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.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Provincial unity begins with language unity

The year 2008 is about to end. Romblon will be will be another year older and every one of us, without exception, will surely be drinking from a barrel called Hope to herald the coming of 2009.

I have many misgivings about 2008, mostly on the side of things that have not been done. Overall, however, 2008 was a good year, for me at least. The qualification is conservative. “Good” surely may have been “better”, but why complain? My plate this year was full, and I didn’t bite more than I could chew.

So, how does a year-ender for you take shape, or look like? Do you remember, like I do?
I remember that earlier this year, I promised to write about unity—provincial unity—and how it could be achieved, finally. Unity, like hope, is a topic most people shy away from because it is generic. It is boring, and most of all, it is just an ideal. It has nothing to do with our survival, or daily existence. Unity will not give us food. Politics will. Correct?

Dead wrong. We need to talk about unity as if our future depends on it. We need to discuss unity because we are divided as a people. For starters, we are disunited in the things we aspire for and so divided in doing the things that will lead us to that aspiration.

Let us begin with unity in language.

A few months ago, Ismael Fabicon, the culture warrior of the Romblon Discussion List-Cultural, Livelihood and Education Assistance for Romblon, or RDL-CLEAR, the group of US-based Romblomanons actively involved in Romblon socio-economic and cultural affairs, wrote Gov. Natalio Beltran III an e-mail taking him to task for an entry in the official provincial website,, that declares that “Tagalog or Filipino is extensively spoken and understood by the “locals”. “Locals” means you and me, the Romblomanons who toil daily and have axes to grind about our deteriorating condition.

This statement, harmless as it looks, got Manong Ish’s goat because he believed it was just short of saying that Tagalog or Filipino has become an official language of Romblon.

Well, those of you who strongly feel about your own language can flock to Manong Ish’s camp and join him in his crusade and thank him for his vigilance.

“We do speak and write fluently in Asi, Onhan, and Romblomanon languages. We are not just "locals." We know our culture and history and are very proud of it,” he wrote.

“It's sad that our "official provincial website" now admits that Tagalog is our national language”, he added.

I looked up the website and saw that the entry was still there. Let me assure Manong Ish, however, that it does not declare Tagalog our national language. A website, or any medium for that matter, does not make a language official. It’s the speakers of a language who do.

In the case of Filipino which is a “composite of Tagalog” and other regional languages, it is the Constitution that made it official and as such could not be declared invalid unless the Constitution is amended.

But going back to the issue of Tagalog as the Romblomanons’ new language, I cannot help but confirm the observation that we really have become the sons and daughters of Balagtas all to our disadvantage—politically, economically, socially. We have substituted our own languages with a borrowed medium, one which is a stranger to us and hence, incomplete.

This is one of the causes of our disunity, for our plodding along, because by speaking an unfamiliar language, we have forgotten that we have our own languages that express our collective aspirations and dreams as a people.

I know this as an Asi and as a writer. Sometime ago, I wrote that by not speaking Asi, Onhan, or Ini in our daily conversation, we are slowly losing our collective soul and identity. Now, I now make the heretical pronouncement that the Romblomanons, by expropriating Tagalog, have long ago abandoned any pretense that they speak a common language. Many Romblomanons, by not speaking their own languages, have become strangers to their own land. This abandonment of our language heritage is an unforgiveable sin and will cast us as cultural pariahs.

This is a provincial shame and we need to be redeemed. How? By closing down the province’s official website whose viewers and visitors have been as few as lightning in summer?

No. We can be redeemed by returning to our roots and speaking in our own languages.
As expected, Gov. Beltran, who prefers to speak Tagalog rather than Asi, did not bother to reply to Manong Ish’s letter. Maybe, he cannot defend the particular statement on the website. Or, maybe, he simply doesn’t care.

I care. Manong Ish cares. Many care, as Manuel Faelnar, director of the Defenders of the Indigenous Languages of the Archipelago Philippines Foundation, Inc., or DILA, does. He said that Asi, Onhan, and Romblomanon are distinct languages, not dialects, as many Romblomanons think.

Faelnar’s take on the so-called Filipino language was that it is an artificial language, and could not possibly have any native speakers. His defense of our own languages was vigorous, punctuated by three quotes which I reproduce below:

"Without our language, we have no culture, we have no identity, we are nothing."—Ornolfor Thorsson, adviser to the President of Iceland.

"When you lose a language you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art."—Kenneth Hale, teacher of linguistics, MIT.

"Words, if powerful enough, can transport people into a journey, real or imagined, that either creates a fantasy or confirms reality."—Rachelle Arlin Credo, poet and writer.

Mr. Faelnar needed not go far to buttress his point. We have our own Jose Rizal, who said that, “Ka waya gi papalangga sa sariling rila ay mas mayansa pa sa halpok nak isra.”

To my readers and why you should not hide

I am writing this piece on my youngest daughter Lilac’s eighth birthday, on a balmy Saturday morning when the mists bringing the cool December air were still riding on the crests of and hiding Mt. Makiling in Sto. Tomas.

I am seated on my foldable easy chair, near the window where I can see my black Labrador named Zorro and my one-year old Japanese chow-chow—baptized Mizuki by Lara, my eldest—caressing each other lazily.

As usual, they eye me as I write, perhaps wondering what the click-clack sound on the computer keyboard means. Their playful rumble punctuated my writing. Unlike humans, my dogs don’t suspect that it is during this period of sitting—alone and undisturbed—that I compose the stories and views that see print on the pages of the Romblon Sun. Dogs don’t know that writing is watching dogs carousing.

It is November 29, the eve of Andres Bonifacio’s birth anniversary, and my thoughts were meandering on the important observation that historian Ambeth Ocampo had about the Supremo.

In an article, ‘Remembering Bonifacio’, Ocampo wrote that “anyone who knows Philippine history will understand why Bonifacio is remembered on his birthday, Nov. 30, rather than the date of his death, May 10, 1897. Unlike Rizal who was executed by the enemy, and other heroes who died in battle, Bonifacio was executed by fellow Filipinos”.I could only imagine Bonifacio’s execution, which was the result of the bitterest of envy masked by the officiousness of an unfounded crime: treason. The circumstances behind Bonifacio’s death continue to be debated to this day, but what is certain is that his death, engineered by General Emilio Aguinaldo and his henchmen, remains a dark mark of Cain in the forehead of all Filipinos, a sign of our collective guilt.

Mt. Buntis in Cavite, where Bonifacio was shot like a dog, will forever remain in our history as the horrible situs of the downfall of a plebian who has, in our time, justifiably become the icon of mass struggle.

My daughters, our dogs, and Bonifacio seemed to be unusual starring characters in a column that is supposed to be about my readers.

The intention is deliberate. For my daughters read. My dogs, too, but not in the manner that you think. Zorro and Mizuki read the wind, not the printed pages, so that they know when food is coming, or when an askal—asong kalye—is about to pass by our house.

And Bonifacio? Well, we know that Bonifacio read Alexander Dumas, Jose Rizal, Victor Hugo, and Eugene Sue. He owned copies of ‘The French Revolution’, ‘Noli’ and ‘Fili’, ‘History of the French Revolution’, and five volumes of the Bible. He also read the books ‘Religion Within the Reach of All’, ‘Wandering Jew’, ‘International Law’, ‘Civil Code’, and the ‘Ruins of Palmyra’.

My readers also read, I’m happy to report. Hep hep, hooray! At the very least, they read this weekly column. I know, because since I started pushing pen in the Romblon Sun, I have been receiving numerous text messages commenting on my comments. What do you know? I have developed a fan base, and I am glad.

A few messages expressed praise that I am writing again. Others told me to shut up. Still others expressed disagreement with my views.

One ‘texter’, from Romblon, excoriated me for comparing Odiongan with the capital town, saying that Romblon is not parochial, as I have allegedly written. This was about my statement that Odiongan now is more cosmopolitan.

Well, this ‘reader-texter’ read me wrongly. I never said Romblon is parochial. I said that the air in Romblon is. But because the reader is king, OK. I apologize. Romblon is not parochial. But you are. Eat your heart out.

There was also this reader who urged me to write something about some anomalies in the Odiongan town hall, allegedly something about loans for the public market. I dismissed the ‘texter’ as a prankster because when I asked for proof or some documents, the reply was: “Baoy sa munisipyo.”

I can understand the ‘texter’s enthusiasm to get under the light of public scrutiny alleged misdeeds in government. But I cannot understand his or her laziness to supply the details or more concrete proof if he or she has the goods, or if he or she really cares about Odiongan. I am sure Mayor Boy Firmalo will do something about it if it is brought to his attention.

And then there are those message senders who asked if I am married. Readers will now understand why my daughters started off in this piece. No need to answer that query.

To ‘reader-texters’ who solicit money or jobs, I have a textbook answer. Please spare me the worry. I am a writer, not an employment agency or a bank. For financial or employment help, go to the governor or the congressman. They might have something left after buying votes in the last election. I am sure there’s plenty more from their fat commissions.

This is not to say I don’t love you, dear readers. Didn’t you know? You are king. Without readers, newspapers are dead, and writers would be left scratching their heads to kill lice, if not time.

What supremely irritate me, though, are readers—and they are numerous—who have something to say but could not lend their names and identities to their ideas. They hide in various covers and refuse to be quoted, using a lot of excuses in the book to remain anonymous. I am suspicious of people who have an excellent idea or something meaningful to say but refuse authorship for it. They might just have borrowed the idea, or they might be just extremely shy. I hate to say ‘cowards’ because the anagram of the word is ‘as crowd’ which could mean all of us. See?

Thank you, dear readers, for making Wilig-wilig, Liong-liong a weekly reading fare. I have just started to write, I promise, and will continue to try to deserve your company. If what I write provokes thought, fine. If it pokes the sensibilities of some public officials, there is surely a reason for it and I assure you I am a reasonable man. I just would like to let you know that I write because I cannot endure the injuries afflicting us.

Not to write about these injuries and oppression would be tantamount to perpetuating them myself, something which I shall be held accountable by the Maker who taught me how to write.

Leonie Firmalo: The wife also rises

Those of you who read my take on the role of the Romblon Sun in our provincial affairs may have noticed that I wrote two sentences about former congressman Lolong Firmalo, in connection with my observation that there is today no organized opposition in Romblon, thus, making it possible for those who are in power to run roughshod over us.

In that piece, I asked: “Where is Firmalo, by the way? After his bitter defeat, he hibernated, disappeared, hid, and so became a ghost of his old self.”

Now, this observation is not true after all. Dr. Lolong Firmalo, I was told, is not hibernating. He has not disappeared. And he is the same Dr. Lolong.

Who told me? His wife, Leonie, to whom I am sharing this space to prove that Dr. Lolong is still very much around. Or, should I say, still very much in contention, Madam?

I have not met Mrs. Firmalo in person. I very much wanted to, to tell her I have genuine affection for people who long for “the day honesty and integrity in government service in Romblon will come to light again”, as you will notice from Mrs. Firmalo’s letter below, which I edited only for clarity to do justice to a loving wife’s views:

Dear Nicon,

I am Dr. Leonie Firmalo, wife of former Congressman Lolong Firmalo. I came across your article in the October 20-26, 2008 issue of the Romblon Sun, and would like to respond to your query, “Where is Firmalo, by the way? After his bitter defeat, he hibernated, disappeared, hid and so became a ghost of his old self.”

I write this strictly as a personal note to you because I feel that it is unfair that he be pictured as such.

We were not bitter after his defeat; the best word would be “heart-broken” because in spite of all the sacrifices of the whole family, there was no appreciation of what true public service is. Even after he lost, he spent his last month in office coordinating with various government agencies in ensuring that the projects he started for Romblon would continue even after his tenure. At present, we still continue to extend medical help, even to those who did not vote for him.

Dr. Lolong did not disappear; you can find him three times a week at De los Santos Medical Center, attending to at least 150-200 Romblomanons a week not only for their medical needs, but also for their other concerns. He still retained his medical coordinator to continue helping patients with admissions in Manila hospitals, and even finds the time to visit them. I also see many Romblomanon children in my clinic at Fe del Mundo Medical Center, also without compensation.

As his birthday offering, we had a two-day medical mission last October, when we saw about 2,000 patients. Some medicines were donations, but a majority of it came from our personal funds. Lest this be construed as a political strategy, I can assure you that it is not. He served officially as Congressman from 2004-2007, but for a total of 32 years since he became a young doctor, he has already been extending unwavering service to Romblomanons.

He is very much alive as a Romblomanon in heart and mind. He’s a gentle and good person, not loud and not a politico; not looking for attention. Every time he hears corruption in Romblon, he bleeds a little. I should know, because I’ve been with him for the last 30 years. I see how he becomes depressed because he’s not in a position to do more, yet they continue to lambast him over radio and print without any basis.

For us, he will never be a ghost; he is the pride of our family, and I hope of Romblon, too.

More power to your column in the Romblon Sun. I know we are one in hoping for the day that honesty and integrity in government service in Romblon will come to light again.

Respectfully yours,

When I read this letter—sent over e-mail—I threw a prayer that may the Good Lord bless Leonie and curse our politicians who do not write rejoinders to opinion pieces published in the newspapers.

I expressed the hope that our politicians would be like Mrs. Firmalo, who will respond in defense of what they firmly believe is defensible. Mrs. Firmalo is very articulate for a politician’s wife, and this is a sincere compliment.

Alas, as I correctly observed in that column, many elected Romblomanon officials have become mute. They refuse to answer reports, even expressions of opinion, about their conduct. They think public criticisms of their official deeds will be reduced to a whimper when they remain silent? Think again. Newsmen and journalists eat paper and drink ink for breakfast.

And for the love of objectivity, I would like to tell Mrs. Firmalo that I did not write that Dr. Lolong was bitter in his defeat. I said his defeat was bitter, which meant differently. In fact, that I viewed his getting vanquished a bitter pill only correctly summed up the feeling of his supporters—that he should have won. That they could not believe a non-traditional politician will get swallowed whole by crocodiles clothed in the finest barong tagalog.

Well, one can “disappear” in many ways. Dr. Lolong has not been heard often expressing his views in public, although, as Mrs. Firmalo said, he is not loud, not a politico, and not looking for attention. That he continues to treat Romblomanons for free is a testament to his good heart. But he should speak more—in public, that is.

This is where Mrs. Firmalo, or even Dr. Lolong, and I differ greatly. Good governance does not mean only healing people’s physical defects. It also means healing the people’s political souls. You have Romblomanons ailing—and dying—precisely because of neglect and incompetence and you have a problem. The solution is not to only treat them medically, but to excise the tumor that makes them sick in the first place. That is, to remove, through the use of a scalpel, if that is necessary, the root cause of it all—the political neglect and the incompetence which those who replaced Dr. Lolong now publicly displays.

I admit that when Dr. Lolong was not yet a congressman, I offered him advice on political reform. He heard, but I am not sure he listened. That is another difference.

As a writer, I make it my official calling to listen to people’s woes. I, myself, have woes of my own, but I subsume personal feelings under the greater weight of public interest. That should be the official credo of elected officials.

Honestly, did Dr. Lolong make this his creed when he was congressman? I did not hear from him since, but I suppose Mrs. Firmalo was right: that Dr. Lolong “bleeds a little” every time he hears official corruption in Romblon.

If it’s comfort enough, Leonie, Dr. Lolong is not alone. I, myself, bleed profusely every time I hear of the inanity of our public officials. The bad news is that our officials also bleed. They bleed our coffers dry. This is the kind of bleeding that Dr. Firmalo—and all meaningful Romblomanons—should now try to stanch.

On the issue of family pride, I can tell you without “bleeding” that this is one trait we all can unite in. You are proud of Dr. Lolong as every Romblomanon is proud of their husbands and wives and children.

At least, we stand on common ground. I just don’t know if family pride can lead Romblon to prosperity. The last time it surfaced, we saw a husband and wife team drawing our dreams and it led us to Bakhawan in San Agustin, where Congressman Budoy Madrona redraw Romblon’s political map.

If you are to ask me, I will go one step further. I am proud that Romblon has Dr. Firmalo as one of its sons. If I were you, I will ask him to run again for public office, so that your hope “for the day that honesty and integrity in government service in Romblon will come to light again” will be actualized. You, too, could consider running.

If that happens, then the title of this column will be justified.