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Folk stories and merrymaking in Iloilo’s Dinagyang


Text and Photo by Tara Yap

Amidst a sea of humanity, thunderous drumbeats echo all over downtown Iloilo City to jumpstart the focal celebration. The climax rushes in when soot-painted performers wearing vibrant costumes energetically execute their warrior-like performances. The competing groups depict what only the pigment of the imagination can turn into a highly plausible scenario: The conversion of the native Ati tribe into Christianity.


This is what unfolds annually on the fourth Sunday of January, when the Dinagyang transforms Iloilo City from an urban jungle into a mega street party.

As a festival, the Dinagyang traces its roots in 1967 when an Augustinian priest from Cebu gave a replica image of the Santo Niño (Holy Child Jesus) to a fellow Augustinian priest in Iloilo as a birthday gift. Since then, a novena mass was held every Friday at the San Jose Parish Church.

By 1969, a competition was organized. It is akin to the popular Ati-Atihan Festival of Kalibo town in Aklan province, which is a four-hour drive northwest of Iloilo City. Back in those days, the Dinagyang was known as “Iloilo Ati-Atihan.”

But “Dinagyang” became a household name almost a decade later when a radio broadcaster insisted using a local every word to distinguish the festival from the well-known Ati-Atihan of Kalibo. With its root word of “dagyang,” it means “merrymaking” in the local dialect of Hiligaynon.

As a theatrical performance, the Dinagyang is anchored on a folkloric story. It begins with the Barter of Panay, the story of how 10 Bornean datus and their families fled a tyrannical ruler in Borneo early in the 13th century and sailed towards the island of Panay. When they arrived, the Borneans bargained with the native Atis to occupy the lowlands. To celebrate the barter,the Borneans painted their bodies with soot and danced with the Atis.

But what is baffling about the theatrical street performance is when the soot-painted warriors, who are depicting the native Atis, hoist up an image of the Holy Child of Jesus while chanting with great conviction: “Viva, Señor Santo Niño!” The Spaniards only came to Philippine shores during the 16th century.

Setting aside historical inaccuracies, the Dinagyang is a much-awaited annual event that draws both Ilonggos and visitors. After all, every one — regardless of social status — converge to celebrate until the wee hours of the morning.

Over the years, the Dinagyang has evolved into a multi-dimensional weekend celebration with fireworks shows, musical concerts, food festivals, exhibits, and lighted float parade.

The Dinagyang has managed to define the changing landscape of Iloilo as well as its people. Foremost, it fosters unity among the government, the religious sector as well as the private sector. It also showcases the talents of the people of Iloilo and boosts its local economy. More importantly, the Dinagyang promotes Iloilo in a holistic manner.

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