Please! Allow us to express our Beauty! I hear her voice in my head still. The woman elder from a Manobo tribe spoke from her heart as she addressed a small group of teachers from California who came to hear her share the struggles of her indigenous community.
I remember being struck by her choice of the concept of Beauty. She could have asked for Justice, or Peace, or Freedom but no, it was Beauty that she claimed. I remember being rendered speechless and awestruck as I let this sink into my body. The indigenous woman knows this sacred Beauty. In a world where this Beauty has been marred and scarred by capitalist greed, she is making her voice heard: Please allow us to express our Beauty!
I’ve re-told this story to various groups of audiences since then. I tell it to honor the voice of the indigenous woman elder. I tell it to claim my own re-connection to my indigenous spirit. I tell it to re-claim the Beauty of my people. I have stepped into the river of Memory where this Beauty can be remembered through the oral and literate traditions of indigenous peoples – the myths, stories, dances, songs, chants, weavings – all of which are still alive and powerful when reclaimed by those of us who have awakened to the nightmare of modernity.
Sister Rose, a Bagobo, spoke softly and emotionally as the daughter of a Bagobo datu (Duhay Lungsod). She cried as she recalled for us how she saw her father struggle to preserve indigenous culture amidst colonial pressure to become civilized and Christianized. Now as a Catholic Nun she has come to embrace her indigeneity and now also works alongside indigenous peoples’ advocates.
So one can be indigenous and be a Christian, I thought to myself. I pondered what my own story would have been if I had learned about my own Kapampangan indigenous roots alongside my Protestant upbringing. How different it would have been! Now Karl Gaspar has written a book, Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures, where he calls on Catholic devotees to reclaim their Filipino indigenous values and spirituality in order to become good Catholics who can affect social transformation.
This gives me hope.
Children waving. Please wave back.
So we did.
We saw this sign from a jeepney on our way to Malagos. The uniformed children were walking home. They waved to us and we waved back.
I thought about the many folks in the U.S., who are baffled when they see smiling children in poor countries. How can they be so happy when they are so poor? they ask. I hear this often in my classrooms from white suburban students whose education has taught them to see the world in “us versus them.” In one of my exasperated moments, this poem came to me:
the child who appears in your photographs infomercials and youtube videos
so that you can appeal to your funders' sense of do-gooding
for the poor of the world
was she born thinking she is poor?
who impoverished her?
who stole her country?
you say that the poor barrio folks are primitive
left behind by progress
so they need you and your aid
and yet you do not say why the poor makes you feel good
why their smiles and gestures of kindness
warms your heart. makes you feel human.
why do you need the poor this way?
your tears do not fool me.
Bai Diwa Ofong
She looked just like my grandmother, my Impo - the one that, as a child, I never got to know very well because she lived in the city and we lived in the province. In Lake Sebu, I sat with Bai Diwa Ofong with two other Fulbright teachers, and Jenita, a young lumad scholar and community leader, as translator. At first, Bai cried and apologized for not speaking any other language than Tiboli, for not having anything to give us because she is poor. She said that our visit gives her hope because we are teachers, because we can reach children. She appreciated our respect and interest in the community. We cried and hugged and cried some more -- as if we have been touched by the recognition of our primordial ties to each other in this ancient land.
Can we know our grandmothers again? Can we reconnect with our ancient ancestors? During a meditation, I called on my ancestors and expressed my regrets for not knowing my genealogical lineage. How can I reclaim my indigeneity without this information? Who are my ancient people? What is our creation story? What did the Land teach us? Then they whispered: Leny, you may not know our names, but we know you. We have always been here. We have never left. Thank you for remembering and calling on us now.
I took down these notes during a lecture about education issues in Mindanao:
· BEAMprogram (Basic Education Assistance for Mindanao) funded by the Australian government to the tune of $30M.
· The focus of BEAM support is "capability building."
· Two of its notable programs are the Lumad Integrated Functional Education (LIFE) and Providing Educational Access for Cultural Enhancement (PEACE). Note that the Institute for Indigenous Peoples Education (IIPE) is also partly-funded by BEAM.
And wrote this as sidenote in my journal:
During Dr. L's lecture, we noticed two corporate logos on the BEAM project materials and we asked who these corporations are. She didn't know. Later in the afternoon, one of our participants googled the names and found out that they were mining or mining-related corporations. (The Philippine government has recently re-issued the Mining Rights Act which opens up Mindanao to mining corporations).
The Fulbrighters asked what the motives might be of mining corporations in supporting education. Is it to “tame the wild” and subdue it so that it can me made submissive to the development-oriented capitalist system? What business is it of ours to question this issue? We asked ourselves this question. Many of us are critical of corporate globalization and to see it so closely linked to its impact on indigenous communities and ecological environments in Mindanao was disturbing and so we argued with the lecturer. Were we wrong to do so? How can we deny that funding to education is needed regardless of its source? Sometimes it is easier to embrace an ideology theoretically than to grapple with the realities on the ground.
If I want to sharpen my self-reflexivity and critical thinking skills, I must struggle with these issues. I bring these scenarios in my university classroom in California. Today I hear myself telling my students: The onus of responsibility lies in us Americans who have the largest carbon footprint on the planet. Before we question the practices in modernizing countries, let us ask ourselves what our responsibility is towards the global mess we have created. Who is paying the social, cultural, political, and moral mortgage?
In my journal entry of August 2, 2006, I have written:
As I write this, I am reminded of a comment made by a Nigerian working in the diamond mines: "We have diamonds...why are we poor?"
Journal entry: Day 18, July 31, 2006, THE HEALING RITUAL
Earlier in the day, we told the group that we will meet in the evening at Ponce Suites. We didn't give any further information about the place. We told them they should plan on arriving an hour earlier. I went by myself two hours earlier so I could videotape and be alone before everyone arrived. I brought the candles that Paring Bert asked for.
Kublai at Ponce Suites created a labyrinth on the top floor made of dark and pale round stones in the form of a lizard. We arranged the chairs on the edge and lighted three candles and placed them in the middle of the circle. (The wind kept blowing them out though).
Paring Bert tried to lighten up the now-quiet mood by saying: "well, what do you think?" and then he chuckled...and then began to speak slowly: why we were gathered in this place; he reminded us of his remarks on the first day that on this journey, many things will happen that are transformative, deeply transformative.
Paraphrasing Paring Bert: Now we are here. In the last few days you have learned a lot about the Philippines but you are also learning a lot about yourselves...as individuals and as members of this group. Your emotions are raw and on the surface; you have had a lot to think about; your interactions with each other elicit strong emotions. You have expressed your thoughts to each other. Now we need to have a sense of closure or a sense of forgiveness and healing.
Perhaps there are things you want to express individually but haven't done so. Maybe you want to say "thank you" or "i'm sorry" to each other. Maybe you want to say something that you've been holding back. So if you want to do that now, pick up a candle and approach the individual you want to speak to. Stand face to face and talk to each other. After you receive the candle, you may then return the candle to the center or you can bring it to another person.
A few moments of silence.
Paring Bert stood up and brought the first candle to me to say "thank you for being here." I took the candle and brought it to Cheena and I told her how happy I am that she went from Fear to Courage and am glad to have witnessed it. Slowly, one by one, we picked up the candles and passed them on. Soon everyone was standing face to face with one other person hugging tightly, tears flowing and once in a while you would hear Paring Bert's chuckle.
I was specially touched by Miriam who said: "I already know you have four sisters, but I want to be your sister, too." "You became my sister the first day I met you," I told her.
"Thank you..." "I am sorry..." "I am afraid...." -- when all was said and the tears have turned to laughter...we knew that was the transformative moment we had talked about and anticipated (we just didn't know how and when it would happen).
We sipped chamomille tea and smiled. Ritual had found us and we are whole again.
Ritual has found its way into my life since those Fulbright days. I have become more conscious of how ritual connects us to the ancient memories held in our bodies. I am learning how to tap into the wisdom of my body after decades-long conditioning of living mostly in my head as an academic. I see more acutely that norms of patriarchy and colonial thinking are embedded in academic institutions and I cringe at the extent to which I, too, have internalized these norms. How then can my academic life transform itself into a more embodied practice that honors my indigenous soul? Can the academe be indigenized? Where are the indigenous responses to the imperial order?
As soon as I posed the questions, the answers started to trickle in. I am in good company. In fact the phone rang just moments ago and a Hawaiian elder told me that she could see that I am transitioning from being an academic scholar to a cultural practitioner and that the work that I do now through the Center for Babaylan Studies (www.babaylan.net) will evolve and shift to a more embodied, culturally-rooted practice.
The ancestors do not like being put on hold, I chuckle to myself. Ask and you will receive. Sooner than you expect.
Politics and Governance
Lecture on Politics and Governance
The Fulbright participants posed these questions to the political science professor:
How should we (Filipino Americans) address the question about the perception of the Philippine government as being fraught with corruption? How do you suggest we answer this question?
How can you say that the U.S. governmental structure is working when most Americans are not politically engaged, don't vote, don't inform themselves about crucial issues especially foreign policy issues that affect countries like the Philippines?
If colonialism has imposed a governmental form that is not "user-friendly" to the people and the culture, why do we keep insisting that the form remains?
Why do you think the Philippines continues to look to the United States for "what works" when the rest of the world is becoming aware that most U.S. economic and foreign policies are deeply flawed?
I felt that it was good for our group to wrestle with these questions even though we didn't always arrive at any complete answer (nor should it be expected). As we locate ourselves as diasporic or transnational peoples, we can at least develop a view from both sides and wonder aloud about how we should formulate our own positions. It is always good to ask the kinds of questions that push us to think in ideological terms -- a good exercise!
Speaking of ideologies, there are other Filipino American scholars who are critical of my work because they deem it as nativist and essentialist because I privilege indigenous paradigms. Perhaps in telling the above vignette, they would know that I am deeply engaged in political questions precisely because in using indigenous paradigms to critique modernity, I am able to reference a much larger discursive context beyond modernity. I wish they would read the Babaylan book where I describe lengthily how I came to use indigenous paradigms as a critique of modernity’s projects.
Day 16, July 30, 2006, Journal entry:
As Kublai described his creative process that night on the rooftop of Ponce Suites (reminiscent of Gaudi's architecture), I felt his Fire envelop the space and I slowly felt it warming my tired bones and spirit. He works "very fast" he says because it all comes out of him as energy that needs to be released. As for the giant sculptures (in churches, parks, public spaces) he is usually able to harness the community's or parish members' cooperation to help him. He works with cement so he needs to work fast before it dries, so oftentimes he works continuously without pause, high up on the scaffolding. In one near-death accident where he fell from the scaffold, he hurt his back and today still works with excruciating pain on his back.
He spoke of his then 5year-old daughter and his newborn son (10days old). When his daughter was three years old, he introduced her to paints. Kublai then ushered us into a room where 500 paintings by a three-year old daughter were proudly displayed. Aside from the "public" walls of the suites, he also showed us the "private" rooms where he works and the rest of the art that is not on the walls.
Kublai doesn't like to talk about selling art. He says it's not his job to sell art. However, he did speak of friends who have received gifts from him. His mother told us that she is supposed to do some marketing for him but so far, she hasn't gotten around to it either.
If I were a young graduate student today, I'd probably do a dissertation on this young Filipino artist -- to document his life, his work, his legacy. He is a culture-bearer but his work transcends culture. I don't know of any other artist who is simultaneously a poet, sculptor, photographer, painter (abstract, mixed media, collages) and works with varying themes: surrealistic, transcendental, indigenous, nature, people, religion, spirituality, technology, politics, resistance.
I have postcards of Kublai’s work tacked on my wall in my office. There are days when I daydream about Ponce Suites and the large installations around Davao and how awestruck I was then and now. Once someone asked me if I am an artist. I said: if Life is an Art, then I must be.
Culture-bearing Filipino artists are my teachers and inspirations. In Kapwa: The Self in the Other, Katrin de Guia’s stories about Kidlat Tahimik, Angel Shaw, Aureaus Solito and others point to the powerful creative Fire in the indigenous and indiogenius alike. The sariling duwende that manifests in their art continue to inspire my own attempts to live an artful and gracious life that is not blind to injustice.
I have Retchor’s pen and ink drawing on my kitchen wall where I see it everyday. Retchor is one of the many Lumad scholars that Paring Bert supported throughout their college careers. Retchor was studying to be an architect. I wonder where he is now. Does he know that when I see his drawing, my heart lies still and calm? Does he know that I think of him often? His drawing reminds me of each of the scholars who became our friends during our stay. Who could forget that night when we went to their dormitory and we were fed so lavishly with food and stories about their aspirations.
This was the key moment when the Fulbright teachers realized the parallels between the Lumad scholars and the Filipina child in a California classroom. The Lumad scholars shared with us their feelings of vulnerability as minorities in a largely affluent, middle class, Christianized school. We heard the sighs of homesickness, of being away from family for too long because they do not have the money to visit often. We heard the resolve to become teachers, anthropologists, and architects because they want to serve their communities. I also saw the strength of their indigenous soul – were it not for the core conviction that to be a Lumad is to be whole – perhaps, survival in the university would be much more difficult.
In the U.S., we hear the same refrain from the immigrant child in the classroom: homesickness, loneliness, and alienation from the mainstream. In schools where there are Filipino American teachers who can offer nurturance, the children thrive; where there aren’t any, the students become silent and they bury the precious parts of themselves so that they could assimilate and function in a world that requires conformity. Suicide, depression, teenage pregnancy, drop-out rates are high among Filipino students in urban areas. I sense that, unlike the Lumad whose memory of being indigenous is intact, our children in the diaspora are further removed from that core strength making their journey that much more demanding; and in a culture where we are constantly barraged by weapons of mass distraction, the Indigenous Soul keeps waiting for a return that may or may not happen.
Death and Grief
Kalpna, a young, passionate, excellent, and beautiful high school teacher at Berkeley High School left her body in Davao. I remember Paring Bert wrapping his arm around my body-in-shock saying: Do not interpret too much, Leny. I tried not to but was only partially able to do so. As I look back on those days now, I am only filled with gratitude for the community that embraced us. Tantan Cena and Katribu took us to the ocean so we could make offerings and do leave-taking ritual for Kalpna’s transition. The university president and Karl Gaspar and so many friends and even strangers came by to comfort and be with us in our grief. This generosity of spirit, of pakikipagkapwa, is the mark of the Filipino. Our strained capacity, due to the isolating culture we come from, to receive such largesse of spirit, was humbling.
Kalpna’s last words to me were: Leny, thank you for opening so many doors for me. I knew she was referring to the Beauty of the Filipino, the Beauty of the Land, the Beauty of the Soul as embodied by the Lumads and non-Lumad friends who embraced us.
It took me more than a year to befriend Death and get to know it intimately. In that time, I learned to develop a relationship with death and dying not from a place of fear but from the core of an unfolding heart that contained all the social conditioning about death that I have had to unlearn. This unlearning took me to the shadowy parts of myself that I had to gaze upon. Oh my heart, what is it that you are afraid of? And as I named all the things on my list, I gathered them all in the shade of my Lola’s tree and offered them to her for healing.
My sojourn in Mindanao through the Fulbright Hays project has given me precious gifts. Our Filipino American teachers learned to sing the national anthem; they learned how to dance; they listened to lectures that filled their minds and hearts; they cried, struggled, and wrestled with questions that had no quick answers. All of our hearts were broken…open.
You could see it in this picture, don’t you? Can I let the ineffable speak for itself here?
Dear reader, out of the hundreds of stories I could have told you about my Fulbright stories in Mindanao, I chose these few morsels to offer a glimpse of why and how my love for Mindanao remains. Having been to Mindanao, I can now return to my Kapampangan homeland and seek its face again and find what it was that I missed on my first go-around and this time, hoping to come full circle.
For isn’t this what all journeys are about? Of finding Home -- not as a beautiful and profound abstract concept but as a beloved Place that gave birth to my ancestors. It is the ancestors that connect the seen and unseen worlds for me. Home is the place where my personal history merges with a cultural and political history that has wrought damage and pain in the course of modernity and yet, knowing now that the Indigenous Soul keeps on singing its courtship song has kept me and my people alive.
I also offer this as a bridge over the oceans that separate us. I often stand on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in Northern California and stare into the horizon. My islands just lie over there, I say to myself.
Once, someone asked me: Leny, if you love the Philippines so much, why aren’t you here? I said: I am an accident of History; I had to leave so I could come Home.
I have always been in search of a language that heals and although am not a poet, I find the poetic more powerful than the virtuosity of the academic pen. So I write from my heart now, confident that the mind has succumbed to the allure of the open heart. Allure. Alindog.
In Kapwa, there is no Other.
Here is my closing gift to you, written on the closing days of the Fulbright trip:
First: We honor each other just by listening...first to our own heart as it beats to the tune of the unfamiliar words of the Other...words that pierce a corner of our heart where nothing may have yet broken it open. When the heart breaks open, it is painful at first, like the pain of childbirth when something is being born within you...it enlarges the heart's capacity for compassion and empathy. Second: I will not always like what I hear but I can hear it, hold it in my heart with tenderness and charity. I can have a conversation with the inner self - the one who is baffled, confused perhaps, a tad frustrated and disappointed, even lonely. Third: I will ask for a soft touch, a kind glance, an open palm, a song, a gesture. A minor clue that you are still with me and I with you.
See Introduction to Babaylan: Filipinos and the Call of the Indigenous
, published by the Center for Babaylan Studies, 2013