We Who Seek to Settle: Problematizing the Mindanao Settler Identity

(Published in ten installments in Davao Today, by far my most ambitious work of nonfiction yet)


The Mindanao Settler: few collective identities are as complicated and yet as poorly introspected upon and discussed. Marginalized in the National narrative while paradoxically also guilty of sociocultural oppression in the land of our birth, the Settler’s condition is at once archetypal of the problematique of the Filipino identity and uniquely positioned in the turbulent discourse of Mindanao.


The Narrative of Encroachment: The Mindanao Settler in the Tri-People Arrangement

The very nomenclature of the Mindanao Settler foregrounds underlying tensions. We are defined, in the context of Mindanao’s tri-people paradigm, by otherhood: those from Mindanao who are not Lumad (of the twenty or so indigenous peoples) or Moro (of the thirteen Islamized ethnolinguistic groups). The term ‘Settler’ itself implies foreign arrival – we who have come to settle.

Ideologically, it also connotes peace and order – we who are settled – implying unrest and lawlessness with the alternative Lumad and Moro. For not only are Settlers foreigners in Mindanao, we and our settlements have also always been the agents of encroachment by the colonial Manila State. When Mindanao is called the Land of Promise, the promise is peace and progress and it is made by the State. And the State displays Settlers to reinforce this narrative.

This otherness and agency for dominion goes at the very heart of our identity as Settlers.

A cruder label for the Settler is ‘Christian,’ framing the tri-people paradigm against a religious backdrop. While attempting at positive identity, the term nevertheless proves inaccurate: with the term ‘Christian’ invariably implying ‘Catholic,’ it fails to reveal the complex dynamics of the Spanish-introduced Catholic orthodox with the American-encouraged introduction of the different Protestant faiths. And, particularly in urban Mindanao, there is a growing population of non-Christian Settlers (I, an atheist, included). But the term nevertheless serves to highlight the socio-political role religion has played in defining the Settler identity. The Settler is distinct from the Moro (who, historically speaking, are also Settlers in the word’s purely literal sense) because the settlement that defines us is Bajo de la campana – under the bells of the Christian State.

The Settlers’ presence, it can be argued, serves as the binary other which defines Moro and Lumad identity: with the encroachment of these Christian invaders, not only are Ancestral Domain and the Bangsamoro given a compelling motivation to be asserted, they are foregrounded into positive existence.

The resulting narratives of Tribal and Moro self-determination are all in conflict with the narrative of the Filipino Nation, which has roots in the haphazard colonial bundling of the archipelago’s independent cultures by the Spanish. And in the Mindanao stage, the role of the encroaching Filipino Nation is played by the Settlers.


(Read the whole essay in installments along with my other articles on Davao Today, or in full with references on  Academia!)


Issue 1 Introduction

This project really began over rum with Jude Ortega, and I am delighted that my wild dream of a venue for Region 12 actually materialized!

In better circumstances I will definitely return to help run this journal.

Cotabato Literary Journal

The maiden issue of this online literary journal will be live on September 2, 2016. On the same date, the people behind this journal, along with other local writers, are going to conduct a poetry reading in Koronadal City, South Cotabato Province. There is nothing special about the date. It just happens to fall on a Friday and a couple of days after a payday—a good day to entice students of legal age, young professionals, and everyone close to that demographic to while away the evening in a bar, where the poetry reading will be.

The poetry reading in Koronadal is already the second of its kind. We have conducted the first one last month, on July 29, in General Santos City. As with September 2, there was nothing special with July 29 save for its being a Friday. But it served its purpose. The event was well received. The…

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Notes on July in Myanmar


Taunggyi, as seen from Ayethayar


  • My first experience of Taunggyi is vertigo. The capital of Myanmar’s Shan State literally sits on top of the mountain, so I was dizzy during my first few days in Saint Aloysius Gonzaga Institute of Higher Studies. The altitude perhaps, the thinness of the air, or the coldness (over ten degrees less than what I’m used to).


  • But perhaps it was also the sheer reality of the volunteer experience dawning on me. I always knew that I was not travelling to Myanmar to go on a vacation, but knowing is always different from understanding, from realizing.


  • En route to Myanmar we had stopped by Bangkok, where for three days we went to see gloriously gilded buildings in between good food and sleep in a slightly high-end hotel – luxury proved to be very bad prelude to volunteer work. While also comfortable and far from bad, our rooms in SAG could not help but look humble compared to Astera Sathorn. It was the vertigo of fall, really, expectations finally meeting – and hitting – reality.


  • But I had no intention of becoming a tragic character. I was here to be a volunteer, and I had to tell myself failure and disappointment will be the most familiar things in this wonderfully foreign land.

CkFMMw-UoAAjUCM.jpg large

  • Part of the way I coped with the disappointment was by telling myself Ateneo de Davao sent me here, all expenses paid, not only as a volunteer but as part of the pioneering deployment of the Cardoner Volunteer Program. This program was designed for the school’s alumni and faculty, so while its explicit aim is to contribute to the formation of its graduates and teachers, it also inevitably showcases the best Ateneo has to offer.



The kids and teachers during the welcoming ceremony

  • On our welcoming ceremony, I was the first of the volunteers to enter the media room, where all the Integrated Program students were waiting. The students gave a frenzied cheer. I thought it was such a warm welcome, until teacher Yiyi San, the school’s academic administrator, told me I resembled the vocalist of a famous Burmese rock band.



The second years, trying to make metaphors in the Media Room

  • Teaching is such a fulfilling thing. The look in students’ eyes when they look at an incomprehensible poem, then you help them understand it – you can see that sight regardless of your student’s nationality.


  • I had a horrible five year teaching career in the Philippines, and doing it here in Taunggyi only made it clearer that it’s not the teaching itself that was dreadful, but the putting up with fellow teachers. Fellow teachers in SAG have been lovely so far.


  • Burmese food has a wild and very diverse spectrum of tastes, with many ingredients I haven’t even heard of. Eating has been all about discoveries for the first few months.


  • Best Burmese food so far: Tohpu Nway (sticky Shan rice noodles in a thick pudding of chickpea flour, seasoned with sesame seeds and sweet syrup), Ohn no Khao Swe (noodles in thick coconut curry soup, garnished with bean fritters), and Mon Pya Lu (rice cake with jaggery, coated in toasted rice flour, somewhere between Filipino espasol and Turkish delight). The secret to growing to love a place is to seek the familiar, but also the endemic.



There’s a restaurant here named ‘No Name.’

  • The Burmese have a very potent – but underrated – sense of humour. The language barrier is not soundproof of laughter, even kids who struggle with English throw jokes at you.


  • The soil in Shan state is just so eye-catchingly red. Rich in minerals (Myanmar is one of the world’s most mineral-rich countries), fertile for agriculture, but also a faint reminder of how much bloodshed this country has only until recently seen.



And strawberries grow in SAG!

  • It became immediately clear to me that I had come to Myanmar at a very exciting and turbulent time – the very young and still quite delicate democracy has nevertheless already had profound, perhaps permanent, effects on society. The kids are very tech-savy and are always online, and they’re already grumbling about authoritarian relics of the past, even if this past was only just six years ago.


  • That irritation is justified though: Burma is booming, but it would have the momentum to rival developed countries if the remaining problems of military times were to be addressed. The kids complain, for example, that Taunggyi’s libraries could be better.


  • I cannot help but envy the Philippines I left behind – I also left my country at a very interesting time. One of my dreams, that a Mindanawon be elected President, finally happened, and it’s Rodrigo Duterte of all people! Federalism, the death penalty, streamlining of government processes – things I’ve only dreamed would happen are fast becoming realities. To hit home to what I missed, passport expirations will soon be for 10 years, just after I had mine renewed for five.


  • Taunggyi has a unique superstition: people are not advised to travel up and down the city in groups of nine. If they do, accidents might happen to them. This is attributed to the guardian spirits (Nats) of the city, who have a monopoly of the number nine. If a group must travel with nine people, the group must bring a rock, which will count as a tenth person. As a visitor, I ought to follow the laws of this land, even those of its unspeakable forces



A banyan, just a walk from SAG, with Nat spirit altars


A forest of Pagodas in Shwe Inn Thein, some dating back thousands of years


I bought a shawl of lotus silk – ridiculously expensive, but Inle is the only place in the world that makes silk out of lotus

  • Myanmar has so much unshared wonders: a temple with mysterious black fish in its lake that emerge from nowhere, a whole tribe – the Pa’O – which claims descent from a dragon, cloth woven from thread made of lotus sap in Inle, Every village in Inle not only floating in the middle of the lake but also having their own specialized craft, a forest of pagodas in Shwe Inn Thein dating back to the Ashoka Empire, households with Buddha statues that have been in the family for over two centuries, a vibrant array of intricate hand woven fabrics, each tribe with a different pattern, worn as longyi.



The kids translated Gratian Tidor’s ‘Brownout’ (which I translated to English) into their languages. This one in by Nang Khan Hom into Pa’O

  • Bamar, Kachin, Shan, Pa’O, In, Kayan, Kayin, Chin, Akhar, not to mention Chinese and Indian – I have never seen so many ethnicities in one classroom. And they’re all understanding – fascinated even – with each other’s culture. For all Myanmar’s decades of ethnic strife, the young people let one hope for a more harmonious future.


  • Like Davao, Taunggyi is very multilingual. And as the only person who has ever specialized in Davao Filipino (yang nagahalo-halo gud ang Tagalog at Bisaya), I’m trying to plant the seeds of language contact appreciation here. So far the kids are amused. All according to plan. And Buwan ng Wika is coming in the Philippines!


  • I am disoriented by how the Jesuits in Taunggyi live. Father Paul the school’s director washes the dishes and does his own laundry. Father Titus plays soccer with the Jesuit candidates and irons his own clothes. Forget Padre Damaso’s Ecclesiastic Dignity outraged over getting the chicken’s neck, the priests here would even let you eat ahead of you.


  • But then again, Father Joel Tabora was also like that before we left Davao, so maybe it’s a Jesuit thing.



The Shan Monastery just a walk away from SAG

  • Jesuit institutions are wonderfully fascinated with other faiths. While Ateneo de Davao is the only Catholic school in the world with an Islamic Studies Center, the school motto of SAG is ‘Śīla, Samādhi, Paññā,’ ‘Virtue, Mindfulness, and Wisdom,’ the three categories of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.


  • The kids here have had to put up with very difficult education conditions. They are not used to asking questions (much less questioning their teachers), and learning is all about memorizing. Application is a strange and sometimes scary experience for them. But they’re enjoying it.


  • They’re hungry for extracurriculars! Ever since the 8888 Uprising student activity has been all but banned in Myanmar, so now that the most famous player of the Uprising is running the country, the kids are doing everything they couldn’t a few years back. The universities are slow to pick up on this, but SAG is actively allowing them to do it. This means the kids are learning to love SAG more than the universities they go to.


  • But they’re even hungrier for learning, palpably more than Filipinos. I give comments to essays in front of the whole class, and where Filipino students would be too shy or scared to be discussed, the students here jostle to be the one who gets to be critiqued next. They’re hungry even for criticism.


  • All the things I was good at but time in the Philippines made me feel were useless are now proving to be helpful, even appreciated here: literature, parliamentary procedure, constitution drafting – and to think just a year ago a program head in PWC dismissed ‘creative writing’ as just about writing business letters.


  • Sleep during my first month in Taunggyi has been marked by nightmares. A year’s worth of nightmares in just a month. Nothing supernatural, but dreams of rejections: Father Paul saying I’m useless; teacher Yiyi saying I’m useless, the old hags in PWC coming to Taunggyi to declare how useless I am, my Ateneo and Silliman professors telling Father Paul I’m useless. I have never been more appreciated than I have been here, and my subconscious cannot help but forewarn me about how inevitable rejection and being taken for granted can seem like. One goal I ought to set while I am here is to get used to being valued.



Daing na bangus – one of the first dishes I have ever cooked (but that’s for another post!


I was so surprised to find burong mustasa in Myanmar! Apparently it’s a Pa’O specialty

  • It is very easy to miss home, and one of the things one misses most is the food. Thank goodness I had been compiling my family recipes – to entertain the people here we cook Filipino dishes, and I have many old recipes to dabble with.


  • Another advantage of being sent out on a mission far from home: you get the freedom to try things your family would not let you, like cooking.



The two plants, replanted just after I miraculously recovered them

  • I smuggled three of my plants from the Philippines. They have struggled for the first month but are now beginning to thrive. Two of them, which look like weeds, the kids unwittingly uprooted when they were helping clean the lawns. I had to dig through heaps of uprooted weeds and rotten leaves, and against all odds I found them. Now they’ve just produced seedlings. The only sure way of losing something, I realized, is if you don’t try your hardest to recover it.


  • Having a long distance relationship is difficult, especially if it is for an extended period of time. The constant fear of her cheating is there, but what’s really scary is if both of you grow to learn to live lives without each other.


  • But I am not going to live a life here. SAG and Taunggyi feel very comfortable and welcoming, and it’s not difficult to feel at home. But early on I realized that I am here as a visitor, and this land may know the language of my footsteps (in the first month not yet even that!), but it shall never know the intimacy of my roots. I am here to contribute to the growth of the place and the people here, but my contribution is all the living I will be doing. I will never – and ought to never – be more than that.


  • Which is to say, there’s no reason for the pretty Ilongga I left in the Philippines to be worried



A shrine in the middle of Inle Lake – the lake was a great place in which to meditate

  • On the motorboat crossing Inle Lake I wonder why I am here in Myanmar. My hometown of Kidapawan, where for almost a hundred years my family has lived, is probably as much in need as this SAG (perhaps more), and yet I am here in a faraway land, where even the way the fishermen row their boats is foreign. And I thought of how my projects for Kidapawan – an anthology of essays, a history book, literary projects – are all stalled because the people in Kidapawan are not cooperating. I have tried to help my hometown, but it’s refusing to help itself. I go where I am needed, but also where I am wanted.


  • And then I remembered when I first went back to Kidapawan after five years of being away – the sheer devastation I felt when I realized the place I called home really was no longer home, the unutterable sadness at seeing all the familiar things now become strange and foreign, refusing to be familiar again exactly because they had been once familiar. That had been an unresolved issue, a fundamental question to which I could not find an answer: where do I belong now?


  • But at that moment, in the middle of Inle Lake surrounded by the Shan Hills, thousands of miles from Lake Venado and Mt Apo, I understood.


  • ‘The changes do not change the portrait of the past that never leaves,’ writes the Kidapawan poet Rita Gadi, ‘any more than how the map remains the sanctuary within my soul, indelibly charting every journey I have made, beyond, and back.’ I am not in Kidapawan, and perhaps I shall never be back in Kidapawan again, but right now, this boat is Kidapawan, and every bit of ground I will stand on is Kidapawan, because that is what it means to have a town in your blood and bones – that wherever you are, you will continue living its life. I never left Kidapawan, because I am


  • All these thoughts came with the noise of the motorboat’s gas engine. Matsuo Basho was right – noise is silence, and (when the gas engine stopped for a bit) silence can be as palpable as noise.



I borrowed some Burmese fiction books from teacher Yiyi: Ma Thanegi’s collection of Burmese short stories translated to English, and Maung Htin Aung’s compendium of Burmese folk tales

  • I clearly need to find more Burmese writers to quote. I’ve read seven so far but all of them are fictionists. I need to read more Burmese poetry.



My little corner in Taunggyi

  • It would be no exaggeration to say that my room has become Philippine territory. When I am inside it to sleep, work, or write, I often forget I’m in another country. It is full of things I brought from Davao, and it’s as if I unpacked home from my bags when I opened my large bag with the Duterte sticker. Some of the plants I brought even come from Kidapawan. But for the sometimes freezing cold unheard of in the Philippines (a welcome strangeness!) the room is my sanctuary of familiarity.



  • Outside the room’s door, I have a foot mat spelling out the word ‘Welcome.’ It faces the room exit-wise rather than entry-wise – a constant reminder that I am the one being welcomed into a foreign country every time I step out of my little pocket of home.


  • And it is a constant reminder that every time I step out, there could be a new insight waiting for me, if only I’m willing enough to brave the new, unfamiliar world outside.


An Hour and a Half Apart

My girlfriend writes about me

36 Stratagems to win a Philippine Election


1. Tell your dramatic rags-to-riches story again and again to the point of sum-od. Embellish a bit if you need to. Get a Maalaala Mo Kaya episode if you can.

2. If running for National office, get the support of local kingpins. They can help deliver votes.

3. Tell people you will win. Filipinos will not vote for you if they know you will lose (sayang ang boto). Choose the political party with the most number of winnable candidates. If running for local office, get the endorsement of the winnable national candidates. Their ‘magic’ will rub on you (heads up: no point looking for policy bedmates, political parties don’t have ideologies).

4. Attack the administration if you can. Even if you were part of the administration, it can help, people won’t notice.

5. Be pro-poor. Use ‘mahirap’ as many times in speeches as you can.

6. Say you hate corruption. Nobody loves corruption of course, but just say it. A lot.

7. Have dark skin. Too pale and you’d be an elitista. And it means you’ve been campaigning under the sun and are therefore hardworking (share pictures of tan-lines on social media!).

8. Be updated with what’s trendy, from KathNiel to Katniss Everdeen, and all the Gloc-9 in between. Makiuso pa more! #AngInAyPasok

9. Be young, people will vote for you just because you’re young. Unless your name is Juan Ponce Enrile.

10. Jingles and dance steps, while rarely decisive, can help by swaying the whimsically undecided. Broadcast your jingle in neighborhoods on vehicles with loudspeakers like it was the holy gospel.

11. Give away stuff with your name and/or face, from face towels to pasadors.

12. Give away stuff in general. But note the occasion: do not give relief goods during fiestas, and do not donate lechon during a wake.

13. Play around with your name: Jormax Repollo will be ‘Jors truly, to the Max!’ ‘Repollo, Itanim sa Senado!’

14. Make your face and name ubiquitous. Posters and campaign adds everywhere! Nailed on the trunks of Critically Endangered trees, written in paint on the boulders along the Davao-Cotabato road. Pay homeless people to walk around wearing shirts with your name and picture.

15. If you are the main administration bet, scaremonger: stability vs. uncertainty?

16. If inexperienced, say ‘wala akong karanasan sa katiwalian.’

17. If running for National Office, learn the languages in the regions.

18. Love God, publicly and loudly. Bring a Bible around (except when you’re in Muslim territory or campaigning among the LGBT).

19. Suck up to the religions. Don’t mind the Catholics too much, they never follow their religion anyway, but the Protestants almost always block-vote.

20. Get celebrity endorsers. Bring him/her/them around during campaigns as often as possible. Be ninong/ninang to their weddings if you can.

21. Get married during election season, though try to do it a bit later into the campaign.

22. If running for Vice (president, governor, mayor), tandem with a winnable but old and/or sickly standard-bearer. Invest in your future.

23. Before the filing of candidacy, be guest speaker or judge in as many graduations, conferences, conventions, weddings, and Miss Gay pageants as you can.

24. In public speeches, when talking in front of the unwashed masses quote Jose Rizal, Ninoy Aquino, Cory Aquino, or any currently popular teen loveteam. When talking to the bourgeoisie, quote Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, or Steve Jobs.

25. If just running for class officer in school, ‘do not promise anything but promise to do your very best.’

26. If not winnable personally, run for partylist!

27. If running for partylist, start your partylist name with zero or the letter ‘A’ to be at the top of the list. Also consider using X, Y, or Z to be at the prominent bottom.

28. Pay. And pay more. A single peso advantage over your opponents can sway votes.

29. Also possible to barter votes for rice, canned goods, or cell phone load.

30. Accuse your opponent of vote buying. Staple their names and the positions they are running for one bundles of 20 or 50 peso bills (the lower the bill, the angrier you make people).

31. For the baluarte of your opponents, the carrot and the stick: pay them not to turn up, and threaten them subtly (‘you cannot assure their safety’) if they vote.

32. Use all your prenominals, postnominals, and courtesy titles in your campaign materials, The Hon. Prof. Gen. Atty. Jormax Repollo MD, PhD, DPA, MBA,CPA,RN

33. If from a prominent family, display your family name to the point of indecency. Use ‘ipagpatuloy ang nasimulan’ as mantra.

34. Assassinate a relative during the election season. Try to blame it on your opponent.

35. Instigate violence during your own Candidacy Filing, kill a few journalists covering for dramatic effect. Blame it on your opponent. Do not do the same to your opponent’s Filing.

36. If all else fails, complain that you have been cheated. If you die before COMELEC makes a ruling, your widow/children can run ‘para ipagpatuloy ang nasimulan’!

‘Bago Aplaya’ by Macario Tiu: A Translation and Analysis

Bago Aplaya
by Macario Tiu

Hinay ang tapya sa balod
Ug nagsugod na ang taob.

Namasbas ang pari sa bangkang de motor,
Ug lakip tang nawiskan sa bendita.
Uban sa mga gagmayng mananagat nga nanag-alirong.

Nalipay ako sa ilang kalipay
Nga nakaangkog himan sa panagat:
mao kana ang atong gisaulog.

Apan hinay ang tapya sa balod
Ug nagsugod na ang taob.

Ug sama sa karaang magbabalak,
Akong nabati ang walay kataposang kasubo
Nga dala sa balod.

Apan dili tungod sa pangagho sa katawhan
kondili sa akong kaugalingong kahimtang.
Ugma, mobiya ka na sa hangtod
Samtang hinay ang tapya sa balod
Ug magsugod na ang taob


Bago Aplaya

Gentle is the dashing of the waves
and the tide is rising.

The priest blesses the motor powered boat;
and we are sprinkled by holy water
along with the humble fishermen gathered.

I am happy for their happiness, gaining
a new tool for their fishing:
This is what we celebrate. But

Gentle is the dashing of the waves,
and the tide is rising.

And, like some old poet
I feel the ceaseless sadness
washed ashore by the waves.

But not because I hear
the endless sighing of mankind,
but because of my own sad predicament.
Tomorrow, you will leave me forever
While gentle is the dashing of the waves
and the tide is rising.

Macario Tiu’s poem ‘Bago Aplaya’ is by now a local classic in Davao literature, often being thought in college literature subjects in local universities. It is usually one of the first poems to be taught to students (and in the Ateneo de Davao’s case the first work of literature discussed in class). This at once serves to ground students’ literary appreciation to the local (as opposed to the more distant National) and gives them an easily relateable but nevertheless substantial piece with which to start their appreciation of literature in general.

The title establishes its narrative setting, the Bago Aplaya area south of Davao city. This is a seaside area, less urbanized than central and northern Davao and home to small time fishermen who make a living out of the Davao gulf.

The poem begins with what may be called the poem’s refrain, ‘hinay ang tapya sa balod, ug nagsugod na ang taob,’ two lines describing the movement of the waves and tide, further establishing the poem’s seaside setting. These two lines are repeated throughout the poem, stylistically mimicking the repetition of waves and the coming and going of tides.

The second stanza establishes the narrative situation: a motor powered boat is being given a Catholic blessing by a priest, and the fishermen are gathered to celebrate the ceremony. This stanza indicates to the reader that this is a narrative poem: it tells a story. Macario Tiu has always been more of a storyteller than a poet.

The first person pronoun is also used in this stanza, showing that the persona is a character in the story Furthermore, the original ”ta’ (shortened ‘kita’), the inclusive plural in the original Cebuano, also establishes the presence of an addressee, who is also a character in the story.

In the next stanza the persona expresses his sympathy for the fishermen’s happiness with their new boat (the boat may be communally owned, or at least the neighbors may borrow the boat from the owners).

But the first repetition of the refrain is introduced as a contrast to the preceding stanza’s emotion, hinting at the sad character of both the image of waves and tides, and of the poem as a whole. This sudden change of mood from celebration to sadness is a simple, if somewhat underwhelming, example of a volta, the sudden change in the poem’s dramatic tone.

The poem then states this sadness explicitly and sustains the change in mood in the fifth stanza, where the persona expresses feeling not just misery, but endless misery. This misery the persona describes as being ‘brought by the waves.’

What could this misery be? This part is best appreciated if one considers the sound of the waves, which resemble sighing. Sighing of course is associated with negative feelings such as regret and sadness. And so like the ceaseless sighing of waves, so too will mankind sigh and suffer ceaselessly.

This is an old image in poetry, going all the way back to the Ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles. In his Antigone, the chorus at one point recites the following line:

Where once the anger of heaven has struck, that house is shaken
For ever: damnation rises behind each child
Like a wave cresting out of the black northeast,
When the long darkness under sea roars up
And bursts drumming death upon windwhipped sand.

(translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald)

The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold would later allude to this in his most famous poem, ‘Dover Beach,’ when he writes:

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery…
…now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind

But not before the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker comes up, in his comedy The Honest Whore, with the line ‘like waves, my misery drives on misery.’ The Romantic French novelist Alexandre Dumas, through his character Athos, also says in Vicomte de Bragelonne, ‘We shine like those fires and stars, we sigh like those waves.’

With the simple phrase ‘old poet,’ the poem thus alludes to a long and established idea, lending to the poem an intellectual and discursive tone: it at once brings the insight of human misery’s endlessness to the poem’s local context and elevates the Davao scene to the level of classical contemplation. What could have led to this realization other than the sighing of the waves? Perhaps, we can speculate, the persona sees the suffering of poverty in the poor, small time fishermen present.

On a side note, the poem’s setting could not reflect this insight any better. Bago Aplaya is named after the Davao historical character Datu Bago, the precolonial leader who struggled against, and who was ultimately defeated by Spanish forces led by Jose Cruz Oyangguren. His defeat, along with the fishermen’s poverty in the place named after him, could only make human suffering palpable. Tiu, an accomplished historian and a noted  sociopolitical critic, would easily be aware of these nuances.

But is the poem simply a reiteration of the metaphor and insight of ‘the turbid ebb and flow of human misery’? The penultimate stanza reveals that this is not the case. In fact the contemplative, abstracting nature of the previous stanza is completely dispelled here: No, the persona is not made sad by ruminations of the abstract concept that is ‘endless human misery,’ he is preoccupied, bothered by his own, more immediate suffering. He has a problem of his own to worry about. If the shift in mood in the fourth stanza is a volta of emotion, this stanza is a volta of insight. Human misery is endless, but one suffers one’s own suffering now first before anything else.

And what is the persona’s problem? The last stanza reveals it: the adrressee (who has hitherto played little part in the story) is leaving, never to return. This hints a close, intimate relationship between him/her and the persona. Far more than about the defeat of Datu Bago, the poverty of small time fishermen, or the whole ocean of mankind’s suffering, this poem is about the persona’s particular personal misery, and so is mankind’ experience with suffering. This last stanza reaffirms this insight by revealing the specific cause of the persona’s troubles. The poem ends with the last reiteration of the refrain.

Written in Cebuano Bisaya, the poem demonstrates its medium’s remarkable terminological precision. It contains many words with no direct equivalent in English: ‘tapya’ is the specific verb of waves dashing gently against a shore (it must be gently, violent dashing is ‘hapak’); ‘taob’ means high tide; ‘wisik’ (root word of ‘nawiskan‘) is untranslatable, but means being sprinkled on by droplets of water thrown out into the air; ‘panagat,’ literally translated, makes ‘dagat’ (‘sea’) into a verb, only hinting at fishing (to which it is not limited, the term may be used for any livelihood having to do with the sea). But the most interesting word in the poem is ‘biya,’ a word that implies both departure and leaving behind.

‘Bago Aplaya’ is a simple poem, but it is appropriately so, as it is one which, while touching on abstract contemplation of general suffering nevertheless portrays this abstraction as secondary to the immediate appreciation of more personal suffering.

Properly taught, it will make a great introduction to Philippine Literature!



Reblog: John Levi Masuli’s Notes on Angelo Suarez’s “Materializing free time: Notes towards a new constructivism”

‘To conceive of [the radical autonomy of art] as a mere ‘privilege’ is to snatch it from the social and place it within the realm of the individual and the universe of his/her labor – each of us with our own little, private rebellions.’

Thorough take by John Levi Masuli on an essay by Angelo Suarez: I am glad to discover these two names in Philippine LitCrit today!


Suarez’s essay can be read at this link.


Like conscience, the phantom of the Rizalian tradition continues to haunt us even today at the cusp of communicative capitalism and surplus digital technology. Perhaps the persistence of ‘socially-conscious’ art, from the time of the Propagandists, Jose Maria Sison’s Second Propaganda Movement, until today’s incarnations only emphasize the continuing dominance of the elitist patronage-centric art market, sustained by the rich, and the dominance of art-as-entertainment-as-commodity in Philippine commercialized culture.

Yet the old contradiction between ‘elitist’ art vs ‘socially-conscious’ art, framed within the conditions of Philippine culture and society, chronically re-phrased as the drama between the formalists vs Marxists, art-for-art’s-sake vs commited art, Villa vs Lopez, Almario vs Guillermo, and other countless permutations, seems to be founded on the lack of contemporary theorization on the subject of Philippine art and commitment, apart from the usual bearings set by the colonial-learning academia and…

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