Sacred Camp: Transgendering Faith in a Philippine Festival

This is an excerpt from "Sacred Camp: Transgendering Faith in a Philippine Festival" by Patrick Alcedo. The paper was published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2007).


By embodying the paradoxes found in three webs of signification -panaad (devotional promise), sacred camp and carnivalesque during the Ati-atihan festival - Augusto Diangson, an individual of the 'third sex, was able to claim membership in the Roman Catholic community of Kalibo, Aklan in the Central Philippines while also negotiating the Church's institution of heterosexuality. The narratives of mischief and the gender ambiguity of the Santo Niño or the Holy Child Jesus, the centre of Ati-atihan is religious veneration, further enabled Diangson to interact with Kalibo's Roman Catholicism. Through an analysis of Diangson and his participation in the festival, this article exposes how ordinary individuals in extraordinary events localise their faith through cross dressing and dance performance. Seen throughout the Philippines, these processes of mimicry and gender transformation transport individuals into zones of ambivalence and contradictions in which they are able to navigate through the homogenising discourse of their culture and the Church's homogenising myth of Roman Catholicism.


Soft shafts of light barely shine through openings of Augusto Fuentes Diangson's two-storey concrete house when he commands Persing, one of his household helpers and a few years younger than him, to start making breakfast. His seven friends, who have come all the way from Manila and Davao City, are about to wake up, and the ten musicians whom he annually hires from the adjacent province of Iloilo have been waiting downstairs for coffee and the usual 'pan de sal' (staple bread roll). For two consecutive days now, Tay Augus or Tay Gusto, as his close relatives and the local residents ofKalibo, Aklan call him, has been up at five in the morning. He is neither to hear an early Catholic Mass at the nearby Cathedral, as he regularly does, nor to attend to his orchids, which are the envy of his mahjongfriends. Preparing for the 2000 Ati-atihan, a week-long street-dancing festi­ val celebrated in the Central Philippines in honour of its unofficial patron saint, the Santo Niño or the Holy Child Jesus, has been the focus of his days.

Tay Augus walks around excitedly, and invites some early guests to have breakfast but hurries to the bedroom. Miniature statues of the Virgin Mary, the crucified Christ, and the ubiquitous Santo Niño emboss its yellow walls. The beautician, Benjie, has been waiting and is already sorting out brushes and make-up ready to transform Tay Augus' face similar to past years into a Caucasian­ looking Folies Bergere chorus girl. Tay Augus, with a height of around 1.68 metres, sits down, lifts his chin and gazes past into the exposed, bleeding heart of the 'Sacred Heart of Jesus' nailed on his altar wall. He is ready to have himself transformed.

An hour later Ambo, another teenaged male servant of his, appears. He helps Tay Augus put on a skimpy bustier and thong. Ambo is tasked to put together a wide array of accoutrements and a set of feather boas and pink plumes that Tay Augus' nieces and nephews have sent from faraway Chicago and San Diego. This is to complete Tay Augus' mimicry of the Folies Bergere. By mid­ morning, Tay Augus will have divested his 80-year old self and taken on a foreign self for the Santo Niño, and for the thousands of devotees who have come to worship and dance.

The above and following vignettes describe the transgendering of Tay Augus, an agi, a man belonging to what he categorised in English as the 'third sex'. They recall his participation at the 2000 Ati-atihan festival, an annual carnivalesque, street dancing­ parade in Kalibo, Aldan on the island of Panay. Every second or third week of January both the local Roman Catholic Church and the municipal government organise this festival to honour the popular Santo Niño or the Holy Child Jesus. The vignettes are portraits as well of the festival life of Tay Augus, who, while not secretive about his homosexuality, decided to politely avoid spaces considered in Kalibo to be sites of the bastos (lewdness) and linandi (flirtatiousness). These sites are almost always associated with the beauty parlours, where lower-middle-class agi or the bakla hang out.

When asked why this was so, he reasoned, "I am a man of the third sex alright, but I have a name to protect, besides I have class and am educated unlike the other agi out there." Tay Augus here is seen against the background of two opposing poles, on one side, of heteronormative masculinity, and on the other, of the bakla who are effeminised men working and/or taking up residence in beauty parlours. He did not fall into either of these worlds, and thus created a third category, an ambiguity that all the more captured the in-between, interstitial character of 'camp', and of the Santo Niño Himself.

As evidenced by the awards he received from the provincial government of Aklan for his many years of teaching physical education, Philippine folk dances, and ballet, Tay Augus was an outstanding member of his community.4 He was also known in Kalibo to have participated in the major rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, and hence was considered by parishioners and priests alike to be Katoliko sarado, 'completely Catholic'. His faith was so deeply grounded that his loyalty to the Church was unquestionable. In the eyes of the many Roman Catholics in Kalibo, Tay Augus' faith was so exclusively Catholic that no amount of persuasion could have convinced him to change his religion to the growing faiths of Protestantism and Mormonism, or to the very foreign Buddhism and Islam.

Tay Augus carried a strong devotion to the Santo Niño until he lost his battle with colon cancer in 2002. He believed that it was the Santo Niño who saved him in the early 1980s from an appendicitis; it was a near-death experience. Aklan's former provincial governor, a close family relative, helped Tay Augus in getting the first flight out of Kalibo so he could be operated on at a government hospital in Manila. Tay Augus made a vow that if the Santo Niño were to give him a new lease on life, he would continue his panaad, a sacred devotion to the Holy Child Jesus he started in the early 1960s, and would dance for Him for the rest of his life. Given the popularity of the Santo Niño in the way Kalibo residents or Kalibonhons practise Roman Catholicism, and His centrality in their Ati-atihan, the Kalibo community participated in the fulfilment of Tay Augus' panaad.

The Santo Niño, also known as the Boy King, is a patron of lost causes, and the most popular among Filipinos. Devotion to the Santo Niño is a national phenomenon in the Philippines, and it is said that "if you are not a devotee of the Santo Niño, you are a rare species in the Philippines ....Everyone who has ever loved a child, who has ever loved a family, is devoted to the Santo Niño." The Santo Niño is perceived and narrated as a mischievous boy, who surreptitiously leaves His altar at night to play. Yet, devotees such as Tay Augus believe that the Santo Niño is powerful enough to fulfil wishes, such as to be healed from impotency or a debilitating disease. The Santo Niño also grants victory in a governmental election; makes it possible for His adherents to live permanently in coun­tries such as the United States, Australia and Canada; or enables them to be overseas contract workers in Hong Kong, Singapore, the Middle East or the United Kingdom in order for them to send remittances back to their families in the province of Aklan. Moreover, since the Santo Niño is still a child, His gender for Kalibonhons remains ambiguous; therefore, participants during Ati-atihan can subvert and make fun of the gender norms the Roman Catholic Church has institutionalised. As a result, at this time of the year, John the Baptist, the official patron saint of Kalibo, is momentarily eclipsed. St John the Baptist, who baptised his cousin Jesus Christ to enable Him to save human­ kind from their iniquities, was also known to have condemned the incestuous marriage of Herod Antipas with his niece Herodias. A foil to the Santo Niño, St John the Baptist embodies and safeguards the very heteronormativity the devout Tay Augus tweaked, played with, and turned upside down by way of a transgendered performance. St John the Baptist cannot function as a central figure in the Ati-atihan festival, a carnivalesque event in which societal norms are temporarily broken.

Patrick Alcedo, discusses his research “Transnational Ethnography: Filipinos Dancing at the Ati-atihan Festival of Toronto”


Screen captures from Patrick Alcedo's documentary Ati-Atihan Lives
Cover photo from Kapisanan Centre