Saturday, April 12, 2008

Vice and virtue

PARTLY to escape the streets, which now shimmer from the heat, I stepped inside the Cebuano Studies Center at the University of San Carlos. For this assignment on prehistoric Visayans, I wondered if I could last an hour, as catatonia from siesta habits or bemusement with 17th century documentation seemed preordained.

I was wrong. From the shimmering streets, I found myself lost for hours in the simmering pages of a chronicle written in 1668 by a Jesuit priest.

Ignacio Francisco Alcina, SJ, took down voluminous notes from his observations of and interactions with the local people that he met in his travels around Samar, Leyte, Cebu, Panay, Bohol and Negros.

The product of 36 years of life among the Bisayans, “Historia de las Islas e Indios de Bisayas (History of the Bisayan People in the Philippine Islands)” runs to four volumes and covers every subject, including those that seem unlikely to engage the religious.

In chapter 4 of volume 1, which tackles the local custom of tattooing, Alcina writes of “a certain practice which the Bisayans cultivated.”

This was the piercing of the male organ and suspension of a “sakra,” “sagra” or “sagka” (a wooden peg whose ends protruded on both sides and from which hang rings of lead or gold, if the person belonged to the principales).

“Sakraan” referred to a man who had this device. This term may have been superfluous as the practice was common. Alcina writes, “In ancient times, they mocked those without it.”

But it was not the barbarity of self-mutilation nor its high cost (“most excruciating pain” and “virulent cancer”) that made the Spaniards punish with a beating any Bisayan caught wearing a sakra, an ironic twist since, for the clergy, it was a “word so holy among us but extremely obscene among them.”

Alcina writes that the practice was resorted to “for a greater incitement to carnal pleasure, not only on the part of the men but especially the women.” According to the annotation accompanying his text, “there were some 20-30 different versions of the device.”

What reduced me to greater stupefaction: the realization that there is a personal dimension to history or that these “cracks in the parchment curtain” were made possible through the efforts of a 17th-century religious?

From the rote learning of facts in elementary and high school to the politicized deconstruction of colonial history in college, I had the impression that history was all about war, religious, political or armed.

Who would have thought that a prehispanic sexuality thrived until the Spaniards came and conquered with their version of the yoke?

In popular history, women are figureheads, if mentioned at all. Who was Hara Amihan before she was renamed Queen Juana after receiving the Sto. NiƱo from Ferdinand Magellan?

Alcina parts the curtains to show that women—not the Spanish stereotypes of virgin and whore but real women of flesh and spirit—existed before the natives embraced straitlaced Christianity: “(The men) say that their women wish it so, and that if they did otherwise, they would not have communication with them.”

In prehispanic relations, what was the sexual politics? Alcina’s notes imply that domestic abuse existed long before the age of gender and development: “Many women paid for (sexual gratification) dearly when the paramour, or a husband resenting the woman’s lack of fidelity, or for some other disappointment which they wished to avenge, placed the said peg not of wood but of iron with its ends sharpened. Thus, they either wounded or killed many a woman…”

Would these accounts be extant if early documentors had followed the sway of their biases? Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the voyages of Magellan and Juan Sebastian Elcano, wrote, “These people make use of that device because they are of a weak nature.”

Another explorer, Miguel Lopez de Loarca, also documented the practice but judged it as an “abominable custom… modesty forbids us to speak of them.”

In his age and in his vocation, Alcina was uncommon: “No matter how vile and diabolic this may be, history must not hide anything, especially since it was a common practice in this nation.”

In the 21st century, as it was in the 17th, an unsparing eye and pen is a virtue without parallel. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 13, 2008 issue

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Things to do this summer

DO your community a favor. Tell its stories.

It's a good cue to take from Mass Communication undergraduates who traditionally apply in newsrooms for their internship this summer.

While talking about travel writing with a class last semester, I realized that there are two ways to write about something. You can cover what is strange and unknown: approach the subject as an outsider, immerse yourself, back away, and commit as much honesty to be able to write with an insider's intimacy.

Or you can write about what you've always known: take what might as well be coming out of your pores, magnify it by taking another look and another, and then let go and watch the story catch spark.

To write, no one needs a college degree.

Some of you feel that a bit of education is needed to write well, or at least write to be understood.

But you can read, right? If you have the time, patience and curiosity to stick it out with a story from opening to closing, you might want to double back and find out how the writer managed to do it: release, line by line, a story to hook and land a reader that, as fishermen like to brag, didn't get away.

I also know what the doomsayers--and newsrooms have not cornered yet the market on cynicism--have been foretelling for years: the death of English.

Who says you have to stick to a language that's not yours or you've not made into your own?

As I acquired an education long before a revolutionary decided that Cebuano could be taught and learned in class, English is the portal I've entered all my life (and perhaps into the next one).

While I love the words, and what the words do to me, I believe everyone is entitled their own take to English, a second tongue. That includes the right to make mistakes.

There are several remedies for those determined to tell stories despite false starts.

Long before the magic of word processing, there was rewriting. Even professionals have to rewrite. Writers might like to talk and talk about writing, but the truth is: there's more writing done in the moments you spend framing your thoughts than in several worthy hours spent in a writeshop, taking apart someone's work.

It's not to say that other people don't count. Writing is communicating: someone has to listen to you. If even your mother passes out after reading your first line, take the hint and rewrite.

If you're already optimistic, ask a friend to read your work. If your friends become optimistic, send your work to an editor. Let the article do the talking. Editors detest hard sell but dote on a well-written piece.

If you don't see your article published, call once, and once only, to ask the editor if he received your emailed contribution. If you get more than a grunt in reply, offer to rewrite, send photos. Mothers never give up on their children; so should you.

When you write about your community, you're not just whiling away the hours, earning cell phone load, reading your name in print.

You're also showing that the media is still about community. It's not just about selling copies or airtime. It's never been only about advertisers and public figures.

Media, critics say, are failing to connect with their communities. By your writing, you prove them wrong. So tell the stories of your place and time: the folks who do good when there are no cameras around, the people changing or being changed by the life that is taking place beyond media deadlines.

And writing is not a bad way to spend summer. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu's April 6, 2008 issue