The MassKara story

By Prof. Berniemack Arellano

[You can (not) unsee history. You can (not) hide the past.]

The origins of Bacolod’s renowned MassKara came from two tragedies: the collapse of sugar industry during the Marcos dictatorship and the sinking of MV Don Juan which claimed many Negrense lives.

The former was a combination of external factors such as international market shocks such as the end of Laurel-Langley Pact and EU reducing its dependence on sugar imports, (Caña, 2021) and internal ones like Negros’s over-dependence on the cash crop and Marcos’s appointment of Roberto Benedicto to Nastura and Philsucom by which led to the alleged hoarding of sugar when prices have been in its all time low. (Branigin, 1986) The collapse of sugar prices has led to a massive unemployment rate that further which exacerbated widespread malnutrition to its farmer-tenants and their families. The image of the malnourished child named Joel Abong has become an icon of this historic era in the island. He was “batang Negros.”

The sinking of Don Juan at Tablas Strait was a double whammy to a province and a city that was already in dire straits. (Chapman, 1980) Though many were rescued, 14 were dead and hundreds remain missing. Some of them belonging to prominent families.

The tragedies in Negros has led Bacolod city government to organize a festival that would somehow lift the gloomy disposition of the Negrenses at that time. Hence, MassKara was born in the 1980s. The merrymaking was characterized as having to wear a smiling and festive mask while dancing to the beat (of mostly Latin in influence, notably “Trini Lopez Medley” and Kaoma’s “Lambada” were some of the songs used back then) along the streets.

For its proponents, the festivity was established as a means to symbolize Negrense resilience of that “despite all of these challenges, we are here to dance it all away merrily and face it with a smiling face.” “Sige lang, sige pa! Bacolod, batò kita!” was its battlecry. However to its critics, it is hiding the real face of Negros’s challenges of over-dependance on sugar and land reform to which these issues persist up to this day. A rather “skin-deep” approach to tackling social challenges as some would say.

Today, it is Bacolod’s signature identity and the largest annual cultural event, recognizable by those flamboyant costumes and beat. I’ve managed to wear one from my late friend Enrico Dormido (aka Byahilo) back then and darn it’s heavy!

I haven’t forgotten my good friend of mine even if he has been away for years now. I just hope that like how I honored my friend’s memory in this post, Negrenses would also still remember why the merrymaking started in the first place.

That’s another one of my morning musings. Maayong aga sa inyo, mga palangga!

Branigin, William (1986). “Poverty on Negros Island Breeding Filipino Rebels.” In The Washington Post.

Caña, Paul John (2021) “Sugar Wars: Looking Back at the Negros Famine of the 1980s.” In Esquire.

Chapman, William (1980). “Philippine Ferry Sinks.” In The Washington Post.

(Bernardo “Berniemack” Arellano III is an Assistant Professor of History at the Department of Social Sciences of the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of the Philippines Los Baños. He graduated with a Master of Science in Geography degree at the University of the Philippines Diliman in 2019, and took his Bachelor’s Degree in History at the University of the Philippines Visayas in Iloilo in 2006. He takes interest in the merger of history and geography through placemaking practices and “sense of place” in the more localized or Filipino perspective. He served the Philippine national government as a Senior Registry Coordinator for Local Governments on the Philippine Registry of Cultural Property with the Philippine Government through National Commission for Culture and the Arts. It involves coordination and facilitation of the creation of local cultural inventories nationwide. Arellano has been in this sector since 2008 as an advocate for promoting and preserving cultural heritage of the country)