Angels on Parade

Diana Watters

Adorned in decorative, white satin and lace dresses, the girls fidget at the edge of the dance floor, waiting to commence the Procession. Women--mothers and grandmothers--work to order the milling and chattering flock, marshaling the girls into two lines: one for the teenagers, another for the youngsters, some of whom can't be more than three years old. Their costumes look culled from a haute-couture fashion spread, with tea-length hemlines, butterfly sleeves, sequins and swatches of pastel silk, trains that drag across the waltz-worn floor. One of their handlers strolls with purpose down the little girl line, handing out rosaries. "You can keep this and use it," she tells one of them. The girl loops the chain around her finger and spins it.

The Procession is the main event of Santacruzan, the annual Filipino celebration that marks the discovery of Christ's cross in the 4th century by Helena, mother of Roman emperor Constantine the Great (who converted the empire to Christianity). In the Philippines, Santacruzan crowns a month of May festivals in honor of the Virgin Mary. Each neighborhood or town on the islands hosts a Procession through its streets, organized by an hermana major who chooses beautiful local girls to personify symbols of Christian faith--Reina Justicia, Divina Pastora, Reina de las Flores--with the most stunning among them standing in for Helena herself.

The holiday's Minnesota version, held two Sundays ago at the Majestic Ballroom in Cottage Grove, dispenses with competition. All interested teenage girls qualify simply as sagalas ("angels"), while their young counterparts serve as flower girls. Another twist, says event matriarch Virgie Estrallado, is that "Santacruzan is more religious here. In the Philippines, what people are observing is--'Oh my, whose daughter is that?'" Her husband Del chimes: "There are 5,000 Filipinos in Minnesota--nearly all of them Catholic--" and 12 Filipino organizations. Sometimes there are divisions and disagreements. Santacruzan is a neutral thing, the biggest gathering of our community."

The couple, early 1970s immigrants, staged the first local Santacruzan, which included not only the pageant but a mass, feast, and dance, in 1994, when only a fraction of this year's 600 celebrants turned out. "At home, when we were kids," Virgie recalls, "we were always very excited on the nights of the Processions, when there were flowers and girls in dresses, singing, and lots of good food." For Filipino natives in the state, she says, the festival is a chance for their children, many of them first-generation, to learn the rituals, however altered, that their parents learned.

The Estrallados' daughter, Sofia, graced the floor as a sagala at two festivals before graduating into being a spectator. "The first time I did it as sort of a favor to my parents," she remembers. "The second year my mom bought a dress for me, so I had to do it. But after that I said no. They had enough girls by then." On Santacruzan Sunday, Sofia--now a university student--appears in a black dress cut just above the knee, with her long hair plaited in small braids--a far cry from the frost and silver garments that festoon this year's cortege.

Over by the dance floor, the waiting sagalas grow weary. Two little girls trade ninja kicks. Some of the teens quit their spots to lounge against a nearby wall. Then the lights dim and the room fills with shadows. Red and blue spotlights flash on, and a choir breaks in a rousing hymn in praise of Santa Maria. The scattered procession quickens into a caravan. In twos and threes, the flower girls debut, clutching battery-operated candles. In their wake, 40 sagalas float across the floor, escorted by boys in long, transparent barongs who look, beside their high-heeled and poised companions, gangly and shy.

Once a full circuit of dance floor is complete, the Procession comes to a momentary halt. The pairs and triplets peel off and promenade, strewing petals toward center stage where a four-foot statue of the Virgin rises above a table. Behind them, each sagala arranges a rose at the figure's feet before their parents rush the altar with cameras.

Later, changed out of their gowns and into street clothes, three of the youngest sagalas take stock. In their makeup they look almost sophisticated, but their fast talk full of post-Procession mania betrays their age: "Our parents made us," says one. "And they made us have their friends' sons for escorts," adds another. "Santacruzan's a big deal to them," a 12-year-old explains. "They tell us it's an honor and a privilege and all that, but..." Her expression suggests she's not convinced. Her girlfriend nearby agrees: "Well, like, it does keep our culture alive, I guess. But it's embarrassing." She rolls her eyes. All three speak Tagalog, the predominant Filipino language, and all have traveled to the home country. But those dresses! "Our mothers get them from the Philippines and they're expensive and we only wear them once. It's a little ridiculous." The dresses, the fuss. And the procession, another pipes in, "all that circling...that's the Filipino way--you know the thing about the shortest distance between Point A and Point B? Well, we weave a lot." The other two girls break into a giggling fit, bouncing off each other a couple of times. Then band launches into "Macarena," and the girls, got up in T-shirts and miniskirts, dash for the dance floor.

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