THIS year, the city government through a city council resolution has recognized Mr. Ike Picpican’s contribution to the annual “Panagbenga” festival specifically for coining the term Panagbenga, providing the erstwhile Baguio Flower Festival with what the city calls a local identity.
It was held that this recognition was long overdue considering that this identifying term was used as early as the second leg of the festival which was in 1996. The moniker had since caught on to this day, and owing to the popularity of this event, the term Panagbenga is always associated with the catchphrase “a season of blossoming,” apparently a nod to flower blossoms believed to be ubiquitous within the city.
The apparent substance of the recognition was that Mr. Picpican bestowed upon this event a language that defines, supposedly, the identity that distinguishes it from other events held not just in the Philippines but all over the world. Accordingly, it is indigenous and reflective of the history, traditions, and values of the city of Baguio.
From these lofty descriptions come the embodiment of all that the city stands for: Panagbenga is Baguio, and Baguio is Panagbenga. The creative city that it had become, the annual staging of the Panagbenga is the city’s exemplar and abiding standard for establishing a society grounded in a culture of creativity as well as a creative economy.
These are platitudes of course, and we know from its inception that every “successful” staging of Panagbenga is not without its insidious outcomes – traffic (arguably here is where the term “carmageddon” was invented), the accumulation of garbage and other residuals such as the rudeness of tourists, the strain on basic resources such as water, etc.
I am not even going to say that “success” is a relative term. I will say though, that because of these residuals, “success” is not self-evident. That said, however, each administration, organizer, participant, sponsor, patron, spectator, and visitor to Baguio’s Panagbenga has taken victory laps for yet another year of the triumphant staging of the event, with a promise that next year will be a better one.
We have inflated this belief so much that for nearly three decades we take it as truth, and the evidence is what we see year after year touted as a success. The colors, the spectacle, and the extravaganza of the float parade, street dancing, and the blooming of Session Road: what more evidence of “success” do we need to see?
If the measure of success is what can be seen – and for this reason, the city government thought to confer a belated commendation and recognition for Mr. Picpican’s contribution to this annual accomplishment – then I do not begrudge the man for accepting the honor. In fact, based on these trifectas of perspectives – success, triumph, and accomplishment – he rightly deserves the recognition.
On the other hand, I wish to submit the unpopular and bash-worthy argument that seeing is not knowing. If Panagbenga is the exemplar of the city’s history, traditions, and values, then the integration of the term against the city’s social identity appears to be unstable. For example, the acknowledgment that the word Panagbenga is Kankanaey negates Baguio’s historical grounding that the city’s original settlers were the Ibaloy.
The question seems merely rhetorical now. After all, the Panagbenga ship has long since sailed. But could we have thought of an Ibaloy term instead, given the lofty claim that the event is a nod to Baguio’s history, traditions, and values? “(This) might be Kankanaey hegemony” was a colleague’s quick retort, but she said this in jest. Not exactly innocent though, for if this is true, then the choice is political (not grounded in history) and has effectively marginalized, linguistically, the city’s original settlers.
And speaking of language, what does the word Panagbenga”really mean? Again, I asked the colleague (a Kankanaey native speaker and a millennial) about what it means and, additionally, if it refers to flowers. She said yes, in that it pertains commonly to the unfolding of a flower’s petals. And so, by her word, that should affirm the signifier-signified connection between Panagbenga and flowers. Case closed? Not quite. Because when I asked if the word is used in normal, commonplace conversation (i.e., when you compliment a flower, you say “oh look, it’s doing a Panagbenga!”) That’s when my colleague took a pause.
Apparently, even for the Kankanaey, the term itself is not axiomatic. In fact, I have seen a few promotional texts on the internet that point to Panagbenga as “the conception of rice” and “a season of blossoming” all on the same page with nary an explanation. Now “conception” and “blossoming,” as well as “rice” and “flowers” – these are mutually exclusive terms. The question is why the disparity.
I have a few thoughts on this. Having done some fieldwork in a predominantly Kankanaey-speaking community in Sagada and have observed the community-welfare ritual Begnas as it was held several times in a year, I have learned of a one-important ritual phase called Begnas di Panagbenga. No, it is not about flowers, rather it is all about rice.
When the cultivation of rice reaches its conception (some say impregnation) in which the precious grain is about to form, the community now regards this as the time when the rice is at its most vulnerable to pests such as snail eggs and the invasion of water birds. The importance of rice in the community’s survival could not be overemphasized. At its most vulnerable, it needs to be protected. And one way of protecting it is to invoke the protection of the spirits in a community ritual called Begnas.
Sagada usually holds the Begnas di Panagbenga in March. It is proximate to Baguio’s event which is held in February. Begnas is a ritual, almost a religious ceremony, enacted to protect an essential element to survival. Baguio’s “Panagbenga” is, if nothing else, an event. Do flowers determine Baguio’s survival? If it is a cash crop like sayote and carrots, maybe. But those flowers that we see on parades are not even Baguio’s cash crop. If anything, the participants buy them from Benguet cutflower growers.
So, is the term generic that it might also refer to flowers? Here again is my two centavos’ worth. Anecdotally and circumstantially, the term Panagbenga has been mainstreamed by Baguio for almost a generation such that my millennial colleague has assimilated the image of “blossoming” into her consciousness. In so doing, the language-image correlation is now locked and loaded in her system.
This is probably because the image of flowers conjured by the term Panagbenga has always been front and center, hyper-real, and mediated on so many levels. Rice on the other hand, is ritualized, localized, and endowed with a deeper cultural context requiring personal commitments. Without a connection with the culture or the culture-bearers, it is easy to relegate the Begnas di Panagbenga in the rearview, creating linguistic confusion or even conflict. This could be gleaned by the fact that the use of the term in commonplace conversations for flower blossoms is somewhat awkward.
On the other hand, the arbitrariness of language might have spurred the architects of Baguio’s Panagbenga to decontextualize the term and recontextualize it to what it is today. If so, this requires a knowledge system that would help us understand the journey of the term from rice to flowers. The scholar that he is, perhaps Mr. Picpican could enlighten us about this, or perhaps the city government could provide the needed rationale.
Or we might just relegate this argument as just another case of the tail wagging the dog, and ultimately, I would be told “it’s the economy, stupid” and there really is no rhyme or reason: Baguio’s Panagbenga is explained only by its purpose devoid of any knowledge system.
Fine, then we might as well make the formal declaration that Panagbenga is merely an artifice without the historical, traditional, or value-laden pretenses. After all, the magical world of Disney is an artifice, and it brings in revenues. In this regard it might be easier for a skeptic like me to accept that once upon a time, Baguio wished upon a star, and it came true in the form of flowers blooming in February and they called it Panagbenga.