Trip to Roxas, Oriental Mindoro
Summer 1999 was a very memorable summer for me. I had the chance to live with a Mangyan tribe from April 19 to May 4, 1999. The three-week exposure with the Mangyans was part of the College of Theology summer intensive course. While other theology students immersed with Baptist churches around the island, two of us joined 33 students from seminaries of member-churches of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines.
On April 19, three of us left the NCCP Ecumenical Center in Quezon City at 5:30 AM and took a bus bound to Batangas. We were assigned a three-week exposure with a Mangyan tribe in Oriental Mindoro. We were to meet a minister, the District Superintendent of the United Methodist Church in Roxas, Oriental Mindoro. The Calapan-Roxas route, a three and a half hour trip, really exhausted us even if we rode an air-conditioned van.
We arrived at Roxas at 1:00 PM and proceeded to the Methodist Church but the person who we had to meet was not there. So we decided to take our lunch. After which, we toured the town and visited NCCP member churches, the Philippine Independent Church and a church of the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches.
When we went back to the Methodist Church, the District Superintendent was already waiting for us. She informed us that a pastor would be guiding us to the area. She said that we would be sent to live with the Hanonoo Mangyans. She added that the Hanono Mangyans are used to visiting lowlanders unlike other Mangyan ethnic groups who are selective and sometimes unfriendly. She claimed that the United Methodist Church is working with the Hanonoos to help them develop their potentials. She declared that we would be sent to one of their mission areas.
Because our guide did not arrive, we spent the rest of the afternoon buying what we needed, food especially, during our stay in the Mangyan village. We proceeded to the house of the District Superintendent for an overnight stay. We found time strolling the beach of Danggay, Roxas, Mindoro that was a short walk from where we were staying. Jay, the minister’s son, guided us.
The beach has pitch-black sand and is occasionally dotted with white shells. Smooth round pebbles cobble the seafloor, increasing in size as the water goes deeper. The sea scene was very refreshing. Two motorboats bobbed while safely docked on a concrete port as waves gently approached the shore. While my two companions Wyne and Shirley waded on the sea, I sat on driftwood. While watching them and the horizons, I thought about the task ahead. Would the tribe warmly accept us? How would we go about our exposure?
Proceeding to the Mangyan village
The following morning, we went back to the Methodist Church and waited for our guide to arrive. Finally we met Pastor Wilfredo “Boy” Palomar, the one who would bring us to the area. Pastor Palomar oriented us the area and some Mangyan attitudes. He said that we must not expect that we would be greeted first because Hanonoos are generally shy. He added that it should be us who would start contact.
After completing our provisions, we left Roxas town at 5:30 in the afternoon. We boarded Pastor Palomar’s jalopy, an old Ford Fiera jeep that has to be pushed to start. We went to Mansalay, the town 13 kilometers from Roxas. Because it was already dusk, Pastor Palomar said that we stay overnight in his house in Brgy. San Antonio, Mansalay. He told us that tomorrow would be the perfect time to go to the Mangyan village.
On April 21, past 8:00 AM, we left San Antonio through Pastor Palomar’s jeep. His father-in-law went along. The road to Sitio Amaga, the village where we were headed, was along the riverbed. It is not passable during rainy seasons because heavy rains could easily swell the river, making the bend impassable. I admired Pastor Palomar’s vehicle as it negotiated up through the river bends. The vegetation along the riverbanks became thicker as we gained elevation. I saw large acacia trees and noticed that erosion had taken over and widened the riverbed area.
We were passing Mangyan folks now. One could easily recognize them by the dress they wear. Women wear the traditional saya. Men, mostly older men wear G-strings. We waved at Mangyans we met and they waved back at us. Their red-orange lips gave smiles as they respond to our greetings. For a while, I thought that Mangyans had orange or red lips. Then I found out that most of them, young and old chew “nganga” (“mama in Ilonggo). If a Mangyan happens to be chewing “nganga” and he grins, you would think that the person is a vampire. “Nganga” turns bloody red when chewed.
Finally, we reached the village at exactly 9:00 AM. The Mangyan village Sitio Amaga is located just along the riverbank. Towering around are mountains where patches of brown soil revealed the Mangyan’s kaingins. Some portions of the mountains are covered with thick forest and vegetation and seem inaccessible.
Pastor Palomar introduced us to the village officials. Ruben heads the Mangyans in Sitio Amaga. He was about my age. We explained to him that we would be staying for three weeks in their village. He welcomed us and assured us that their area is very peaceful. He toured us around the village, which I learned to be composed of 42 households.
The Visitor’s House
Well, the visitor’s house was actually a 4×5-meter hut made of buri walls and anahaw roofing. The roof ridge was destroyed and a whole buri leaf covered it so that rain would not soak the dwellers. The visitor’s house was not at all unique. Mangyans’ dwellings are uniformly made of cogon-buri-anahaw leaves composite. Their houses were a one-room affair and most of them do their cooking at the approach or entrance.
This would be our abode in the next three weeks so we repaired it in the afternoon. I befriended Jemar, a 19-year old Mangyan and requested him to help us attach extra buri leaves to our roof ridge. Then we took strips of those leaves and mended the holes in the house walls. Jemar (I later learned that his Mangyan name was Puyot) helped us skillfully. By late afternoon, our house was completely repaired and looked like an excellent shelter.
Mangyans should profit from their farm products
Mangyans are farmers. They till mountain slopes and produce banana species like tundan and saba. Other farm products include sweet potato, ube, and citrus. In our three-week stay, I discovered that Mangyans are still exploited and discriminated by lowlanders although not as extreme as decades ago.
Mangyans are at the mercy of the “viajeros” or buyers when it comes to the prices of farm products. These buyers just declare the price and the Mangyans have no choice but to sell because they do not have knowledge of prevailing market prices in Manila or in other towns of Mindoro. Mangyan products run the risk of being rotten if they were not disposed to buyers. It is very impractical to transport their products back to their homes in the mountains.
If we have to teach the Mangyans on how to maximize their profit, then we might be destroying their value of community spirit, which is to have food or something for everyone. We may be teaching them to be greedy. I suggest that we rather teach the “viajeros” or buyers to regulate their profit margins in consonance with the Mangyan’s value of sharing. Was it not that the literate and educated lowlanders should be more receptive to Christian values?
No more discrimination exists but inferiority is embedded deep within
Amâ Anghel or Mang Anghel was our adjacent neighbor. He was our guide and key informant. He facilitated our household needs such as firewood and drinking water. One day we decided to go to Mansalay town hospital and visit the sick child of Ruben, the Mangyan leader. We invited Amâ Anghel to go with us. While in town, my two companions, Shirley and Diwani were in a store trying to contact the NCCP office and Amâ Anghel and I waited outside. While waiting, we talked about the status of Mangyans before and present.
Amâ Anghel recalled how “Christians” (Amâ Anghel was referring to lowlanders) discriminated the Mangyans. He recalled that he was then six years old when owners would not allow Mangyans to enter their stores or houses. I asked why. Amâ Anghel said that the “Christians” considered the Mangyans to be dirty. Neither were they allowed to eat in carinderias. Mangyans had a specific place to converge and eat when they were in town. That was in the 60’s and he was now 45 years old.
He related that things began to change considerably in 1982 when cause-oriented groups helped them to fight for their rights. Amâ Anghel said that it was these groups that helped them regained their dignity. They realized that Mangyans should be given equal treatment because during elections they were also voters and were even exploited by politicians.
Now, Mangyans enjoy the right and privileges of any other groups. However, I observed that Amâ Anghel seemed uneasy when we invited him to have lunch with us in a restaurant at the market place. He felt so conscious that he was with us. I later learned from him that it was his first time to eat in that restaurant because even until now, Mangyans still gather in a specific eating nook in the market place.
Maybe deep inside Amâ Anghel the fear of discrimination is still present. I supposed that those generations of segregation and hostility by the lowlanders had embedded inferiority in them. This attitude made the Mangyans vulnerable to abuse and oppression by no other than the people that Mangyans call “Christians”.
The government might prove the slow development among Mangyans to be caused by their reluctance to submit to development but I believe that Mangyans should be recipients of strong and genuine transformation effort. The Mangyans have yet to reach their full potential. In my opinion, to be indigenous does not mean to remain deeply rooted in the Mangyan primitive traditions. I consider that one could still be a real Mangyan after he or she has developed the ability to cope with sociological and cultural changes.
Every afternoon, I found time to play basketball with the Mangyan boys. Basketball was the best means with which I could reach out and fellowship with them. Only with the older folks could I sit and talk about the Mangyan way of life. The Mangyan youth has no other activity other than to hang around in the morning and play basketball in the afternoon. Thus, to reach the Mangyan youth I launched a mission I coined, “basketball diplomacy.”
So basketball games every afternoon became my way of integrating with the young men. They know the PBA through listening to the radio or watching TV at the town cafes and carinderias. I learned that most of them admired Asi Taulava, a big and tall PBA player. Being the biggest among them, they fondly called me as “Taung Lava” an allusion to “Taulava”, much to my amusement.
The Mangyan boys’ height averages between 4’8” to 5’3”. It was Leo, whose Mangyan name is Kulot, who was my match at 5’8”. Later, I found out that anybody who is big among them is called “Taung Lava”.
Playing with them was quite physical. We played without any referee and depended on each one’s honesty. A player who feels he’s had enough of entangling hands and pushing bodies just call “PAWUL” (pa-wool), the Mangyan way of saying “foul”. Sometimes a very hard foul would elicit a loud “PAAAWOOOL” shout accompanied with a hard look to the offender. With the many games I played with them, nobody lost his temper or felt bad after a physical struggle.
I might be inches taller than them but their physique allows them to make quick high leaps to get the rebound. It was my strategic use of my big body that allowed me to grab a few rebounding balls.
Once, I easily got a rebound from a missed shot. Then I heard somebody shout from the other end of the court, “PASBIRIK!” Of course, it was my player’s instinct that allowed me to get the cue. I found myself using every ounce of strength in throwing the ball to the end court while trying to decipher what “pasbirik” means. Later, I learned that “pasbirik” means “fastbreak”.
My basketball diplomacy had been a difficult undertaking but I could say that I accomplished it with dignity intact. The court at Sitio Amaga is a dirt and gravel court with one goal lower than the other.
In one game, after a thick scrimmage, I was surprised to hear a Mangyan approaching from behind me saying, “Sori, Kuya! Sori, Kuya!” (I’m sorry big brother). I wondered why he was apologizing for he did not even bump nor come near me. He was two steps away from me. Then, upon reaching me, I just felt his hand wiping my back. Glancing at my back I detected some remnants of bloody red “nga-nga” (beetle nut chew) that the guy had spurted accidentally on my back.
Well, I remained as composed as possible preventing myself from going home and taking a bath. I heard a teammate say, “O, may dugo ang likod niya!” (Hey, there is blood on his back). I told them that it was nothing and the game proceeded. I just wiped whatever remained of the spit against shoving bodies in one of our offensives.
This is not all. At night, the court is turned into the sitio’s cattle park. So every morning one could find cow dung littered at many points on the court. As the ball is dribbled, one cannot avoid bouncing on the fresh sh…t mounds. After every game we all smelled of cow dung. In this condition, the most I could make was two games scored at ten points each.
As soon as the game was through, I would immediately bathe at the river. Having changed clothes and feeling refreshed, I would go back to the court and watch my former team mates still playing amidst the smell of sweat and cow shit. Mabuhay ang mga Mangyans! (Long live the Mangyans).
A glimpse of Mangyan Christianity
On April 29, Amâ Anghel towed us to his farm and guided us to Sitio Lumboy, an hour walk from Sitio Amaga. He wanted us to witness the gathering of Pentecostal Mangyans which was being held in that place.
There I saw a very unique experience in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I was very quizzical upon seeing a Mangyan deacon pass around a branch full of leaves. As the Mangyan pastor read 1 Corinthians 11:1-13 in the native dialect, each worshipper who was seated on the church floor plucked a leaf from the branch. There were two deacons who were passing the leaves around.
Then I saw the same persons distribute pieces of “Marie” biscuits. In the Mangyan language, I gleaned that the pastor instructed the members to get one and wait till each one has a biscuit for they will eat together. The pastor read a Bible passage and together they ate the biscuit.
The pastor bade everyone to be silent while he uttered a prayer. Then the two deacons went around each carrying a pitcher of water. As they passed, the members took a dip from the pitcher using the leaves that they formed into a cone. After everyone had drunk, they sang the hymn “Break Thou the Bread” in the Mangyan dialect while the deacons gathered back the leaves that they used in the Lord’s Supper.
Farewell talks and reflections
On May 4, we completed an eight-hour traverse of four Mangyan villages. I’m so thankful to Toto Melvin and Jojo of Roxas Convention Baptist Church who guided us in our trek.
We walked from Barangay Manaul, passing Bait, then Panaytayan and back to Sitio Amaga, using a trail that led us to thick forests and winding mountain gorges. These are all Mangyan villages. It was in Panaytayan that I saw large Narra trees. It was twilight when we reached Sitio Amaga. We were all tired from the hike. I was glad to finish the trip without any hitches.
I had a last conversation with Amâ Anghel. I told him that they must be sensitive about exploitation attempts by some politicians and NGOs. I suggested that any project that would be initiated in the area must be done through the community leadership.
Amâ Anghel shared that he could not spend for the college education of one of his daughters. He is presently supporting two daughters in college. One is taking up education and the other, social work. He said that government help seemed so farfetched. So he plans to let one quit school. Two college students seemed too heavy for him to sponsor.
Recalling past events, Amâ Anghel realized that Mangyans are just being used for fund raising by some NGOs and mission groups. He said that books had been written about them and sold throughout the world but they have yet to see genuine help for their group.
The Mangyan found themselves under-equipped in terms of facing the challenges of the new millennium. While the Mangyans have opened their cultural and social borders to live interdependently with the “damo-ongs” (Mangyan term for “strangers” or “lowlanders”), it is the culture of corruption and greed that is slowly engulfing these remnants of true Filipino community.