continuously misses the point as to why it is there in the first place.