On the week immediately after Valentine’s Day, what can still be the merits of writing about flowers, and blossoming relationships and love being all around the corner?
In Baguio, Valentines is just about heating up for the much vaunted month of flowers, with the Panagbenga highlights – the Street Dance competition and the Flower Parade and then the one-week Session in Bloom after – still forthcoming in two weekends. In terms of location and period then, the celebration of Valentine’s Day attunes well with the context of Baguio. The city’s neighboring municipalities whose flower-growing is at peak during February makes the celebration of Valentines in Baguio extra-special. Add to this the fabricated image – among fabricated images — of Baguio as a haven for lovers of all kinds. While recent offerings of pop culture such as the movie That Thing Called Tadhana can come to mind, this image of Baguio as lovers’ lair is tenably decades old. In Amado Hernandez’ Luha ng Buwaya for instance, the young couple Jun and Ninet, both from well-to-do family, vacationed in Baguio with their friends. In the novel, the merry times these young people had in the ‘romantic’ City of Pines contrasted well with the growing uneasiness of the farmers back in their small town.
Cool climate to be heated up by the visiting lovers, chilly climate that suits well with the growing of flowers, a profusion of flowers and lovers that reinforce each other’s existence: Baguio is all giddy with all these intersections. Yet in terms of giddiness, in terms of anonymous euphoria and touristic love-hate, Valentines is dwarfed by the annual Panagbenga celebration. But a less quarrelsome view can be adopted: in the larger scheme of things, there is Valentines, feasting on emotions artificially made gurgling on a very specific date – the 14th of the second month, perhaps the unofficial halfway point of a Flower Festival that is so hell-bent to fashion itself as gorgeous and worthwhile it will import flowers elsewhere even amidst the local flowerings.
The Importation of Beauty and Festiveness
An irony in the Panagbenga is that not all of the flowers that are paraded and boasted here every year are from Benguet. Some participants in the Flower Parade, mostly the bigger establishments, import the flowers that count for their existence on a day when the thousands of spectators gather on the streets anticipating with equal pulse the sight of the flora and of celebrities. The importing of the flowers offered for the tourists to see is another index of how current practices in Panagbenga have constituted a deviation from what it was supposed to celebrate. With the importation of flowers, Panagbenga’s celebration of the blooming enabled by flower farmers all over the province can be obfuscated as a mere celebration of floral beauty or colors. More intrigue can be added to the plot: is the act of importing premised on the view that ‘imported’ flowers are more appealing?
Yet: importation is not all. Some of the participants use plastic flowers, as two old ladies I interviewed told me a week ago. The idea is to lessen their expenses since the prices of the flowers sold in Benguet skyrocket during the Panagbenga season. With these, we can make a much greater case that instead of being filled with innovations that enrich its meaning, the Flower Festival is clothed with more and more artificiality that makes it less sure for whom and to what end is it being held. Definitely, community events like festivals are supposed to prop up some values, values that the community precisely cherishes and wishes to continue. But these values are grounded on the life of the people in the community; they are not free-floating kinds. In the case of Panagbenga, it is easy to espouse that this event values beauty, friendship among other jazzy words to the ears. But pronouncing such values become worthless without belaboring the community affairs and endeavors, the shared histories and passions which continually form and sustain them. Even in the plane of what is outright visible, the values being enshrined become ambiguous, even worse ignorable, if what are displayed out there are imported flowers, flowers made of plastic. If the realm of the visible is dominated by these “fake” flowers, even the most superficial attainment – the feel of Baguio, the highland feel – can reach a contemptible point of denial, a point when one realizes that the flowers one came to see here are not really from here. An even more laughable scenario: people from, say Manila, came to Baguio only to see flowers that are obtained from their place.
A similar diminution of perspective is arguably at work in our celebration of Valentine’s Day. For people who still get ruddy and impassioned when talking of “true love,” “the One” and again, all the other jazzy words to the ears, dismantling our dominant notion of love can cause a fiery exchange – whether online or face-to-face. The absence of open minds and the necessary critical takes on our very own positions that I believe we must have is a major culprit in the fruitlessness of exchanges.
Shattering the idea of romantic love, hallowed by many, is often belittled as a remark of someone ‘bitter,’ someone who did not have enough of it, someone who’s perennially heartbroken. If one tries to intellectualize it, a possible rebuttal is that the matters of the heart cannot be illumined by the occupations of the head. But this is exactly a hurdle in adopting a critical take on one’s own standpoints. Adopting this kind of stance is blocked if we see our positions not just as self-enclosed but ultimately correct and justified. The same is at work if we see categories in this completely dividing manner (always heartbreak or happiness, not heartbreak and happiness at the same time; heart versus head, not heart and head working together).
This is the point when we can assert that if this is mostly the case, we are not the ones totally at fault. These ingrained predilections are not merely an effect of our individual choices, our interiority manifesting itself. Social occasions such as Valentine’s Day – with all the accompanying TV commercials, social media declarations, establishments carrying “Happy Valentines” banners among others – help in maintaining these predilections. When did Valentine’s Day celebrate the love between a granddaughter and her grandmother, between step-siblings, or even outside the familial mode, between boss and employee? Can we recall a time when Valentine’s Day was not mainly about Mr. Right and Ms. Quirky — or vice versa – and their frenetic quest for each other?
It is in this dominant way of making sense of and living Valentines that Baguio and February and flowers so prettily insert themselves. Flowers become the symbol of one’s love. Baguio becomes the place for lovers. What is accomplished with this seemingly innocuous insertion is nothing but the reinforcement of the dominance of the romantic-love-kind-of-love and its affiliated notion of love as a purely individual or interior feeling, something that one feels for another.
Alexandra Kollontai, one of the lesser known female Russian socialists (not that there were many of them) asserted that “Love is a profoundly social emotion.” It is not something that solely wells from within; it is not without a social dimension. To further vivify the Marxist congregation, let me cite Terry Eagleton too. He said: “My emotions are not my private property… I learn my emotional behavior by participating in a common culture.”
It is always the time to get out of the confines of the narrow; always the time to doubt and ponder one’s views so that they may be tested and improved, or gladly reaffirmed. One of the many things the celebration of Panagbenga and Valentines share is that they can make us easily settle on the unproblematic: Ah, this festival is just about flowers, and cheers and the Baguio people closing down Session for a week to sell Shawarma and Marikina shoes; Ah, this occasion is just about lovers, with the girl holding a flower, and so all sordid single persons and the old people and the young kids better stay at home on the 14th.
But not all flowers are the same. Some flowers are imported. Some flowers are shared by the loveliest couples. Some flowers divert the attention to those who grew them. Some flowers, as attempt at salvation, hint a collapsing relationship. Some flowers silently speak: Hey, I’m not just a flower. I have thorns; somehow, somewhere, I was planted and nourished on a soil. Consider them too.