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Where Have All the Peryas Gone?

A longtime fixture of Pinoy festivity–the small town carnival–is walking on a tightrope to extinction. Focus Features travels to Pampanga to find the last of the peryantes

By Focus FeaturesDecember 11, 2016

“Gone are the glory days of the perya. Today, we have so many competitors – big malls, newer amusement parks, even Internet shops. People would rather spend money on other things than to enjoy our rides and games. We don’t know when we will stop but the perya’s end is near.” – Tatay Ompong, Father of Perya in Pampanga

It was a Sunday afternoon, and Tatay Ompong’s workers were busy setting up the rides and the booths on a vacant lot in the town of Floridablanca, Pampanga. After all, it was opening day, and they need to draw in as many people as they can – kids or couples who want to take turns on the joy rides, or those taking a chance on spending a good amount of their hard-earned money on the betting booths.

By sunset, the boom of a megaphone announcing the opening of the perya reverberates in the air, enticing onlookers to come in and have a good time.

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Despite the festive mood brought by Christmas, the breeze of uncertainty can be felt among the workers and seen in their weary faces as if they already have an inkling of things to come.

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The perya has become a trademark of many Filipino festivities, a movable carnival that comes once or twice a year to a town, usually during festivities such as the Yuletide. Peryas enliven, if not intensify the jolly atmosphere, whether in the form of rides like the heart-stopping ruweda or Ferris Wheel or the mild joyful ride on the carousel.

Long equated with timeless Filipino revelry, the perya is in danger of dying, especially in urban areas like Metro Manila and newly minted cities where newer hubs of entertainment have taken hold of the collective imagination of an easily distracted people.

Father of Perya Speaks

For Rodolfo ‘Tatay Ompong’ Villena, a perya in a local town fiesta is a highlight of a celebration. “Kadikit na talaga sa tradisyon ng piyestang Pilipino ang perya (It’s part and parcel to the traditions of Filipino fiesta).” As a perya owner and operator for almost 25 years, he is considered as ‘Father of Perya’ in Pampanga.

Chronicling the perya culture, Tatay Ompong has seen it all. His stint in the perya industry started as simple as his life. As a young man, he had no lofty dreams in life.

“Dati, wala akong hanapbuhay. Dahil sa misis ko, kasi siya ang nasa perya. Wala talaga akong interes sa perya noon (I did not have a job before. It’s all because of my wife, since she’s in a perya. I was not very interested then),” he said.

He recalled one night, he saw a girl named Jesusa operating the shooting gallery in a perya during a feast in Mexico, Pampanga. He was smitten with her looks. Trying to win her attention (and heart), he demonstrated his shooting skills while at the same time trying to impress her.

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“Noong nabaril ko iyong target, syempre pa-pogi. Tapos niligawan ko siya (When I hit my target, it was to impress her, of course. Then I began to court her),” recalled the 67-year-old grandfather with a smile. In an effort to win Nanay Jesusa’s ‘Yes’, Tatay Ompong followed the girl wherever the perya operated. It seems that he went for his true aim – which was for her heart. And he succeeded.

“Noong nagpeperya ako, 18 years old lang ako noon, dumalaw kami sa Mexico. Tapos pumunta kami sa bayan nila tapos niligawan ako n’yan. Hanggang sumama na siya sa perya papuntang Tarlac (I was only 18 years old when he came to me while I was working in a perya in Mexico. He started courting me and followed me all the way to Tarlac),” 64-year-old Nanay Jesusa recalled.

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In Tarlac City, they used to live in a simple hut with two siblings. Tatay Ompong became a ‘kargador’ while Nanay Jesusa sold hotdogs at the perya. Seeking to earn additional income to sustain a family, she had to manage at least two parlor game booths.

Without prior knowledge about his wife’s work, Tatay Ompong reluctantly engaged in the business for the first time in the early 80s. He became the booker of the perya in every town or barangay till the business flourished all over the province. And that was the moment when Tatay Ompong had truly immersed himself in the perya industry.

Eventually, he learned to contact and transact with barangay chieftains and even town mayors who want to hold a perya in every barangay and municipality of Pampanga and Tarlac. For 25 years, the Pampanga’s Perya King pointed out that having a good reputation and ‘pakikisama’ are essentials of the business.

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Now, Tatay Ompong, the perya operator, is currently barangay chairman of Parian in his hometown of Mexico. His children have also learned the ropes of the business, with some even operating a perya of their own.

Killing Peryas Softly

Despite the perya being his bread-and-butter business, Tatay Ompong feels that it is besieged by so many adversaries – the emergence of amusement parks, large-scale carnival companies, game arcades run by malls, in addition to Internet shops which are taking away their audiences.

“The young ones are more interested in Internet shops. Couples would rather go to the movies. Families go to the mall or the amusement park on weekends. We are fighting for survival. Times are challenging indeed,” he lamented. “We don’t know when we will stop but I know the end is near.”

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Add to that, a corrupt system of bribe giving and taking is bleeding the perya dry. “Dati maganda ang kita. Kahit sino tanungin mo maganda ang kita noong araw. Ngayon ‘di mo masasabi na ang lahat ng kita ay sa iyo talaga (It used to bring in money well. Ask anyone how earnings were in the good ol’ days. Now you can’ tell if the money coming in is still yours).”

Gone are the days when the memories of going into a perya would be the culmination of bonding time with family and friends. Peryas of today no longer have freak shows, some of their rides could no longer compete with the state-of-the-art imported rides of other amusement parks.

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What keeps the perya alive are the people in remote rural areas with no access to the malls or those who do not have the means to pay the pricey entrance fee of newer ones. For them, the perya is a beacon of happiness in a time of celebration. A hope that amidst these challenging times, one can still enjoy life’s simple pleasures.

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For the father of perya industry in Pampanga, he still continues to monitor the opening of the new perya. After all, Christmas is not just about getting presents – it is also a time to feel the festive cheer as one mounts himself on a fiberglass replica of a horse, as it goes merrily round and round, not knowing that it will soon come to a full stop, and its lights will eventually have to go out.