Flores de Mayo (Flowers of May) is a month long Catholic festival held in the Philippines in honour of the Virgin Mary, unsurprisingly during the month of May. It culminates in colourful processions called Santacruzan that are held all over the country, from the smallest villages to the largest shopping malls – processions that display an intriguing mix of the traditional, the religious and the modern, particularly in the way they incorporate a figure that has been a vital part in Philippine national identity – the beauty queen.
The Santacruzan is a religious parade that commemorates the finding of the true cross by Queen Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine. Traditionally, beautifully dressed girls – the sagalas – each representing a “queen” (for instance, Queen Faith or Queen Charity) make up the centre-piece of the procession, usually accompanied by their male escorts or by children dressed as angels. The final Queen is Helena herself – a role reserved for the most beautiful girl in the locality and considered a great privilege.
From this starting point its easy to see how, in the big cities where corporate bodies have replaced local elites as sponsors of the events, traditional Filipino dresses have been replaced by the ubiquitous ballgowns and the processions themselves have come to resemble the American-style beauty pageants that are hugely popular in the Philippines even today.
With a festival that is said to celebrate youth, beauty and romance, the symbolism clicks so neatly into place that Santacruzan looks almost to have been designed for popular pageantry and the celebrity culture that now surrounds it. And surround it it does – at the larger sagalas with the biggest sponsors, famous Filipino beauty queens top the billing, and other national celebrities from the music and entertainment industries often participate, dressed in stunning clothing and sporting enormous glittering tiaras. Even at smaller affairs it seems celebrities are often present – I attended a Santacruzan where we paraded in the streets of a small suburb as lorries thundered past us, but two participating TV stars still came and greeted everyone at the end.
Now, there was a time when the idea of beauty queens as role models to aspire to was widely accepted in many countries around the world – an idea that has lost much of its currency in the face of accusations of the objectification of women and changing notions of what constitutes beauty, and in Asia especially of fears that the beauty queens themselves are beginning to represent aspects of so-called “western morality” that are perceived to be undesirable. Yet the idealisation of the beauty pageant still seems strong in the Philippines, perhaps because of the Cinderella style transformations it represents – famous beauty queens in the past have risen from nowhere to achieve great success in a range of fields, the most notable being Imelda Marcos – wife of infamous dictator Ferdinand whose political career began when she was crowned “Miss Philippines” at the age of 18.
She maybe isn’t the best example of a “success” story given her very public fall from grace (she was exiled after a public revolution toppled her and her husband’s decadent regime, although she has since returned to run for the presidency twice and has now been elected into congress) , but the idea of the kind of overnight fame and fortune associated with pageantry is a popular motif in the Philippines, as evidenced by the array of televised talent contests on primetime TV – Simon Cowell’s “Got Talent” megalith is only the most recent on the scene.
But this is true of many countries, not least the UK, and so it is worth considering that the Santacruzan and the traditions associated with it – the festival of youth and beauty and the procession of the queens – could itself be part of the way that the popularity of pageantry is sustained. Indeed, an event that may to the European mind seem the commercialised antithesis of religious devotion may be kept alive by the ways in which, in the Philippines, religious tradition and commercial celebrity culture can be celebrated together.