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The Sampaguita’s lovely bloom

(Article published in the Dec 22, 2010 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

Of the many children featured by Gizela M. Gonzalez (“Ging” to her friends and associates) in her Where the Children Are, my immediate point of interest was the story of Rochelle and Releonor.  They, like my father Felix who, I suppose, belonged to the generation of their great grandfathers, deal with sampaguita garlands: but my father only strung them; Rochelle and Releonor not only do the stringing also but distribute and sell them, too.

The sampaguitas of their trade, as do most sold in Metro Manila, are transported over many rough miles and, in the process, get passed on from many gentle a hand to hand before reaching their buyers.  In Sta. Cruz, Laguna, they are plucked from their stems at about six o’clock in the morning by young fingers that deftly choose buds that are neither too full nor too yellow.  Sampaguitas are one-day bloomers, usually in the early evening; those already full at dawn will wither too early in the afternoon while those still very yellow just will not open all,  even at nightfall. Thus, neither the too full nor the too yellow will sell.  So too neither the damaged nor bruised.

The chosen ones are initially gathered in half-gallon ice creams, usually tied to the waists of their young gatherers.  Before the early hour is over, a man on a motorcycle passes by to buy them at five pesos per liter of buds.  They are then transported, over land for about a couple of hours in large plastic sacks tied to the motorcycle’s backseat by nylon twines, to the town center where they are further processed.


In stalls by the street, in porches, and in areas that, at least for that hour of day, are specifically reserved for the activity, the sampaguitas are washed and then placed in bigger containers for further resale.  In clear recognition of the value that has been added since dawn, the price tag moves up five-fold, from the initial five to now twenty-five pesos per liter can. 

Some drastic and sort of “violent” (had the subject been a sentient being) processing is necessary to mold nature’s sampaguita into man’s artful produce.  They are then strung into garlands, which vary from the simple ones that small boys and girls use as props to elicit both pity and pesos from “captive” motorists who are involuntarily stopped by the traffic lights, to the more intricate and pious versions that are considered worthy to hang from the images of Blessed Virgin Mary and the many saints in her entourage at the local parish church.

The material needed to string the sampaguita ist not just any ordinary thread.  The craft dictates that sampaguita be strung only with abaca, or the hemp of Manila, that is known world-wide for its durability and, at the same time, flexibility.  A lot of the abaca used in the garlands sold in Manila mostly comes from the mid-section of the country, such as Mindoro and Southern Luzon. 

The true sampaguita garland is thus an elusive fusion of fragility born of the flower and sturdiness provided by the string.  It is at this point of the melding of the ying with the yang that Rochelle and Releonor make their intervention in the garland’s production.

And Ging, from whom I gathered most of the foregoing, tells their story thus:

“Rochelle, fifteen, regularly buys a can of flowers at the market so she can make garlands at home.  Her father does not work.  Her mother has a job as a yaya, a nanny, in Antipolo, taking care of other people’s children and returning to her own only on weekends.  Rochelle delivers a few garlands to her sukis, her usual customers in the neighborhood.

Her sister Releonor, twelve, comes by later in the day to collect payment.  We walk with Releonor as, gaily calling out her presence, she does from house to house.  Sometimes, she emerges with one or two coins.

Any garlands the girls cannot immediately sell they must put on ice, so that the flowers last another day. 

They use a Styrofoam cooler, laying the garlands over a sheet of plastic to keep them dry.  On weekends Rochelle and her mother go to the parish church to sell sampaguita there, where the crowds are.”

What Rochelle and Releonor do have been done too by the many generations before them. But today, it seems their trade is about to be a sunset industry.

Continues Ging about San Pedro, Laguna where a lot of sampaguitas too are grown:

“San Pedro is slowly changing.  The most parcels of land once used to grow sampaguita are being lost to urbanization.  Perhaps one day the time and patience to pick buds, to clean fiber, to string garlands, and to peddle near and far will no longer have any value.  We do not know whether the townspeople will at that time have better lives.”

For some strange reason, though, I am not as worried as Ging.  There is something in the very handling of sampaguitas that, at least from where I sit, somehow bring about in an outpouring of life’s blessings.  My father Felix from his sampaguita stringing days eventually moved on, admittedly with the assistance of his brother Francisco who capped his own illustrious career in the judiciary as a judge of the then Court of First Instance of Manila, to medical school at the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas and thence became a radiologist of the Manila Health Department by the time of his retirement.

In the same view, I am sure, Releonor too will eventually become, she presently dreams, a beautician, and then maybe proceed to be a beauty parlor owner, and not much later perhaps, a wellness center operator. 

For the time being, during this Christmas season, when a street kid presses his or her face on the tinted glass of your car air conditioned car, or reaches out to your window seat on the bus offering to sell you a sampaguita garland or two, please recall the flower’s “sumpa-kita” (roughly translated, “my solemn vow to you”) of a better future to those who love it.  And a prayer or two please, for Rochelle and Releonor, for us also, and all those who keep the faith on the quiet promise of the little flower.