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 were 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 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 to live with the Hanonoo Mangyans. She added that the Hanonoo 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 said they would send us to one of their mission areas.
Because our guide did not arrive, we spent the rest of the afternoon buying what we needed, 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, a short walk from where we were staying. Jay, the minister’s son, guided us.
The beach has pitch-black sand, 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, who would bring us to the area.
Pastor Palomar oriented us to the area and some Mangyan attitudes. He said that we must not expect that they would greet us 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 must 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 quickly 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 the Mangyans we met, and they waved back at us. Their red-orange lips gave smiles as they responded 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 precisely 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 hills 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 was 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 a 4×5-meter hut made of buri walls and anahaw roofing. The roof ridge was destroyed. Only a whole buri leaf covers it to protect the dwellers from the rain.
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.
In the next three weeks, this visitors’ hut would be our abode, 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, we repaired our “house” and it 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 against by lowlanders, although not as extreme as decades ago.
Mangyans are at the mercy of the “viajeros” or traveling merchant-buyers when it comes to the prices of farm products. These buyers declare the price, and the Mangyans have no choice but to sell because they do not know the prevailing market prices in Manila or other Mindoro towns.
Mangyan products run the risk of being rotten if they are not disposed to the buyers. It is very impractical to transport their products back to their homes in the mountains.
If we have to teach the Mangyans 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 teach the “viajeros” or buyers to regulate their profit margins following 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 at present.
Amâ Anghel recalled how “Christians” (Amâ Anghel was referring to lowlanders) discriminated against the Mangyans. He recalled that he was 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 ’60s, and he was 45 years old when we talked.
He related that things began to change considerably in 1982 when cause-oriented groups helped them fight for their rights. Amâ Anghel said that it was these groups that helped them regained their dignity. They advocated that Mangyans should be given equal treatment because they were also voters during elections, and politicians exploited them.
Now, Mangyans enjoy the right and privileges like any other group. However, I observed that Amâ Anghel seemed uneasy when we invited him to have lunch with us in a restaurant at the marketplace. He felt so conscious that he was with us.
I later learned from him that it was his first time eating in that restaurant because even now, Mangyans still gather in a specific eating nook in the marketplace.
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 Mangyans call “Christians.”
The government might see the slow development among Mangyans caused by their reluctance to submit to development. But I believe that Mangyans should be recipients of genuine and robust transformation efforts. 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 they have 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 by 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 called “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 “Taung Lava,” an allusion to “Taulava,” much to my amusement.
The Mangyan boys’ height averages between 4’8″ to 5’3″. Leo, whose Mangyan name is Kulot, was my match at 5’8″. Later, I found out that anybody prominent among them is called “Taung Lava.”
Playing with them was pretty 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 calls “PAWUL” (pa-wool), the Mangyan way of saying “foul.”
Sometimes a very hard foul would elicit a loud “PAAAWOOOL” accompanied with a stern look to the offender. With the many games I played, nobody lost his temper or felt terrible after a physical struggle.
I might be 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 quickly 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 complex 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 short 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.
Not only this. At night, the village turned the court into the village’s cattle park. So every morning, one could find cow dung littered at many points on the court.
As we dribble the ball, we cannot avoid bouncing on the fresh or dry cow dung. So after a few games, we’re smelling like cows. 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 teammates still playing amidst the smell of sweat and cow shit. Mabuhay ang mga Mangyan! (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 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.
While the Mangyan pastor read 1 Corinthians 11:1-13 in the native dialect, each worshipper seated on the church floor plucked a leaf from the branch. Two deacons 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 until each one had a biscuit to 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 formed into a cone.
After everyone drank, they sang the hymn “Break Thou the Bread” in the Mangyan dialect while the deacons gathered back the leaves 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 the 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 initiated in the area must be done through their community leaders, who must serve their best interest.
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. On a trip to his farm up in the mountains, Amâ Anghel showed us the large Narra trees he wanted to sell to support his students.
He finds it very hard to support his two university students but he looks forward to seeing them finish a degree.
Recalling past events, Amâ Anghel realized that Mangyans are just being used for fundraising 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 Mangyans see 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 an authentic and indigenous Filipino community.