The ‘Father of Sinulog’ and the making of Cebu’s biggest festival

John Sitchon, Wenilyn Sabalo

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The ‘Father of Sinulog’ and the making of Cebu’s biggest festival

FESTIVAL. The Sinulog is known as a ritual dance performed as a prayer of thanksgiving to the Santo Nino (Child Jesus).

Jacqueline Hernandez/Rappler

David Odilao Jr., considered the 'Father of Sinulog,' created the festival to retrace the historical events that led to Cebu’s spiritual growth as Asia’s cradle of Christianity and to reinvigorate the religious practice

CEBU, Philippines – More than 44 years ago, the Sinulog was nothing more than a dance performed by Cebuano natives out of reverence for the Senior Santo Niño (Child Jesus), done within the walls of churches like the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu.

David Odilao Jr. shared in Cebu City government’s online radio program Pagtuki, Pagsusi, Pagsuta, how the Sinulog Festival in Cebu became a major festival and tourism draw in the city.

In 1978, Odilao received an invitation to join the Ministry for Youth and Sports Development (MYSD). He was a customs collector assigned to the Mactan Cebu International Airport at the time.

Odilao said that before undergoing a series of activities with the MYSD, he was appointed as MYSD Central Visayas chief in June 1978, upon the recommendation of General Fabian Ver, a military general closely allied with the Marcos dictatorship. He shared that he knew Ver when he was still a captain, and that Ver knew him when he was first starting out at the Bureau of Customs.

Odilao recalled that during an MYSD seminar, he was asked a very important question on the identity of the Cebuano people: “Where were we [from]?”

It did not take long for Odilao to find an answer in historical documents, conversations with historians, and travels to different islands in the country whose festivities carried the memories and heritage of our ancestors.

This is the story of how a customs collector became the “Father of Sinulog.”

The victory in Cebu

When the former customs collector was made to think of activities that could possibly shine light on the Cebuano identity, he immediately thought of the Battle of Mactan, which he argued was one of the only few battles won in the country during the Spanish colonial era.

“We are celebrating the Fall of Bataan, the Fall of Corridor, the Fall of Tirad Pass…. Puro pildi, murag dili ko kaaccept ana (So many losses, and I cannot accept that),” Odilao said.

To achieve the festive activity, Odilao coordinated with universities to train students to dance and bring them to the Mactan Shrine where their celebration would put an emphasis on the historic victory and the monument of Datu Lapulapu. 

Hence, on April 27, 1979, Odilao founded and named the festival, “Bahug-Bahug sa Mactan” or “Duel in Mactan.”

Birthing Sinulog

After the success of the Bahug-Bahug sa Mactan, Odilao journeyed to different parts of the country to witness celebrations like the Dinagyang Festival in Iloilo City in order to conceptualize a “true Cebuano festival.”

Odilao consulted local historians like Resil Mojares, and searched for historical documents that eventually pointed him towards the direction of the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño. There, he would find the Sinulog dance – a dance offered to the Child Jesus.

“It turned out that the Sinulog was (celebrated) inside the basilica and so I said, why not do it outside for everyone to see?” he said.

Odilao proposed to have the same performers of the Bahug-Bahug sa Mactan join the festival he was creating.

“Our dancing was around downtown…. Puro mga estudyante to (These are all students). The catch is if you join Sinulog, you pass your PE (subject) so of course, a lot joined,” Odilao said.

The success of the first Sinulog grand parade in 1980 led to its promotion as a Cebu-based cultural event by the Sinulog Foundation Incorporated (SFI) which was formally established in 1984. 

According to the late SFI executive director Ricky Ballesteros, the creation of a grander Sinulog Festival paved the way for the creation of other Sinulog-related events. These include the Sinulog Photo Contest, the Grand Ritual Dance Showdown, Sinulog Festival Queen Competition, and Sinulog Idol to name a few.

As time passed, the Sinulog celebration has become one of the most well-known festivals in the country, and has attracted visits from devotees and tourists from all over the world.

Odilao said that he still remembered the time he danced in the first Sinulog parade. For him, as the festival’s father, the Sinulog will always be a dance of veneration in honor of the Senior Santo Niño. –

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