I intended to sleep overnight in Pampanga so I could explore it more but the weather (and my shoes that had a sole falling out) was not cooperating. So I decided to go back to Manila in the afternoon.
My last stop that day is this wonderful town called Betis. Famous for their wood craftsmanship and religious festivals. I’m intrigue where the town’s name came from. My initial guess was that it came from the Tagalog word “Batis” which means a stream but Pampango’s have their own language so it must have been derived from something else. A brief history of the town posted in the website, “The Legacy of Betis”, gives us this answer:
“Betis was derived from Hispania Baetica-an ancient place during the Roman Period which was located at the Iberian Peninsula. This Iberian Peninsula is now the present–day Spain. It was in the geographical resemblance from this certain place that the early Spanish conquistador in Pampanga named the place as Betis. Pampanga then was ruled by a Muslim ruler named Malangsic”.
An interesting account that could very well be the true origin of the name. If true, they could be the only town that was named after Roman era Spain. Its usually not a practice among Spaniards, even when naming new settlements, to christen towns after their country or its towns. These missionaries tend to use the prevailing indigenous settlement names — in its absence — they rename it after saints or their hometown.
Locals learned woodcarving from the Chinese immigrants who are always the first people the Orders commissions to create art works in and outside the church. The Chinese already had the technical know-how and was at that time the only people that could be utlized by the Church to carry out such projects. They were employed regardless if they were converts or not.
These artisan’s follow a pattern that are provided to them by their employers but there are still elements that shows their background. I’ve always thought that most of our Catholic icons produced here have Asiatic features (like that of La Naval). These Chinese and native artist probably has never seen a white woman before and had trouble following descriptions of how Mary (usually portrayed as Caucasian) and saint’s looked like. Since every artist must have an inspiration — these artist drew them from their own people. The Friar’s not only allowed localized (or indiginized) creations to be venerated by their followers but in most cases, encouraged them to pursue devotions towards these religious creations.
I’ve always thought that it would be good to honor communities like Betis with a national recognition and fund them so they’ll be encouraged to continue propagating their craft, just like what we do with individual artist who we honor with the National Artist award. These individuals are subsidized by government but you could hardly see them reach out with the common people – I feel that they continue their works to be patronized only by the moneyed class.
The only other town that had a reputation for excellent carving is Paete. The forte of those people are in the making of santos and other religious materials. Like the Beteños, Paeteños are notable for their very distinctive designs and for an unmatched wood craftsmanship that is still carried out by hand and traditional tools by locals. Unfortunately, they have been running into trouble lately because of the cost of wood, which has dramatically increased because of the total log ban.
The religious festivals in Betis are well known. They have the longest celebration of Undas (lasting for a week) and Kuraldal, a San Juan de Bautista festival which involves what is common among other fiestas held to honor the saint, water–lots of it (firetrucks are used to splash the crowd with water). I haven’t seen these two popular Beteño religious tradition so I would need to come back one day.
The church of Betis (dedicated to St. James or locally, Apung Tiago) showcases the towns artistic talents. In most Filipino communities, churches are always the beneficiary of dedicated work and contributions. An employee asked me last week if slave labor was employed in constructing these churches. What is always taken out of the equation is the locals religiosity – that they do these tasks as if they are their prayers to God. Going back to the question. Prefilipino communities had slaves, the Spaniards abolished it. However, Spaniards did not made the same changes in their Latin American colonies. There were different methods that were employed in constructing these churches, what is not mentioned is that for the most part of the history of church building, constructions were paid for.
The cornerstone of the art work in Betis church is the retablo, the painted ceiling and the massive carved main door. The retablo have a total of 18 devotional saints the Augustinians wanted their town to venerate.
The ceiling was painted by Victor Ramos with the help of local aides in the 70’s. I don’t know how long it took to finish the job but it was an undertaking worth the effort. It reminds me of the Visayan painter, Canuto Avila, who gifted Visayas with some of the most amazing religious murals. The Beteño Ramos employed the technique trompe l’oeil, which produces a dimensional effect that gives the impression that the objects, borders and corners are carved into the wall.
Many credits Flores for bringing the wood carving culture to the town. This could probably one of those invented assertions created to nullify the extensive history of Betis’ wood carving tradition. You have many of these stories that are floated around. Local historians has made the records available in the Museo de Betis so visitors can read about the true towns history. The tradition of wood carving is a centuries old tradition and not a recent phenomena. I like this initiatives as it helps counter erroneous information. But this controversy should not diminish the accomplishment of Juan Flores who brought honor to his country when he won a major sculpture contest in the Washington. This feat called the attention of Imelda and commissioned him to decorate portions of Malacañan with his works.