He walks the land again in Buhi, Camarines Sur, in the Bicol Region.
Far from being the doomed character of Catholic folklore, Samuel Bilibit, referred to in this lakeshore town as “Turo-turo,” meaning someone who points, makes his yearly appearance during the Lenten season.
The epithet refers to his mechanical hand, a regular feature of the Good Friday procession where he is one of the minor figures on top of the penultimate float or paso depicting the crucified Christ.
In this ambulant tableau, Christ is surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Saint John of the Cross, two Roman soldiers and Samuel, who stands behind the two centurions.
Bringing up the rear is the float of the Santo Entierro depicting the dead Christ, who is followed by a group of woman mourners, called sayos, clad in all-black outfits.
Samuel is readily recognizable, largely because of the stories about him as well as his bobbing right hand attached to a string pulled by a man hidden underneath the float.
With this gesture, he is not merely a statue but an actor in the annual reenactment of the traditional Holy Week ritual on Good Friday.
According to lore, Samuel Bilibit was a Jew who purportedly spat at Jesus Christ when He was carrying His cross.
How he is depicted in Buhi, a grinning man with gold-filled teeth showing, seems to affirm the local stereotypical view of Jews as anti-hero.
In Bicol, to be a Hudeo (Jew) is to be a baddie, as in a movie.
Samel Bilibit spitting at Christ was said to have been the reason why he was cursed by God to walk to the ends of the earth all the days of his life.
His story is so entrenched in the minds of the people of this town made famous by the world’s smallest edible fish, the sinarapan.
For instance, when a child mysteriously falls ill, he is said to have been napadusan, from the root word paros or wind; hence, one who caught an evil wind.
On the other hand, when one is suddenly unable to speak, he is said to have been nasamwel, or afflicted by Samuel.
Ryan Cuatrona, a local cultural worker who translated Aesop’s fables in his unique Buhinon tongue, said Samuel Bilibit is an inseparable part of his childhood in the town.
“He was like a hortatory tale told by our parents to keep us children from the streets on Good Fridays lest we catch the evil wind,” he recalled.
The caretaker of the float at present, ‘Tay Jim Sarauga, explained that originally the figure of Samuel was not included in the Crucificado (crucified) float.
His wooden figure was kept in the kisame or ceiling of the house of the paso owner, the heirs of the late Corazon Obumani Batuyong, who now all live abroad.
“Not until one day when the owners heard a banging sound from the ceiling did they decide to include him in the tableau, reading it as a sign that he wanted to be in the procession himself,” Sarauga, the husband of Corazon’s sister, said.
While Corazon’s children have migrated, they obligingly send in their contributions for the float’s upkeep, thus ensuring that it will be in the procession on Holy Week.
This sadly, is not the case with the other famous Buhi Lenten tradition, the tanggal.
Theater scholar and former Cultural Center of the Philippines head, Nick Tiongson, describes the tanggal (to take down), as “distinguished by its charm and naivete as by its faith and fervor.”
The tanggal, which is a community production involving local actors and performers depicting the passion and death of Christ, depends on the personal panata or vow of a particular sponsor who will foot the bill for the whole three-day presentation.
Economics thus plays a large part in its survival.
The survival of Samuel Bilibit’s story in Buhi, therefore, depends on an inherited rural social class and function as manifested in the Lenten presentation.
This annual display and procession exhibits the continuation of what another scholar, Victor Venida, called in his paper, “The Santos and Rural Aristocracy,” as a “medieval legacy of Western Europe,” to the Philippines.
Santo is Spanish for saint.
The owners of the caroza or float perpetuate the feudal practice of allocating a land, so called in Camarines Norte as lupa ng santo (land of te saint) for the upkeep of the santos and their caretaker, this time through their annual remittance from abroad.
Their migration did not break this tradition and will thus ensure its continuation like the curse on Samuel Bilibit, that all his life, he will walk to the ends of the earth forever.
At least, in this part of Bicol, in Buhi in particular, on Good Friday, he will.
Frank Penones Jr.