It took years for the MassKara Festival, as we know it today, to develop into what was never foreseen by those who conceptualized, nurtured, worked and fought for it to continue as a festival free of political manipulation and opportunism.
So much has been written about this now internationally famous festival but little is known of its beginnings and what it went through.
The idea of a festival was broached by Bacolod City Mayor Jose “Digoy” Montalvo, who asked a group to think of a festivity that would be mostly merry-making in the streets. There was, at the time in 1979, the nationwide movement for the organization of festivals as part of the tourism program of the Philippines, following the successful launching of the Reunion for Peace Program.
Bacolod has no tradition of a festival unlike Cebu and Aklan with their Dinagyang and Ati-atihan. We have the San Sebastian fiesta which follows the same fiesta format as in any other parts of the country. Kabankalan had copied the Ati-atihan.
Mayor Digoy did not want that kind. He wanted something different with plenty of merry-making because he noted that, at the plaza, people would flock even at the sound of a rhythmic beating of tin cans. He wanted street dancing that would encourage people to join in like in Kalibo.
After he had laid out his ideas and the parameters of the festival, he organized a festival committee, headed by Councilor Romeo Geocadin, who was the chairman of the Committee on Education. He tapped the Bacolod Tourism Office, headed by Atty. Evelio Leonardia, who had just taken over from Atty. John Orola, who got posted abroad. He also got into the committee the Arts Association of Bacolod, the Department of Education, the Hotel and Restaurant Association, private schools, business sectors, the police and the private persons.
There were series of meetings and eventually the idea took shape. One key problem was how to make people dance in the street. I cautioned that Bacolodnons are not prone to this kind of dancing. They are too shy for that as they prefer to watch.
It was then that the idea of a mask was presented, and AAB representative, cartoonist Ely Santiago proposed to mass produce the mask by training prisoners in paper mask-making by the AAB members that would take away shyness – people can hide behind it.
He then coined the word “MassKara”, which means, “many faces”. The faces were not originally the same but they created the suspense of not knowing who was behind the mask. The masks, however, must all be smiling to showcase the name, City of Smiles.
We realized that, initially, we cannot make people dance in the streets so the idea of groups organized for street dancing came about. The groups were to come from the schools as part of their physical education class. The business sector also agreed to join with their employees.
The groups would get their own choreographers and costume designers at their expenses except for the public schools that the city agreed to subsidize.
Kiosks were allowed around the plaza but they had to pay to the city for business permits. The income augmented the city appropriation.
The festival was therefore a purely city activity, using public funds for the needs of the schools, the police, the publicity, etc.
However, even at the planning stage, the idea of a festival was almost scuttled by the sinking of the Bacolod-based Negros Navigation ship, Don Juan in April 1980. The tragedy drowned hundreds of Negrosanons with hundreds more missing to this day.
The committee met to discuss whether it was appropriate to continue with the festival in October when the province was in mourning, especially because among the victims was the wife of Mayor Montalvo.
The mayor, however, insisted that tragedy should not deter us; rather give us the strength to continue even in the midst of our sadness. In fact, he said, life must go on and so should the festival.
Thus was born the wrong impression that the masks were intended to hide the sadness of Bacolod. Indeed, the smiling masks show the tenacity and resolve of Bacolod even in the face of difficulties.
After two years, due to the mishandling of city funds, Mayor Montalvo toyed with the idea of abolishing the festival. He would not tolerate corruption. Bacolod's Tourism head, Bing Leonardia, and members of the committee, however, believed that the festival was a great thing for the city.
Encouraged by the commitment of the bottling companies and the business sector that they would step in to finance the festival if the Tourism Office would handle it, the festival was saved. The MassKara Foundation Inc. was established and managed it until, after 25 years, the Silver MassKara Foundation took over.
A few years later, the public schools backed out, blaming the time they spent practicing for their poor national average scores. The barangays filled in the void and jumpstarted a bigger, more grandiose, more colorful, more competitive and dynamic festival.
The smiling mask that has become the established icon of the festival was designed by Lopue's Department Store group. It also set the standard for the fabulous and creative custom that dominates the festival's colorful dances.
Through the years, the festival has improved with the combined talents of many artists, from dance to costumes and several people who were directors, committees and chairmen of the yearly festival.
The Silver MassKara Foundation, under Eli Tajanlangit, added the electric MassKara to complement the daytime merrymaking that had been the core of the festival from the beginning.*MP