listen, listen to cries of battle

R.A. No. 8371 is the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 in the philippines.

many have asked, ‘what has happened all these years?’ and evidently the media (skipping over ‘cultural festivals’, postcards, and other touristic representations of indigeneity) is still haunted by stories of human dignity and lives lost at the cost of extracted wealth and other colonial endeavours.

i sense that ‘indigeneity’ remains absent in mainstream filipino thought. translated into tagalog, the word ‘katutubo‘ maybe paints the idea better. this person, like a root, a shoot, was planted and grown from this land. no, it does not spell primitivity, inferiority, nor poverty. and although indigeneity is not always visibly ‘marked’ in the philippines (unlike the vivid racial divides at play in latin america), it still remains a powerful and real cultural-political identity here.

i do not claim an indigenous identity. born from a mix (una mezcla) of chinese migrants and a distant visayan bloodline, my life is of many scattered bases and of different tongues. and although mobility and migration do not contradict an indigenous identity (i am still in awe of the scale of the cordillera diaspora worldwide, and of peoples’ constant movement across sierra madres, towns and rivers here), a single particular landscape has not held me, nor shaped me and my ancestors for millenia. unlike those of indigenous peoples.

my recent immersion in community development work with indigenous groups in the philippines has reminded me of one urgent practice: to keep reflecting on my role in all these struggles.

Estado | batas | tao
the intersecting battles with the state, on rights, and for people’s lives on the ground

many of these fierce battles –whether against deforestation, hunger, displacement, illiteracy, or other ills– intersect across many fronts. the battle is not always a tribe’s clenched fist against a faceless bureaucracy or monstrous machinery rolling in a protected area; but it is also a wrestle within one’s own village, within one’s own family, and often with one’s own self. the battle cry can be loud like the budyong (conchshell), blown by people calling to belong to a nation, to be remembered as co-human beings, and to be heard by all; but the battle cry is also for reawakening memories buried deep within or long erased by another. laws, policies, and other covenants founded on mutual respect and trust, meant to protect and uphold, already exist in plenty. they are bound in books, published, and read in courts. but where do we all draw the power to put them in practice?

it seems that these battles can be fought standing in a circle with weapons facing out; but they are also fought with dances and prayers to gather forces we cannot see. and the most terrifying ones are also fought with eyes closed gazing in.

these battles are not mine.

the unearthing of burial grounds to make way for a golf course does not desecrate the bones of my grandfather. i do not know how to hold my palm out to beg for coins, uprooted and a wandering beggar in my very own home. my mind does not understand that a flattened mountain is my mother’s breast cut off. these battles are not mine; they are those of indigenous peoples in the philippines, and shared by every single indigenous community worldwide. these battles are not mine, but they are mine to witness, with my entire being, with eyes that refuse to look away, and with a heart that will continue to listen, listen, and listen, like a purse of memories that promises not to burst, that promises to keep all these stories safe inside, so long as there are those who never tire to tell them.

i cannot be apart from these battles. nor can you, indigenous or not. none of us can ever stand far away; every single one of us is a part of all this.

grief, remembering


Image“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”

-Arundhati Roy
grief carves deep into me. and it holds me close to dexter, my beautiful Ati brother. the bullets shot into his body could not possibly, could never ever possibly, kill his enormous light.
with him laughter would rise bubbling up from our bellies. his long kinky hair always caught by the sea winds. yellow polish on his nails, i would tease him for. the mounds of rice we shamelessly ate, giggling, after a long day’s work. i loved being near him. he was sweet lightness, but also a felt and very respected presence. happiness was so so easy for dexter, even if long years of backbreaking and heartaching work have been set on him. as he helped bring his people together many years ago, the Atis of Boracay Island for the first time dared to dream that they can, and rightfully so, live on their ancestors’ land.
my grief is not for dexter: i know, i know he is oh so alive!
this grief is instead for the unspeakable violence that breathes all around us. how corporate greed and economics have turned into power, hoping to kill the strength of cultural wisdom and the human spirit. dexter knew of injustice very well; he and the Atis live it every day. but he never could accept it. and i too promise to never look away.
to stand in dexter’s light, and to be in solidarity with the Atis, join the Boracay Ati Community page, and share it!

fractured and whole

a circle bounds this overcongested city. it keeps the smog in, and wraps our eyes closed. an invincible line of billboards and shopping centres walls the metropolis in from remembering the miseries created by this same madness in the rest of the islands. it only takes me a flight out to remember that worlds exist beyond this bubble.

outside of manila we continue, deliriously, to draw lines on our maps. we continue to break the earth into fractured bits. Lupa. she is to be to divided, cut up, and taken over. peoples too are fractioned into “us” and “them”. even bodies are mapped apart from the ground that feeds them.

ImageTayo ang bubuhayin ng lupa,” Tatay Emok reminds us in the island of boracay, “It is us that the land allows to live.” our arrogance has made us forget.

there is a shameful scramble to own every square inch of the island. even where the waves roll in, winds and waters cannot be left alone by commercial marketing schemes. the turquoise blue ocean is policed against those who are of darker skin and kinkier hair –those who have long since sung and danced in awe of all this creation. as palaces keep rising on hilltops and restaurants choke the shore, old burial grounds are dug up and living people shoved back behind new ghettos.

i come back to manila, again unable to forget the pains caused by fractured lands, and fractured peoples. how can we come back whole? somewhere in silence we know that all our borders, all our imagined geographies, lose their reality. boundary lines become just scribbles in the sand. land titles turn into paper play. and we remember that there is nothing natural about injustice.

when i read Tatay Emok’s words on the papers piled on my desk, hundreds of miles of waters apart, i hear of a truer way to live. a way of life where we can come back more whole.

{join the Boracay Ati Community and share their story!}