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Discovering the Babaylan in Me |

Babaylanism is a form of organic feminism. I was raised by women. Even as a child, I know that Filipinas are powerful. They have their own voices but they could do immense sacrifices for the sake of their loved ones.

The photo was taken in 1925. My grandmother Lorena was 3 years old with her grandmother Fausta Urieta

The photo was taken in 1925. My grandmother Lorena was 3 years old with her grandmother Fausta Urieta

My head throbs in pain. I’m like a piece of wood burning because of fever. Then I smell the incense smoke and the murmur of Nanay. I cannot understand her but I know I am safe and will recover….then the bubbling tawas (alum) in coconut shell formed into something.

My grandmother, Lorena (Nanay) was a healer. Her ancestors originated in Panay Island. Our ancestors fled Panay to escape the Spanish authorities because they were members of the Katipunan and the women were practicing “witchcraft”. Nanay did not specifically say “babaylan”, either she forgot the word or it was never mentioned. We are from the clan of Ureta (Urieta)-Zamora. Eventually their boat found the shore of Sablayan, Mindoro Island in the late part of 18th century.
Instead of practicing their ancient tradition in the open, the Urieta-Zamora women, specifically Julia Urieta, a spinster (the eldest sister of my great grandmother Perfecta, the mother of Nanay) sought refuge in the Church. Through this, they could practice healing, prayers, chants and even celebrating the Mass…all in the name of Jesus and Mary. Julia celebrated the Mass every Sunday because a friar visits the place once or twice a year; during Christmas and Easter Sunday.

Living with a Babaylan
Nanay is the eldest among the 8 children of Perfecta and Mahencio Mendez Cabrera, a Mexican- Indian believed to be a bastard son of a friar. Until now, his origin is obscure. He was a tall man with very sharp features and also a healer. He became the vice mayor of Sablayan during the Japanese time. Legend tells that he would ask someone to shot him every Good Friday. Of course he was unscathed. He was known as “Magik” and had a sun tattooed on his back.

Nanay was a “babaylan”. She knew all the herbs needed to cure stomachache, cough and other simple illnesses. She could do “hilot” without having any training. Most of all she could read palms and could ward off spirits (kaluluwa). She knew pidgin Latin and other chants to cure a person. Yet, she was an active leader of the Legion of Mary and a Marian devotee.
Growing up in an environment where the “maligno”, dwarfs and spirits roam in every corner, we kids were taught to say “tabi-tabi po” anywhere before we settle in. Aside from prayers to the guardian angel we have special chant and amulet wherever we go.

I had playmates from the otherworld who lived in the old chapel and always waiting for me and my brother every Saturday, the same time that Nanay had meeting with the Legion of Mary at exactly 3 pm. One time, she caught us playing in the swing with the kids we called Donald and Carol. The kids were mestizo and always dressed up. But since Nanay discovered them they never came back. And I was always sick and delirious.

These are the compendia used by my grandmother in her rituals

These are the compendia used by my grandmother in her rituals

My parents were separated when we were young. The only father figure for me was my grandfather, an intelligent and silent man who loved books and let his wife (Nanay) rule the hearth and home. My aunts are spinsters. Their only brother is a Canadian citizen. Mother was abroad to teach English somewhere in Africa.

When I got married, I named my children and I keep my own name. My sensitivity to the Nature is aroused, yet I am still afraid to fully embrace it. Back in the Philippines, I was active in women’s movement and did paralegal to help abused women and children. Nanay remained quiet even if she knew I was often in dangerous situations. She always told me that the “Birheng Maria” gave her strength.

Still, I could not fully call myself a “babaylan” because I am still weak to the call of worldly things. The babaylan in me is in the form of motherhood and compassion to others which I think is as important as the herbs and power of my Nanay.

Published Sept 6, 2016



EFL Lecturer, writer at Vongchavalitkul University
I am a Pinay poet, writer, mother and wife. I write for Inquirer. Net US Bureau. Prior to that I was a regular contributor to Global Pinoy Section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Many of my poems are published in anthologies. I have my first book of poetry, Maps of Dreams and Memories available at

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