Paskuhan from behind
by Xave Gregorio and Erikah Cinco
The crowd was sparse on the first Paskuhan morning, so the guards at the Tan Yan Kee Building were almost just lounging around, save for tending to students asking for keys to organization rooms and to parents inquiring about the Office for Admissions. Aside from these, what kept them busy were raffle stubs — they were rushing to fill up hundreds of them, in hopes to win prizes like iPads, phones, LCD TVs, digital cameras and gift certificates.
Mario Abrenica was one of them. His wife had been begging him for a laptop for two years now and he hoped to win one for her. He bought two bundles of raffle tickets and was gifted another bundle. All in all, he had about 360 stubs.
“‘Di naman ako umaasa na ako ang mananalo. Pero try ko lang rin,” he said in a soft and raspy voice.
As we spoke to Mario, Ricky Arco, a janitor from the City Service Corporation, tore nearly a quarter of his bundle of tickets and handed it to Mario. “O, ‘eto pare. Para manalo ka.” Mario readily accepted the tickets and thanked Ricky with a subtle nod.
In his 20 years as a guard in UST, Mario had always been trying his luck at the Paskuhan raffle. After all, he had won a 42-inch Sanyo television a few years back.
It was during a stroll at the parish when UST Secretary General Fr. Winston Cabading approached him and told him that he had won in the raffle. He claimed the prize with a bit of nudging from Vice Rector Fr. Richard Ang and brought the flatscreen television home, much to the delight of his wife and kid.
He didn’t win this year. But that’s fine, he said. He had another gift for his wife anyway. Besides, Paskuhan for him isn’t just about the raffle — it’s about the entire Thomasian community coming together in the spirit of giving and camaraderie.
Perhaps, his luck manifested in another form. The Tan Yan Kee Building, where he is usually assigned, does not need guards during the holiday break unlike the Main Building, the St. Raymund de Peñafort Building, the Benavides Building and the Beato Angelico Building. He is also off-duty on Christmas, so he can spend more time with his family.
While we spoke to Mario at Tan Yan Kee, Fr. Winston and Dr. Imelda Dakis were drawing the names of winners at the Main Building. Thousands of raffle stubs flew and tumbled as workers from the City Service Corporation spun the yellow tombola drum. The luck of the Thomasian community was — quite literally — in the hands of these men.
Among them was Wilfredo Sadiwa. He was a bit stoic as he repeatedly gave the tombola drum a gentle push for it to spin. Name after name and prize after prize, he spun the drum to toss the tickets into a flurry. In between draws he would collect tickets from people before dumping those into the orange sea of stubs.
But it seemed that his hands were luckier for him than for others, like for example Fr. Winston, who said that he had never been drawn in a Paskuhan raffle. For the first time in Wilfredo’s 10 years working in the University, he received a timely Christmas gift — a karaoke set. When a Senior High School student drew a stub bearing his name, his blank expression broke into a wide grin which showed his missing front teeth.
He is one of the men in yellow shirts and green pants whose shift has started at 6 a.m. They stay up until the wee hours of the morning to make sure everything is spotless. All the work pays off though — he said that Christmas time in UST is incomparable.
Among the things that makes it incomparable is Agape. It is named after the Greek word for the highest form of love. It is the love for God and God’s love for mankind. It is the love which transcends all boundaries. It is the love symbolized by the female figure perched atop the Main Building and is elevated higher than her other two stone sisters, Faith and Hope. It is the love showed through a feast for the entire Thomasian community during Paskuhan.
A few hours before the onslaught of hungry people, concessionaires began arriving to prepare their booths for Agape. Workers from Elar’s Lechon had set up tables where several — there were six at the booth for the Faculty of Arts and Letters — lechon would be placed in the evening. Staff from Max’s, Aristocrat and Kenny Rogers Roasters had also began setting up their booths.
At the corner of Osmeña Drive and Gonzales Drive, a large booth had been occupied by several people, most in yellow shirts, who were busy repacking, frying and arranging food that they will be giving away. Heat radiated from a large, deep pan of boiling oil where various balls dived, swam and were fished out. Being under the tarpaulin tents would have been twice as hot if the noon heat were as piercing as usual, but there the clouds kept the sun mostly hidden and a light breeze occasionally blew, keeping workers cool.
Even cooler were workers who were away from the pan. Marcelo Catugas seemed to enjoy the breeze and loved talking to students who approached him about the bright blue and pink clouds he made out of granulated sugar. But he cannot let all this chitchat distract him. While he had already made 300 cotton candies, he had to make 200 more.
Facing less pressure than Marcelo, Lilia Bonifacio was on another table where she sat idly by three huge boxes.
What are those?
She stood up and gently placed her hand on a box. “Ito, Excelente Ham ito,” she said softly but proudly. She then opened a box and showed us a sandwich wrapped in plastic — a sizable pan de sal filled with a slice of sweet and salty Christmas ham. She takes pride in the product she distributes and is quite delighted whenever a Thomasian sinks their teeth into the sandwich and identifies it as a product of the Quiapo-based company she had been working at for 15 years.
The sun is dipping lower into the sky and the air is getting cooler. There’s still a few more hours before Agape but the people at the booths had more work to do.
There were barely any people at the Quadricentennial Pavilion — a stark contrast from other parts of the campus, where the crowd was getting thicker.
Empty chairs filled the stadium, but it was not completely deserted. Men in black hoisted an LED screen at the right of the stage where an altar was set up. Technicians were testing lights and choir members are rehearsing church songs. A short man in a peach-colored polo was scampering around the area of the stage to check if everything is in it proper place.
“‘Wag naman ganyan kapatid,” Albert Loteyro told a Campus Ministry volunteer who was too liberal in his use of “reserved” signs for seats.
There were qualms over a possible heavy downpour as a good portion of Luzon was affected by a tail-end of a cold front. But it didn’t rain that night. Only a thin layer of clouds covered the sky and hid some stars from view. The full moon glowed — it was a disc whose edges were softened by wispy clouds.
But Albert would not have been bothered by a bit, or even a lot, of rain. One Paskuhan evening years ago left everyone in the Grandstand drenched in the rain. It might have been quite an inconvenience for some, considering that the open field turns into a muddy swamp after a few minutes of heavy rainfall; but for Albert, who has been working for the Campus Ministry for 20 years, that was the most memorable Paskuhan he had ever experienced.
He said that this year wasn’t as memorable — or as wet — as that Paskuhan. Staff say that University administrators insisted to hold the two major Paskuhan events, the Mass and the concert, in the Quadricentennial Pavilion. Student organizers say that they negotiated with administrators until midnight in a closed door meeting to be able to hold the concert in the open field — but to no avail.
“Lagi naming hinihiling na sana sa Grandstand. Iba ‘yung vibes kapag sa Grandstand,” said Arthur Ace Malatag, a junior Sociology student who volunteers for the Campus Ministry. He was busy handing collection bags to other volunteers and was making sure that they had enough.
But they had more than enough. The dugout at the Quadricentennial Pavilion was packed by 120 student volunteers and Arthur had to shout to be heard. They prepared for a Mass at the Grandstand and expected a large turnout. He wanted to see the Mass celebrated as the sun sunk lower in the Manila skyline, painting the sky a bright orange, then pink, then blue and purple hues, until all is engulfed in darkness and the Christmas lights are turned on.
But what’s important for him and for Albert is that the Mass would be solemn, regardless of where it is celebrated.
While other volunteers scurried around the Quadricentennial Pavilion, Rheann Mascardo sat on a chair at the front row, her eyes fixed on a piece of paper that she held with two hands. She read aloud with a slow pace, typical of a kid her age. Beside her was a Franciscan nun, who was helping her read the prayers of the faithful eloquently.
Sister Sharon Templanza is used to dealing with kids. She handled the elementary level in their school in Santo Tomas, Batangas. What she was doing with Rheann — listening to her talk, correcting faulty speech — she has done on almost a daily basis.
She had travelled 61 kilometers and returned to the University to volunteer for the Campus Ministry. She had been in and out of campus, as she was assigned in Batangas from 2006 to 2011 and from 2014 to 2015.
But she paid a visit to UST last year just to hear Mass at Paskuhan. “Napakaganda ‘yung Paskuhan Mass kasi sama-sama na nagpapasalamat at kumbaga inihahanda natin ang ating sarili sa pagdating ni Hesus.”
As she and Rheann continued reading, altar servers were having a light moment in a room inside the dugout which had been turned into a makeshift sacristy. We were foreigners invading their space, so they nearly scrambled when we approached them for an interview. The boys bravely spoke as a collective but did not want to be heard individually, so they volunteered Quinn Campomanes, secretary of the UST Theological Society, to talk to us.
Quinn had been waiting — almost longing — for Paskuhan since he had been bombarded by a ton of tests and requirements during what students call the “hell week.” Paskuhan for Quinn is a relief from the flames of graded recitations, deadlines, tests and failures which the junior year of UST’s Theology program brought.
It’s as if the Christmas lights around campus beamed in his eyes and induced a temporary amnesia, making him forget that he did not get to answer 20 items in the test, or that he did not get to recite properly, or that he is on the brink of failing. What are those, even? Those do not matter. It’s Paskuhan evening and he is here to have fun with his friends from his block.
“Sama-sama kayong nag-suffer sa exam, sama-sama kayong magse-celebrate,” he said.
The other altar servers stood up and headed out into the floor of the stadium. Quinn followed after them. They walked all the way to the back row as they waited for the priests to arrive.
Quinn bowed his head and made the sign of the cross as he prayed. He told us earlier that the preparation that they really do before Mass is a preparation of the self. You have to be ready before you accept Christ.
As the muted chaos from the volunteers slowly died in anticipation of the Mass, Mario, the guard at the Tan Yan Kee Building, and a female employee of the City Service Corporation was escorted to a seat at the back row. They were each given a sandwich and bottled water. Later in the Mass, they offered the bread and wine for consecration.
Meanwhile, silence engulfed most of the Buenaventura Garcia Paredes, O.P. Building. We say most — guards at the lobby tend to students coming in and out of the building and when we opened the door to Room 402, light and noise oozed into the dark and quiet hall.
The Red Cross Youth Council (RCYC) had turned that room into their headquarters. IDs for volunteers and two-way radios were placed on three plastic tables and about a dozen Red Cross members were chatting. The were jovial, even if they were four storeys away from the festivities. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s Paskuhan and there hasn’t been any casualties reported.
On another table, perpendicular to the one where the IDs and two-way radios were placed, RCYC President Richelle Co was monitoring the event on her laptop. In her first three years in the University, she had been part of the thick Paskuhan crowd. But this year, she chose to be where most people aren’t.
“This year, mas gusto ko na parang mas fruitful ‘yung mga ginagawa ko. Mas may purpose,” Richelle said. “Hindi naman ibig sabihin na if you’re working behind the scenes sa Paskuhan, it doesn’t mean na hindi ka na nagse-celebrate.”
Near the Tan Yan Kee Building, Kim Tecson, a fourth year student from the Alfredo M. Velayo — College of Accountancy, was anxiously waiting for her fellow volunteer to help her marshall the horde of hungry Thomasians at Agape. She held a thick bundle of papers which would be used to mark where the lines start and end.
“Bago ako grumaduate gusto ko may ma-contribute naman ako to my beloved University,” said Kim, who is part of the team under Central Student Council Auditor Romulo Terrado III.
This would be her most memorable Paskuhan as this was the first time she volunteered.
“Agape, diba, it’s the greatest form of love. Feeling ko ito ‘yung way ko of showing love sa kapwa ko Thomasians.”
She had been in the University the whole day. Her morning started with her facing her thesis and in the evening, she had to face a starving crowd of students from the Faculty of Arts and Letters.
All went well for her. The night grew darker and the lines were short. As she predicted, Thomasians were obedient and cooperative. She and her fellow volunteer got to feast on chicken and lechon too. Workers from the different concessionaires were able to take home a bag of food.
But Kim’s work is not yet over. Another day is yet to come.
“Ang hindi naka smile, hindi ko papapasukin ha!” Abby Rose Santiago, the guard at the Dapitan Gate exclaimed. “Paskuhan ‘to, dapat masaya ang lahat!” And in no time, giggles and greetings of the yuletide season filled the air.
The long queue had left beads of sweat on her forehead, but she is still brimming with excitement. “[Ang Paskuhan] masaya, nagbibigayan, at higit sa lahat, walang katulad.” All who entered had to show her their IDs and surrender their bags for inspection and she can be a bit intimidating as she goes about her job. But like a mother, she welcomed all to her home like her own child.
Those who entered poked around the University. Most lounged around Plaza Mayor where an obstacle course was set up, daring all to take the challenge. Near the famed Lover’s Lane, the scent of food wafted through the noses of people, as if to invite them to buy a quick bite, or even just a peek at the stalls.
In these stalls of metal frames and tarpaulins were people behind stoves and other cookware were toiling to keep up with orders. The lines were long but their patience was longer. The my wore their brightest smiles as they handed their customers orders.
As the sky got bluer and darker, people had began lining up at the Quadricentennial Pavilion to watch the much-hyped Paskuhan concert. Guards stationed at the queues looked daunting — with blank stares and rigid postures. They thoroughly searched bags and as they finished, their icy expressions melted into a warm murmur — ”Merry Christmas.”
It was cold and dim inside, with many seats to plop on — an optimal environment for those who wanted to chill as they watched the concert. But there’s no chilling for organizers and members of the production team. They were on their feet, dashing from one place to the other, giving out commands through their clear-comm and radios, and ushering people to seats.
Some were on standby, primed and ready to be animated when duty called. This was where Kitkat Tantoy and her team were.
Much like Richelle and Kim, this is her first time to volunteer for Paskuhan. “Sobrang nakaka-proud na I am one of the people who made this whole event possible.”
The crowd grew wild as the spotlight beamed at the hosts who greeted the audience with enthusiasm. Kitkat and her team tensed as roars of excitement filled the stadium, but her face was still vibrant with elation as she witnessed the event she helped made possible slowly unfold into reality.
“Iba talaga maging Thomasian. Events like the Agape and Paskuhan reminds me how blessed I am to be a Thomasian,” Mela Papio, the assistant floor director said with pride. “Paskuhan 2016 was all about being with the greatest people UST has put in our lives and enjoying the beauty that is UST.”
Most production staff had barely any time to enjoy the performances. Their eyes were trained not on bands like Miles Experience or The Ransom Collective, but on Thomasians. They had to make this night as memorable as it can be.
But suddenly, a nightmare.
The concert was running out of time. It had been ordered to be rushed. People had to be out of the Quadricentennial Pavilion before the pyromusical starts. Asst. Professor Faye Martel-Abugan was the director for that night, as she had been many other big nights before. She was forced to make a tough decision — to cut Gracenote’s set.
She ordered audio men to cut the microphone, cued floor directors to raise a small whiteboard with the words “Wrap it up” written on it, then gave a directive to stage managers to tell hosts to enter the stage and thank the band for their number.
Below the stage were campus media photographers, struggling to get good shots as they were shooed away by staff. “Ano ba ‘yan nakaharang pa. Bwisit bakit pa ba kasi may media?” said a staff.
Tensions were running high. Another photographer had yelled at CSC President Janela Love Nartates for not allowing her and other members of campus media to take photos. The spirits of performers had been dampened. The crowd is left bewildered.
A sea of black fluidly flows to and from the dugout — their faces sometimes betraying their emotions. Despite the tremendous responsibility and pressure upon their backs, the production team and the organizers were mostly composed and tried to make most of whatever was happening. Small smiles of assurance were shared as a form of support and love they share as a team and as a family. Life had given them lemons, so they made lemonade.
The atmosphere wasn’t as heavy in the open field as it was in the Quadricentennial Pavilion. But it had gotten quite warm, with people navigating the space almost skin to skin.
The Lover’s Lane was also jam-packed with hungry people in long lines and makeshift dining tables. In this chaos, everyone remained blissful.
“Salamat po, Kuya!” A girl told a fast food chain crew as she received her order. “Merry Christmas po!” In that brief encounter, the man had a grin plastered onto his face. The stress and exhaustion from a whole day of labor was quickly wiped off from his face upon being thanked for his hard work.
The mood was not this light over at the tent near the field where a troop of policemen watched the crowd with stern faces.
“Hindi kami pwede mag-enjoy, naka-duty kasi kami,” PO1 Mark Galit said. “Pero kahit ganun, ramdam ko pa din ang Paskong Tomasino.” His comrades all nodded in agreement. He then went back to work and watched the crowd’s every move, ready to jump at anyone who threatened the safety of the community.
He is keeping an even steadier eye at the growing crowd at the Grandstand. The people have formed an almost impermeable block on the field and were waiting for the fireworks display.
That night, the clouds were thicker and the moon was even blurrier. Rain started falling lightly at first, then it got heavier as minutes ticked away. People were looking to the sky and they saw — umbrellas.
The night started to mellow after the last bang from the fireworks show. People have started leaving the open field and in their aftermath are mounds of trash. Joyce Cagnayo, a junior Nursing student couldn’t stand this sight.
“There should be trash bins everywhere,” she said as she grabbed a broom from Rico Galaga of the City Service Corporation and swept. Her classmate, Vanessa Lacdao helped, but was aghast.
Rico, too, was shocked, ashamed even. “Kayo pong mga estudyante ‘yung pinagseserbisyuhan namin dito eh,” he said. He said that City Service staff are not supposed to accept help from students. But Joyce couldn’t help it. She wants to see everything spotless.
No one was expected to pick up other people’s trash. Heck, no one was expected to pick up their own trash. When the revelry is over, most would leave without caring about the plastic bottles and cups they drank from, the paper plates they ate from and the copies of the campus paper that they sat on.
Geronimo Santiago, another worker from the City Service Corporation, had been desensitized by all this. For him, it’s just another day at work. He had been working at the University for a decade and had repeatedly seen a literally trashy field post-Paskuhan.
Rico, who had been working for three years in UST, speculated that students might have been too happy to care about trash. But he doesn’t mind it. “Kung wala pong kalat, baka wala kaming trabaho.”
Both him and Geronimo had started their shift at 6 a.m. They stayed on the sidelines of the field as the fireworks lit the night sky. They had to — they are not allowed to enter until after everything is over. That night, and perhaps the other two Paskuhan nights he’s been to, he did not see the fireworks.
The vast expanse of the University campus is exposed when the crowd had thinned to a few dozen. Darkness has once again engulfed UST — the lights which painted trees in various hues are turned off and the giant tree is just another dim structure. Students have gone home or have continued partying somewhere else, perhaps at the streets around UST or perhaps at a KTV bar at Tomas Morato.
Rico and Geronimo along with other warriors of the City Service Corporation continue toiling until 3 a.m., working hard to erase all traces of last night’s festivity.
They should be done before 4 a.m., when parishioners of the Santissimo Rosario Parish would hear Simbang Gabi at the Plaza Mayor. Then, as Mass is said, Rico, Geronimo and all the other workers disappear into the background once more. -with Anna Gabriela Mogato, Caryl Manabat, Imee Advincula, Jazmin Tabuena, Jester Ramos, Johannesburg Repuyan, Johmar Damiles, Joshua Lugti, Pauline Carlos and Philip Jamilla