It was a Thursday morning in Basey, Samar I was standing beside the Pan-Philippine Highway built by the World Bank in the 60’s to boost cash crop economy in the region. Along the highway the warm sunrise was so friendly as I await for a vehicle to get a free hitch to Calbayog when an old frail man with his bolo on his waist pass by and threw a smile at me.
I responded back by greeting him, “Maupay nga aga”, good morning. Despite being nice he was in doubt and a little bit curious since I don’t look familiar in the place with my old bulky mountain backpack reminiscent to fugitives or run-aways. To cast away his doubts I told him in my broken Waraywaray that I was born in Tacloban and I came here to visit.
“Ah, the place of Kankabato,” says the old man with his notable beard white as snow. “Kankabato was once part of Basey, it’s a small coastal town very rich in fish adjacent to this island,” he recalled.
According to records the name Tacloban was a method of fishing using bamboo as fish traps famous among the people of Kankabato. But now the place of Kankabato who was once a rich and pristine coastal town is polluted and empty. And it get worse everyday since I left my hometown couple of decades ago to migrate in different places around the world. However, the local government ran by pack of jackals boast that Tacloban as a Highly Urbanized City is very progressive. They measure its progress according to numerous department stores and Mcdonalds that dot around the city.
“Do your ancestors there in Kankabato still pay respect to Balahala?” he asked.
I looked at the old man straight to his eyes not quite sure what to answer, I told him instead, “The dark side is winning in annihilating our capacity to remember.” And he understood my misery. “Don’t loose hope, I know you will find your way back,” says the old man softly in his sickly husky voice as he begin to get comfortable with me.
The state of shock among the Taclobanons seems perpetual since Balahala in year 1739 was taken away by the colonizer’s coercive and exploitative notion of progress.
This Balahala according to the local historian Iluminado Lucente is a venerated image important to the coastal towns not only in the region but also to Panay, Bohol, and Mindanao. This miraculous image originated in Cebu after the Babaylan wife of Rajah Humabon appropriated Magellan’s Sto. Nino during their first contact in early 16th century:
To the natives of Cebu, and the Visayans as a whole, the image was a patron, a protector in times of drought, disease, hunger, and fire. They therefore made the Senor Sto. Nino the object of great devotion and attachment. The Sto. Nino was a “Father” to them… (Leyte Samar Studies: 1972)
For a very long time this Magico-Religious practice of perpetual negotiation with the living world through Balahala is forgotten. It was only after the fall down of Marcos dictatorship in the mid-80’s that this important memory of the Waraywaray people was installed back for the first time in the form of Pintados Festival – by celebrating Balahala and emulating the tattooed people of the past, which Pigafetta described as Pintados.
But again this habit of remembering is under threat right after the Marcos cronies came back to power. Together with their fundamental Christian allies they demonize Pintados Festival as pagan, hence, must be condemned to oblivion.
Looking out from the window on a mini truck that granted me a hitch to Calbayog where repositories of ancient past of Samar and Leyte are displayed, the wise old man who I left in Basey kept reverberating back in my head saying, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
“Remember, always remember…” continues the voice back in my head.
Jong Pairez 20 October 2013 Tacloban Leyte