Bacolod City, the Philippines
October 29, 2011
Bacolod, the self-proclaimed City of Smiles, was serious with its nick. City officials in the 80s invented an annual Rio-esque extravaganza around a smiling mask, the MassKara Festival, celebrated in October. Unlike the comedy-tragedy masks of ancient Greek theater, the MassKara showed only half of the pair – the smiling one.
Clueless about my hometown’s tourist draw, I recently learned that the MassKara (a portmanteau of mass and face – “a multitude of smiling faces”) was established in 1980 when the price of sugar, the city’s primary export, plummeted to a record low and 700 people perished, including my brother’s friend Edwina, in the sinking of M/V Don Juan. The people needed to be reminded to smile, even if it was a mask they had to put on. Nevertheless, the symbolic smile had endured the vicissitudes of life and the sugar economy. It had been an unwritten decree: No sad face in this city, only a smiley.
Ironically, I never experienced MassKara Festival. I had already moved away when it was first held. In a recent visit with my family, I missed it by a hair. Good thing we still caught some vestiges of the festivities during an evening stroll by the new Bacolod City Government Center.
Paper boat-inspired art installations by local artist Charlie Co surrounded the fountain fronting the stately city hall. Seemingly afloat on water, the collection called Dreamer’s Floating Carousel evoked the childlike penchant to dream. Walking around the fountain to see the painted figures became a festive promenade. Lights and reflections colored the night, ringing with children’s laughter and chatter of families huddled on picnic mats.
Of course, Bacolod didn’t have a monopoly on all-weather, all-purpose sunny disposition; Filipinos were a smiling lot! Still, I wondered if this national and city trait could explain my family’s propensity to flash our pearly whites at the camera faster than you could count to three. After all, our native language differentiated kinds of laughter, kadlaw as we would say.
If Eskimos were said to have various words for snow, we had names for degrees of smiling and laughter in Ilonggo. Mom had claimed the simpering variety as her signature smile: nguri-nguri, her default public face in social situations and photo ops. A self-conscious smile that pouted, it was intriguingly pregnant with meaning; you never knew the thoughts that went with the pursed lips. You might never want to know.
Later, we repaired to a wine bar simply called Cellar at Balay Quince for a night cap. The ribbing and wine-and-beer tasting that ensued had Mom erupting into fits of laughter, covering her mouth like the good pastor’s daughter that she was. The onomatopoeic Ilonggo word for it – hirihi – perfectly captured this case of the giggles. As nguri-nguri was enigmatic, hirihi was effusive.
The middle-of-the-road smile or yuhum – pleasant but potentially perfunctory – was favored by polite society and usually turned up in solicited photos.
Not all smiles were non-verbal pleasantries, however. Ngirit, a grin that revealed the dentition but usually not the intention, may be up to no good. When my naughty nephew broke into one, the joke was most likely on you – in this case, his girlfriend (we called her Haha for her texts that usually ended with a virtual laugh), who may have had one too many sips of wine. The vintage drink soon found its way to the washroom sink.
Although not originally from the city that took pride in its smile, Dad laughed from the bottom of his heart, every guffaw reverberating through his cardiac chambers, it seemed. This kind of hearty laughter – utoy-utoy – was loud and infectious. No garish mask, just genuine mirth.
Only Dad’s jokes and puns could make Mom laugh out loud. Dad was truly happy in any circumstance, save for some episodes of cancer-related pain. Even then, a peaceful countenance would soon wash over that faded smile. There was joy in grace.
Dad had gone (we visited his final resting place earlier in the day), but I would still hear his boisterous laughter from my eldest brother and sister. More than our hometown’s nickname and a sea of smiling masks, I credited this family heritage of happiness for our fondness for fun. LOL or nguri-nguri, both welled up from a joyful heart.
When the mask was off, would we still be smiling? A mask betrayed no expression. I’d rather hide behind a banana smile; my eyes could still reveal my happiness.