Friday, December 12, 2008

The warmth of Ragipon

At this time of the year, Lipa City is a city of happy disposition, brimming with hope and positive anticipation.

It is a cool city. Literally and figuratively. Come to Lipa and you will see—no, feel—what this means. Better come at night. The city is bathed in cool lights reflecting the mood of Christmas, and of the coming fiesta in the first week of January.

When I first arrived in Lipa fresh from high school—a promdi (street slang for “from the province”) on the prowl for a job—the very first thought I entertained was to make the city my second home, which I did for a few years while I was working my way through college. Lipa then was bucolic, where in the mornings you can still smell the delicate but strong flavor of barakong kape waft in the breeze.

The reason was obvious. Lipa is cooler than most Batangas towns and, therefore, conducive to ‘thinking’ and meditating, which are the things that I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Unfortunately, that dream was expropriated by time and circumstance, so I ended up as a Lipa visitor, the wish for an abode fulfilled by a subdivision house in Sto. Tomas on the foothills of enchanting Mt. Makiling. As the years go by, Lipa became more and more enticing and every visit is a journey back to that dream, an affirmation of an unrequited love.

But it’s not the weather that attracts me foremost to this city. It is the communal identification with the Asi tribe that keeps me a regular visitor.

You see, even before I came in 1980, Lipa has already a thriving community of Sibalenhons, Banto-anons, and Simaranhons—the island peoples comprising the Asi tribe.

I am a proud tribal member of the Asi and it is this tribal identity that keeps me sane amid the slow annihilation of people’s identities and the wanton destruction of ancient cultures and traditions all over the world, the Asi’s included.

The members of the Asi community in Lipa co-mingle with peoples from other provinces, and of course, with the majority Batanguenos. They live with them, eat with them, work with them, get married to one of them. They, in a correct sense, co-exist with others.

This co-existence—peaceful, yes—is the very first culture shock that the Asi experienced upon leaving their home-islands, the Tres Islas, in Romblon.

Why? It is because the Asi needed not co-exist with other tribes in their island. They lived—and those who are left in the island continue to live—in self-contained, self-sustaining isolation; alone with themselves, with their own unique and ancient culture and language, even with their own god.

To be thrust, suddenly, into an environment, in this case, into Lipa, where people live a different way of life, speak a different language, and worship a different material dream, could be shocking.

Yet, the Asi, despite of this cultural shock, thrived, survived. Over the years, they learned to cope with the challenges and changing currents of Lipa. They have claimed the city as their own home. It is in this home away from home that they have outlined their lives, reared their children, planned for the future, and even buried their dead.

They have adapted to the lifestyle of the Tagalog heartland because of the necessity of material survival. They have learned to accept the fact that it is in Lipa that their destinies are tied, for it is in acceptance that they are able to maintain their equanimity and sense of being—Asi.

On the realm, however, of culture and preservation of the tangible marks of identity, the Asi have not forgot. They remember. They remember who they are. They are aware of their past and preserve it in their memory because they have only one—the Asi past—the one that keeps them tied to their proud land and forebears.

Take the case of the Sibalenhons. There is already a veritable Sibalenhon community in Lipa whose members carry mostly surnames starting with the letter F, the same with most Banto-anons and Simaranhons, the two other members of the tribe who are considered “hali” or brothers. The Sibalenhons in Lipa left Sibale, their island, in pursuit of the Sibalenhon dream.That dream is part material comfort, part desire for social acceptance, part intellectual curiosity, which has brought them here and everywhere. There are Sibalenhons in the wadis of the Middle East; in the Indian pairies of Minnesota; and in the cold lands of Saskatchewan. They are in Chicago, the home of the first black US president, and in England where royals still rule. They are in Australia, Europe and New Zealand.

There are Sibalenhon seafarers on ships calling ports as faraway as Durban in South Africa. There is a Sibalenhon working in a kibutz in Israel, as well as a wife working as a hospital nurse in the boundary of Kuwait and Iraq. Counting the migrants and their families, Sibalenhons could number over ten thousand souls.

In Lipa, the Sibalenhons are ragipon.

Ragipon is Asi word for numerous. It also means innumerable, or infinite, but these English words do not truly capture the essence and significance of this tradition. Balagtas himself could use “napakarami” or “sanlaksa”, but still these words are cold and flat and fail to convey the meaning, color, and vibrancy that ragipon does.

I said ragipon is a tradition. This is true for the Sibalenhons in Lipa because every year, they gather in numbers—Sibalenhons from all walks of life—to celebrate not only their being alive, but also to renew ties with one another.

Ragipon is not just a social gathering. It is a communion of souls celebrating the day of the Immaculate Conception, the Sibalenhons’ religious feast. They can’t go home to Sibale on December 8, so they celebrate it in Lipa and wherever they are on this day. When they do it, it is ragipon.

Ragipon means getting together really close to project warmth and camaraderie and unity. It is a communion without the convulsion of differences and the clash of varied ideological views; a purposeful coming together with a sincere desire to tighten the ties that bind—and to share.

Last year, I wrote that ragipon is like the habit of the porcupines, which have been observed to inch toward each for the fulfillment of their reproductive needs, only to get away and to maintain a certain distance thereafter so they they could not hurt each other. Porcupines do this ritual regularly. When they do, the seabed blackens with their sheer number.

Ragipon has nothing to do, however, with the Sibalenhons’ need for self-propagation or the perpetuation of the breed, or of the tribe. Rather, it is an association of an identified race.

This Saturday and Sunday, Sibalenhons in Lipa City will ma-ragipon once again to fulfill a tradition. You can experience a true ragipon—and the familial warmth it exudes—if you come.

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