Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How Shall I Greet Thee?

We've been receiving a few annual christmas letters from friends around the country.  Mostly folks from our "former lives" -- friends from husband's high school, our friends from a church we attended 30 years ago, friends that we only hear from during christmas. Most of the letters talk about what folks did during the year - travels, new grandkids, retirement, volunteer work.

I guess this dates me. Younger folks no longer mail christmas cards and letters. They tweet, facebook, instagram, pinterest, etc. Why wait for year-end to regal your friends with the highlights of your year when you can do it on a daily basis?

I've been thinking of how to greet my friends this holiday season. I will have to write different kinds of letters -- to the high school classmates that I've reconnected with, to former office mates when I worked for a corporation, to childhood friends from back home, to friends in various organizations that I belong, to colleagues at work, to former church-mates, to new friends, etc.

These are the parts of myself that connect with these different groups. They knew me when ...and so if I reciprocate with a letter of my own, shouldn't I let them know how I have changed over the years? But would they want to know? I am not sure. When I read these letters, I don't get that sense of wanting to connect at that level. It may be enough for them that we know that they are still alive and active; that they are living meaningful and fun-filled lives. That they have the money and privilege to do so.

If I write this letter, my preference is to take this opportunity to reconnect at a much deeper and more meaningful level. To speak from my heart about what really matters to me at this time of my life. But I hesitate and I'm wondering why.  It's the same dilemma I wrestle with when a friend asks: Leny, how come you don't talk or write about your inner spiritual practice? In response, I said that, on the contrary, I've been quite public about my inner processes/reflections. For the past twenty years, I've written about my process of decolonization and indigenization. To me, this is spiritual work. It is integral. It is wholistic. It is political. It is personal. It is sacred.

The more I move away colonial thinking (binary, linear, fragmented, hierarchical, non-indigenous), the more I find it hard to talk in terms of what is spiritual and what isn't.

Same with these holidays. Christmas is part of my Methodist childhood. So there is always a part of me that gets nostalgic for the church Christmas programs, the caroling, Handel's messiah, simbang gabi. I've since deconstructed the religion of my childhood - how Protestant Christianity is married to capitalism and empire -  so, of course, the shopping frenzy (to feed the near-death capitalist system) didn't escape me.  I tried to be as wise as I could be about it. I didn't contribute to the coffers of mall shops and bought mostly from local merchants.

So this going local was the theme of these holidays for me. This is part of my growing commitment to sustainability, to creating a smaller carbon footprint, to lesser use of resources. It is part of a commitment to develop a relationship to a Place.

For the past decades, the search for a Place of one's own was more or less a symbolic process for me. The search for connection to a Home and Land, to Homeland, led to a desire to acquire knowledge about Filipino indigenous knowledge systems and practices. But this couldn't remain an academic pursuit alone. The idea of belonging to a Place  became a call to consider the Indigenous worldview as a starting point. What does it mean to be indigenous to a place? Can I be indigenous to a Place that originally belonged to the Coast Miwok, Pomo, Kashaya, Wintun, Wappo, Numlaki, and other tribes in this region of Northern California?

Yesterday, I looked at the pile of books next to the bed and noticed how they are mostly by Native authors writing about indigenizing the academy, Original Instructions, ceremony, native science, traditional ecological knowledge, and other related topics. I noted that this is a marked departure from my previous academic interests. Maybe this is a good sign. No, not maybe. It is a good sign. It feels so.

A friend forwarded me an essay about how the idea/image of Santa Claus was influenced by the shamans of the northern tribes who inhaled a lot of mushrooms that made them see fat and floating beings. Hah, I thought, so there goes the indigenous roots of a modern christmas icon. There is a continuity here, a sort of shape-shifting, that if acknowledged can signal that boundaries are quite porous. Having said so, I am ever more vigilant in seeing how open and generous frameworks from the indigenous worldview often get abused and appropriated by modern, colonial thinking folks.

See, I have circled back again. This is the politics of the sacred.

So how shall I greet Thee?

Friday, December 14, 2012

connecting the dots

massacre of children in Connecticut today
typhoon Pablo devastate parts of Davao
no more coconuts, bananas
mountain boulders descend into town
relief work
appeals for donation
melting of ice in Greenland
need for gun control
drones continue to bomb Pakistan border
 Israel and Palestine
extreme weather
king tides
Pacquiao knocked out
end of unemployment benefits
fiscal cliff debates
RH bill passed
Supreme Court and gay marriage
North Korea launch missile

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Notes from Pedagogies of Crossing/Jacqui Alexander

Every native of everywhere is a potential tourist. And every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native would like a way out, every  native would like a rest. Every native would like a tour. But some natives, most natives in the world, cannot go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the realities of their lives. And they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place the tourist wants to go. So when the native sees you, the tourist, they envy you. They envy your own ability to leave your banality and boredom. They envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself. (Jamaica Kincaid).

Collectivized "envy" is not the same as individual "envy." When collectivized, envy can ask important questions about how banality comes to be made into a source of pleasure, about who manufactures it, and about what can be done to transform it. ...Without these understandings, we will be unable to map the lines between our own location - between where we are, what we see, and what we do. We would be left to render only incomplete, skewed accounts of history...We need to develop a similar urgency around relational curricular projects that put us in conversation, not domination, with a range of relational knowledges. There is something quite profound about not knowing, claiming not to know, or not gaining access to knowledge that enables us to know that we are not the sole (re)producers of our lives. But we would have to apprehend the loss that comes from not knowing and feel its absence in an immediate and palpable way in order to remake ourselves enough, so that our analysis might change. We have to learn to intuit the consequences of not knowing, to experience their effects in order to reverse some of the deeply embedded deposits on which imperial psyche rests - a psyche that still holds on to the idea of manifest destiny and the fiction of protection and safety from an enemy, who is either calculating on the borders outside or hovering on the margins within. We would love to visit the devastation of living segregated lives.
A new conceptual map with an implied pedagogy that requires:

  • painstaking labor of reenvisioning curriculum, which at the very least does not reside within national and disciplinary borders
    • which takes account of the broad tempos and movements of history, while paying close attention to historical specificity
    • which demystifies the fictitious boundaries between the academy and the community
      • a division that leaves community work to particular disciplines, and worse, to particular bodies
    • which brings self-conscious positionality to the knowledge we produce, the contradictory positions we occupy and the internal systems of rewards and privileges from those very positions
    • which pays close attention to the questions we bring inside the classroom as we instruct students in the delicate task of learning how to pose questions.
  • and yet we confront a major difficulty in reconciling desire with practice, of teaching a vision we have not fully lived, of moving inside and across the outlines of a map, with no guarantees.
  • Such work places a great demand on the imagination, on practice, on reconfiguring the relationship between practice and theory and on building solidarity with different communities, while remaining aware of the suspicion that academic knowledge bears.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Leng's Bangka Journey

The sea is calling.

I have watched her dream unfold for years on the sidelines. I've known Leng Leng for many years. I have watched her shape-shift over the decades as she followed her sariling duwende. Always, I sensed she was following a storyline. Sometimes she would drop a clue but wouldn't say anything more. It was as if she was tracking the footprints of an ancestral spirit.

She dropped her public health career and started to walk the open road which led her to many return trips to the Philippines, to the Northwest where she connected with Indopinos who were part of a canoe  ritual ceremony. She met Turtle Island canoe builders who gifted a log to her.

Now she is making an open call. If you hear the sea calling, if you hear the call of your ancestors to connect the earth and sky, if the ancient stories are calling you Home -- would you build this canoe?

Thank you, Leng, for this invitation. There are lessons for me here...and they are Beautiful. Thank you for following your vision and your dream.

To healing community. To healing Earth and Sky.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I need a song to mourn the passing of the sister-self who has served me well. She is self-righteous. She is in control at all times. She is strong. She is unemotional. She is organized. She is elegant in her civilized manners.  She has served me well. I have loved her for how she has helped me survive this flatline culture. This culture that is full of hungry ghosts. I mourn for them now but for so long I have thought that they were real and that I should try to be like them.

I need a song to mourn the passing of the sister-self who had the certainty of purpose. Now the purpose is changing and she knows it and she is trying to hang onto the burning embers of the old fire. She doesn't know that there is a sacred fire that is calling her. Maybe she knows but she is afraid to let go.

I loved this old self. How can a love affair end? Why can't we stay together longer? When you are gone how will I navigate my way in the still unfamiliar realm of shadow and light, of spirit familiars and spirit guides? I have always been fearful of shadows. When I was a child I was told that there are aswangs and tikbalangs in the trees outside the window. In the dark, I can imagine them being there still.

Oh, my heart, listen to the longings of your soul, to the lament of your Kapwa; watch the river of tears flowing. Where and how can you keep hiding behind the curtain of rationality and stoicism? I know you feel deeply and you often carry your grief inside your pocket. Why the fear of your own vulnerability?

Say goodbye. Let go. Let her leave. Let this sister leave. You have been in her underworld for so long. Your ancestors have already sent you so many messengers in the past two decades. Tune in more closely to what they are saying. Tune in more loudly to their plea.

She said: I can die now. My time is up. My service days are over. I have indeed served you well.
I long to rest now and let you, my sister, to emerge as the keeper of dreams, the keeper of stories, the keeper of memories. Do you remember your dreams about lahar threatening to wipe off your home off the map and you said you will never let it happen? Well, the work is before you now.

Remember your dreams of coming home and you couldn't get home because you have too much baggage and too many other people's business to take care of? You can leave those bags at the airport now. Remember your dreams of wanting to save your family from drowning? Remember the lucid dream you had of leading them out on a bamboo raft you built? You flowed down the river towards the mouth of the ocean. As soon as you reached the ocean, the whales and dolphins welcomed you and the birds in the air dropped fruits on your raft. You survived. You are alive. You are safe.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kapihan with Kidlat Tahimik

Just taking a break from cooking: vegetarian lumpia, vegetarian munggo, pork spareribs in blackbean sauce, chicken adobo, black rice salad, kale salad, pineapple, buko with pandan gelatin, lemon grass tea with yerbabuena, broccoli and romanesco. It's going to be a feast!

When asked why I cook everything from scratch when Costco has all kinds of convenient ready-to-eat dinners, I said that I cook to honor what my mother has taught me. Because I love the people I'm feeding. Because I love the reason for our gathering.

And the reason is Kidlat Tahimik! An excerpt:

Tahimik’s postcollege sojourn in Germany resulted in a friendship with Werner Herzog (who cast him in The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser), a marriage, and a deceptively ramshackle debut film, Perfumed Nightmare (1977), whose easygoing interrogation of neocolonial identity, Philippine culture, and global economies turned it into a surprise international “hit.” Praised as “the joyful discovery of blasé film buffs from Berlin to Belgrade and beyond” (SF Chronicle, 1980) and “likely to become some sort of classic” (Village Voice, 1980), the film is now heralded as a key text of both Third World Cinema and the personal essay film, offering a pairing of politics and pleasure that has continued throughout Tahimik’s oeuvre. Never shying away from embracing a proud, postcolonial identity, yet always grounded in personal observation and a quiet, understated humor, Tahimik’s works take special joy in highlighting the indigenous cultures and history of the Philippines and beyond, whether honoring Tahimik’s beloved bahag loincloth, profiling local craftsmen and women, or recounting tales of Magellan’s Filipino navigator/slave. Assembled from countless hours of filming, drawn from months and years worth of work, “my footages are like tiles in a mosaic,” he writes. “You shuffle them, change them around. In my process, nothing is permanent.”

I'm glad to see the visibility of Kidlat's body of work today. Many Fil Ams have not heard of him. When I showed his film, Perfumed Nightmare, in my Asian Am course a few years ago, the students didn't quite know how to take it in. Many of them have never been to the Philippines and the cultural references in the film are unfamiliar to them. Secondly, many of them have never taken a course on the Phil-US colonial relationship and have never encountered the concept of colonial mentality prior to taking the class.  Even after discussing the film as a form of critique of colonialism, the students seemed to struggle with the idea that  assimilation is not the only way. 

Fast forward. The decolonization and indigenization movement in the Bay Area has been gaining momentum and visibility. The Center for Babaylan Studies is not the only organization that is contributing to this movement but I think it's safe to say that we are the only that is articulating this: 

In an email to a friend, I wrote:

We, at CFBS, have decided to organize the Second International Babaylan Conference in 2013.  Our theme will focus on the relevance of indigenous paradigms in the age of globalization. Questions like: What does it mean to reclaim our Filipino indigenous identity in the diaspora? How do we connect with our ancestral roots in the homeland? Why is it significant to do so? We raise these questions because we feel that we are riding a wave of transformation of consciousness as everyday we see signs of crises facing our planet. The modern world system is unraveling in front of our eyes and our political and economic systems seem unable to solve our precarious dilemma. On the other hand, we know that indigenous peoples around the planet have survived to the present because for thousands of years they lived sustainably and in deep relationship with the places they belonged to. The movement, Another World is Possible, drafted at the World Social Forum, and similar  social justice movements worldwide recognize the importance of reclaiming and renewing our indigenous consciousness and indigenous paradigms. 

As far as I can tell, within the Filipino American community, CFBS is the only organization that is articulating this. In the Philippines it is articulated by the Heritage and Arts Academies of the Philippines led by Kidlat Tahimik and Katrin de Guia and,  together with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, have organized the KAPWA conferences. 

So this Kapihan with Kidlat Tahimik tonight is part of our ongoing conversation on how we can connect the work that we do in the homeland and in the diaspora. May we all find our sariling duwende and the indigenius in each one of us.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

today an 80year old white woman accosted me at the Petaluma Market.
"oh, you are so exotic! where are you from?"
"dahil sa iyo?"
and with that intro, she latched on to me, unmindful of my discomfort.
she was born in Manila in 1932. her father, of French and Basque descent, was in the US Navy. he was beheaded by the Japanese in 1946. never did know the details.
she had promised her father she would go to America to go to school.
then she said:
"i should have married Pocholo Razon. he was in love with me. but i knew that Filipino men had mistresses and so I didn't marry him. he was a business men; he passed his business to his son."
"you have quite a story to tell." i told her. "what is your name?"
"chuchi. suzie. suzanne."
i didn't quite get her last name. it sounded hispanic. she said it's basque.
she could speak Tagalog alright.
i feel bad now that i didn't write her name down.

on FB i posted this encounter and soon friends were saying that there is a Pocholo Razon and his son Ricky Razon, now runs the family business. someone posted a link to the fortunes of this man: he is the third wealthiest billionaire in the Philippines. worth $4.6B.

so this woman has been following the story of the man she could have married.
 if i hadn't felt intruded upon, i could have engaged her a bit more. i could have listened.
but i was impatient.

now a story eludes me....

Saturday, November 3, 2012

wow, i haven't posted here in a month!! 
someone asked me today if i am writing and i said "on facebook!"
a little embarrassed, you bet.
someday i will write again.
for now am just gathering stories
living my life
tending the hearth
tending the wild

Friday, October 5, 2012

Left Behind

I will be collecting nuggets with this theme as inspired by OOV's next issue. we'll see where it goes...
in the rapture, people will be left behind. those who have  not accepted jesus christ as personal savior will be left behind when the savior comes. this is what i believed then. and others still believe in the present.
under the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind, testing was ramped up and teachers were required to teach to the test. now we have kids who can ace tests if they know exactly what they are tested on. if you ask them to exercise their creative imagination, they don't know where or how to begin.
election polls are always about who is being left behind by the numbers. everything is about winning and losing. hierarchies and binaries are thus maintained.
she left him behind when she moved to another continent. ever since then she has always longed to return.
i loved the movie Out of Africa. he left her behind. she stayed at the farm and waited for him to return never quite knowing when each time. she wanted more. he wanted none but the freedom to be. i had fantasies about that kind of romance. but the demands of the farm are real. it keeps me grounded.
we used to have season tickets to the SF symphony. i've left that behind. it was a phase when i thought i was keeping my mother's love for classical music alive. but i always felt like a peasant pretending to be what i was not in the midst of the real classical music lovers. are they real? that's beside the point. i still love classical music. sometimes.
i used to be afraid to dance. to move my body in front of others. i've left that behind now. when the Kalinga gongs started, the rhythm got me. in the company of my people, i came home to my sensuous soul. i've been dancing ever since.
beautiful language heals. academic jargon doesn't. so i've left that behind. except for the occasional call of duty. i write and i speak in the melody of the indigenous soul that has never ceased to sing to me. sometimes i still find myself questioning this turn. i didn't choose it. but each step of the way i entered the door that was open. it led me here.

Friday, September 28, 2012

connecting the dots

people as seeds
plants as people
female praying mantis eats the male after mating
election fever
is dialogue possible?
trek to vallejo for filipino food
cooking for a crowd
prowling her blog
white people are weird
fall harvest
pick your own
wars elsewhere
wars here
student stupor
mindless tv
dreams a lot
dreams of you
dreams of brad pitt
shaman conference
he makes noise

Thursday, September 13, 2012

a moral dilemma

a caregiver told me today that she may have witnessed a "mercy killing." she was caring for an elderly man whose daughter and granddaughter came to visit regularly. one day she was told to leave the room so she went to another room where there was a monitor to the old man's room. she was surprised to see that the old man seemed to be struggling as he was force-fed by his daughter. shortly thereafter, the old man died. the caregiver later found vials of vicodine, atavan, morphine next to his bed. she didn't tell the daughter that she saw what happened.

she was troubled by this. she told me that she was offered the job to continue working for the family but she didn't accept the offer even though she is desperate to find a job. she just didn't feel right about working for the family.

as the old man was taken away by the funeral people, she said she sprinkled holy water and said her prayers as she followed the body as it was taken out of the house.

i listened to her story and i saw how pained she was by this. what do we do in the face of this moral dilemma? if what she saw is what it was, then it is illegal in California. does she have a responsibility to report it if she is not sure what the facts are? does she have a legal responsibility to report? and if she reports it, does it put her at risk? this is a wealthy family with resources; she is a caregiver...she knows there would be repercussions she can't handle.

i am saddened because i am reminded once again of the way this culture deals with its elderly and infirm and with Death.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Dreaming Big at 60

I am 60 and I am daring to dream big!! Here's my birthday wish list! Is the universe listening?

1. Benefactors gift the Center for Babaylan Studies so we can fund our many projects including the 2013 Conference/Gathering. Actually, I'd settle for a volunteer who is willing to do fundraising or development work.; a grantwriter.
2.  Obama gets re-elected.
3. Fareed Zakaria returns to CNN and talks about The Post-American World
4. Justice for Julian Manda, the young Subanen culture bearer who was murdered during anti-mining protest.
5. A family reunion by the end of 2012.
6. Volunteers who can help harvest and process our apples and pears.
7. A catered birthday dinner by a Filipino chef.
8. A celebration with my friends who are also Virgo and Leos.
9. Proposition 30 passes in November; saves CSU from severe cuts.
10. A good year for Noah and his parents.
11. A new pair of shoes that doesn't hurt my knees.
12. A regular housecleaner.
13. More time to work in the winter garden
14. Wean from toxic materials in household cleaners
15. Learn how to make essential oils
16. Get handwritten letters in the mail
17. Spend less time on Facebook
18. Bill McKibben appears on more media to talk about global climate change
19. Improve my local involvement in the community
20. Offer space in my home to retreatants
21. More time to mentor
22. Go to the ocean more often
23. Be more kind
24. Get out of Wall Street and invest locally.
25. Wear more color
26. More time to walk
27. Someone finds this post and shares it widely.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

To be seen and heard...

(I'm posting this here so it doesn't get lost in my inbox. This friend is 1/4 Filipino and he was told that he is white and not Filipino while he was growing up. But his Lola lived with them and she had such a big influence in his life. He lived this contradiction and it troubled him. His search for an answer led to our correspondence and meeting).

Dear Leny , 

It is with a heart full of gratitude that I write you to thank you for your hospitality . It was a great blessing for me to meet you , share my stories and hear your wisdom .Today in my therapy session I realized why I had to wait to write you a thank you note . When I was reflecting on my visit with you and how affirming and healing your conversation was for me , my therapist asked me if I wanted to go to you for therapy , given that you are Filipina and that you understand the Filipino experience from the inside . I said that you weren't a therapist and that I went to you for other reasons , above all for your spiritual insights . And then I realized that I went to you for your blessing , and that the time with you, sharing a meal , a conversation , and meeting your husband was a blessing . And then I spoke of how your teaching about the indigenous Filipino spirit in the depths of my psyche made so many things clear for me about my family and my self . And in saying that , I had the insight that my deep SELF , the part of my psyche that is Filipino sought you out . Because in our indigenous Filipino tradition , before the Spanish came , the spiritual leaders and healers were women - the Babaylan . And you are the one who is calling forth consciously the Babaylan spirit right here in this part of the world where I live !  I am in awe that the spirit in me led me to your books and to you for healing .

Thank you - gracias - salamat - Diyos mabalos !

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Notes from Kapwa 3

Notes from the Kapwa 3 Conference
Baguio City, June 26, July 2, 2012

I have been struggling to write these notes from the Kapwa 3 conference because in so many ways, the event couldn't really be captured in words. You just had to be there. Present. Embodied. Because what the body experiences teaches the mind to wrestle with one's intellectual preoccupations; it teaches the soul to rest in the wisdom of the body; it teaches the heart to break wide open.  When the gongs and the drums start and you see the IPs begin to form a circle and dance, you can't help but join in. Your feet will take you there and you begin to move, at first in imitation of the IPs, and then your body finds its own rhythm and you begin to move from your inner being. You are joyful. You are wordless. You don't want to stop. Something stirs you deeply. It feels ancient. It feels good. You are glad to be there.
During the pre-conference, the different schools of living traditions set up their spaces at VOCAS and displayed their beautiful arts and crafts. Mangyan, Talaandig, Ata, Panay Bukidnon, Tiboli, Palaw'an, Subanen, Manobo, Kalinga, Ifugao. Basketry, bead jewelry, handsewn blouses, necklaces and armbands, embroidery, handcarved bamboo flutes, soil paintings, woven tapestries, bird whistles. Colors everywhere! Dazzling Beauty!
Naturally, our group from the US and Canada was ecstatic from this display of indigenous beauty. We filled our backpacks with purchases and we kept coming back for more. We made friends with the IPs; we had long extended conversations. I saw some of the young ones sitting at the feet of the IP elders listening to their stories. The young IPs, on the other hand, relished their chats with our group -- sharing their dream of getting educated, their stories of pride in their ethnic festivals and their schools of living tradition. This Kapwa 3 was specially focused on the IP youth -- to bring them into the wide circle of the country's IP communities -- so they may get to know IPS from other tribes. There were workshops that trained them how to teach others about their cultural practices and beliefs through the medium of performing arts. Then they were given the opportunity to perform at different high schools around Baguio City.
The first three days of Kapwa3 were devoted to these open interchange amongst all the various groups that included us. At the center stage, there were various IP speakers - Datu Vic of the Talaandig, Manong Fred of the Panay Bukidnon, Maria Todi of the Tiboli; they were joined by invited speakers like Dennis Banks, Aniishinabe founder of the American Indian Movement, representatives of the Karen tribe from Thailand, Ainu representatives from Japan. Storytelling, chanting, drumming, dancing -- filled all of our senses with an ineffable satisfaction.
The ABS-CBN crew who has been documenting the event, at one point, stopped to tell me that they are so awed and overwhelmed by their experience that they didn't know how to condense it all into a 30-minute documentary. How can this event be framed and communicated to urban city-folks without portraying IPs as "other" or as commodified cultural objects, or as endangered exotic cultures. We had a chance to talk about Kapwa: what would the disappearance of our indigenous cultures, languages, peoples mean for urban city folks? If we are each other's Kapwa, wouldn't those losses be ours as well? What do we all lose? What does it all mean? Such questions are so fecund. Must keep asking them.
The academic part of the conference began on the third day. The University of the Philippines in Baguio hosted this part of Kapwa 3. Students filled the auditorium. Academics presented papers on Kapwa psychology, research on indigenous practices, educational issues, on IP advocacy issues. Each day of the conference began and ended with ritual. We learned a lot from the wealth of knowledge shared by scholars from around the country. Oh, did you know that the Department of Education in the Philippines now has an "Office of IP Education"? How cool is that? It's about time.
There were also off-site events. One day we all rode in jeepneys to go to the Bencab Museum. This is a destination! It houses indigenous arts of the Northern tribes as well as Bencab's works and those of other artists. For Kapwa 3, there were several local indigenous artists whose woodcarving, sculptures, and other works were exhibited for this event. Yes - there was dancing and drumming there as well!
After the trip to Bencab Museum we proceeded to a new art-site in Baguio which is still under construction. There was a canao that night that lasted till midnight. The youthful ones stayed behind and enjoyed the verbal jousting and exchange of chants between the IP groups.
Another night we watched Busong which was introduced by the filmmaker himself, Aureaus Solito. In another part of the city, at Padma's bookstore, Dr. Mend-ooyo, Mongolian poet, read from his works and shared his paintings as well. I shared the evening with him and read from the Babaylan book.
Btw, the food served throughout the conference was catered by Oh My Gulay's indigenous chef... Everyday we ate gourmet healthy vegetarian meals. The merienda was likewise just as delicious and nourishing. Lemon grass and pandan tea flowed freely.
It rained everyday mostly in the afternoons. It is the monsoon season after all. But there were all-day rains all day. Sometimes Baguio was wrapped in fog. So we had it all -- warm sun, cool rain, foggy days. But nothing dampened the spirit and energy of Kapwa 3.
We were able to gather our US and Canada group twice for brief sharing of how we were feeling, what we were thinking. Alas, there was not enough time to process it all. Even now, we are still processing and this will be an ongoing work for a long time.
Kapwa2 in 2008 opened a portal in myself that I didn't even know was closed but could now, in hindsight, be grateful for that opening.  I saw this happen again to the Kapwa 3 folks for whom this is a first-time encounter with IPs. All manner of questions, of inarticulable feelings, of sensations, of waking up -- it was all there. It was hard to contain. It was spilling over.
The cultural tour was cancelled due to heavy rains so we all gathered at Katrin's in Tuding after the conference. Here we were able to circle up again and talk a little bit more about our experiences, our dreams, our "what's next?" Katrin mentioned the role that folks in the diaspora might have in the sustainability of Kapwa conferences as well as the sustainability of efforts to make a difference in the lives of IP youth. She said that a scholarship fund exists to help fund IP scholars. It is a reality that IP communities need to have members who can negotiate with entities (government, NGOs, nonprofits), can do accounting, and other skills needed to help their communities navigate their way in a world that is encroaching upon their ancestral domains, their rights, their way of life.
I said something about how our peak experiences at Kapwa3 will fade as we return to the US and resume our daily lives...but now we have had these experiences and they've made a difference in our consciousness, and we would like to incorporate these into our waking world. What shall we do to honor our commitments to ourselves, to the IP communities we said we would support? What shall we do to remind ourselves daily of our connection to the homeland and to the IPs? For we are ways so deep that we may not yet be fully aware of. How do we grow that awareness?
I relish the moments now of being able to see those FB images of Kapwa 3. I will continue on posting some more notes as time permits. For now, enjoy this first one...
Wish you were there...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ayn Rand: I loved you once

Yes, that's right. There was a time in my life when I thought that Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were great stories. I loved the hero, Howard Roark, for his refusal to compromise his principles, his dedication to his art/architecture, his "selfishness."

I was young then. I was an evangelical Christian. I was grasping for a story that would help me shore up my apparent lack of ability to assert my individualistic self. I was a newly arrived immigrant and reading the novels helped me to develop the "art of selfishness" so that I could put up with this culture. In turn, it was also suffocating my sense of Kapwa but undecolonized as I was then, I thought I had no choice. I was wrong.

Well, I can be gracious towards Ayn Rand and say that this "art of selfishness" was a roundabout route to my decolonization. Precisely because it didn't work, I was, slowly and surely, led out of the dark tunnel so I could make my way back to the value of Kapwa.

So I was rather surprised when I read that conservative Christians were loving Ayn Rand. Christianity is about compassion, not selfishness. But, of course, it's more complicated than that. Once evangelical Christians wedded their faith to their sense of patriotism, it became easier to find a metanarrative that would rationalize their belief. The USA is God's chosen country. It is founded on white/Eurocentric values; it is English-speaking. It was built on the foundation of individualism, competition, survival of the fittest. That is why they love Ayn Rand. Selfishness here means: My country is being invaded by people who are not like us. These immigrants are not from Europe. They have different values and beliefs. They will destroy our country eventually if we do not protect our own.

This sense of ownership, of entitlement is what people who love Ayn Rand cling to. I have relatives who love Ayn Rand. They can't stand the idea that we are now in a "post-America" world (as Fareed Zakaria argues in his book of the same title) and that the US is no longer no. 1, nor considered as relevant as it once was in the eyes of the rest of the world.

My relatives blame higher education (too liberal!), they blame homosexuals (it's a sin!), they blame people of color (they come from third world countries!), they blame poor people (they are lazy!). Yes, they admit that they believe in American exceptionalism.  They are angry because they perceive something is being taken away from them. This fear of losing their something is what I feel fuels the fear-mongering that has engulfed the airwaves. This fear is not capable of historical analysis nor reflection. The shadow material that fuels this fear remains unconscious that is why it is so emotionally potent. Nothing sells like Fear in the dying days of manic capitalism.

I generally do not watch television anymore but when I was asked my opinion about Paul Ryan, I felt that I should be informed before I open my mouth. I read that Paul Ryan loves Ayn Rand and makes her books required reading for his staff. And I can see how this empowers Paul and gives him that charisma - the single-minded pursuit of his own truth (about the deficit, medicare, etc).  Howard Roark, Ayn Rand's hero, however, never went into politics. There is the difference. And plus, Ayn Rand was an there.

Ahh! I did love Ayn Rand once, too.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

An Offering to the Holy Composter of Grief

    On behalf of our sons and daughter
    On behalf of a family history of grief
    On behalf of generational trauma
    On behalf of a History that wrote itself into the script of those tropical islands 
    On behalf of the civilization that wounds us

    I beseech the Ancestors on the other side who hear us
     Please hear the music of our lamentations
     See the beauty we are trying to create out of the cracks of this modern life
     Feel the depths of our soul in our elegant struggle to be beautiful and whole

     One Son  creates beauty in the patch of land he lives on
     Soul is nourished by the colors and the energies of the plant beings
     Equally sensitive to   his touch and loving attention
     And as for the litany of feelings of rejection, disrespect, disaffection 
     May these be washed in the knowing that one's true nature is not these.
     If patience and endurance is the fate of this lifetime
     May the love that he gives be returned by the divine source in the heart of Nature
    As for a mother's tears
    This, too,  is a blessing
     To share in the fate of so many
     Without succumbing to the seduction of self-pity, shame, guilt
     Beauty is still the song in our lips.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Middle-World Practice

it's never too late to start again. today, i went for a long walk by myself in my neighborhood. i noticed the old towering redwoods, liquid amber, maple, pepper trees, gingko, birch, willow, acacia...and the blooming shrubs and bushes - hydraengeas, roses, lemons, clematis, yarrow, willow, salvia, lavender and more. i looked up and praised the horse-tails and the blue sky. the warm sun bathe me. the streets were quiet. the wild blackberry bushes are pregnant. the neighbors' vegetable gardens are a delightful assortment of artichokes, sweet peas, tomatoes, basil, herbs.

i have lived in this neighborhood for 29 years. but i wasn't paying attention. walking around the neighborhood was just for my fitness. oh sure, i've noticed how it has changed over the years -- more houses, more development, more grocery stores, more people and cars, more of everything. except Land that hasn't been developed.

recently, i made a conscious decision to cultivate my relationship with this piece of land. it is a conscious decision because prior to this, my idea of land, as in homeland, has been located elsewhere where my body isn't. it makes sense that that my love of home-land, must include the earth beneath my feet.

and perhaps that is the point of developing this practice: the earth beneath my feet is literally my homeland.

as i was walking i thought of how i've spent the last three decades growing my intellect. read hundreds of books. learned academic jargon. wrote and published a lot of words. participated in online listserves. everything has been about words.

what about the language older than words? what has been my connection to this language? how do i reclaim it and befriend it?

i feel the answer closing in on me.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Quotes from Martin Prechtel

All quotes are from The Unlikely Peace of Cuchumaquic. An elder asked me recently: Leny what do you love to do most? and I said: I cook and feed people. So I have been meditating on this since the question was asked and it leads me to remembering the life of seeds....and next thing I know someone hands me Prechtel's new book which is about the parallel lives of people as plants and keeping the seeds alive. It is both literal and metaphorical. The list below will keep growing....
Find the seeds of your people.
Find their stories and their scientific origins.
Find their mythological origins.
Ask the seeds if they are willing to die, planted in the ground to feed humans.
Seeds as funeral whose generosity feeds us.
Learn to cook beautifully and feed your neighbors.
Unstoried, unfed, modern mechanical inventions....
Debt of insult to the past beyond dismal spiritual back taxes we already owe on account of our disrespectful and invasive times...
Now that you're one of us, you will always feel lonely and betrayed by what humans value, but loved by the echoing Holies. Get used to it!
The need for slow development and gradual initiation causing deeper remembrance of our non-human origins, where we could keep conscious and alive the learning humans need, to know how to ritually feed the world in a time-articulated existence ...
Be beautiful and spiritually useful to the universe.
Time divination - to remember the Beauty and privilege of being allowed to live...
Time shamans/diviners - those who kept the seeds of Time as existence alive. Diagnose the unseen and unaddressed aspects of spiritual conditions of the present in order to find out was was needed to heal as individuals, as families, as entire heal the tattered holes we left in the Holy Net of Time.
Divination - to understand the hidden life of the present. Segments of Deferred Time. Body as Earth.
Ritual - feeding the Divine through creations of beauty made by our hands and language. World eats the Beauty we make.
Everyday Beauty as an obligation of remembering that even in just how we walk, we feed God.
Takes a lot of time, know-how, and non-returning gift giving -- late payment for the grace of living...

Friday, May 18, 2012

dear paysbuk,
i wish i know how to quit you.
it was better when i was blogging and connecting to folks based on mutual interests.
now hardly anyone visits this blog anymore because i don't take time to create the links and tags to other people's sites like i used to.
it was better when i didn't have to spend so much time scrolling thru people's updates, events, news items, announcements, birthdays.
i had more time reading and reflecting and then writing more than 140characters. i got quite a bit of writing done then that eventually led to longer pieces that ended up in books, anthologies, ezines, and  listserves where there were meaningful discussions going on.
i think someday soon, your bubble will burst, too, paysbuk.
just like everything else in this simulated reality that has kept us numbed and distracted.
one at a time, we will say
i miss my face-time with my best friend
i miss the phone contact with family
i miss the touch and hug of a loved one
i miss being present to my own life
i miss gardening and touching the warm soil
i miss pulling weeds in the garden
i miss sitting in the backyard without my laptop
i miss walking around the neighborhood

oh yes, time to make time for these things again
summer is here

orphaned koans are waiting

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

wise counsel from an indigenous elder that i have been meditating on:
-- academic to cultural practitioner
-- standing your ground to move the work forward
-- when doing spiritual work, relying on rules/policies/norms don't work well
-- concentrate on relationships and process
-- servant, not leader
-- forms will change as energies shift
-- what brings you joy? find the root myth
-- humility
-- kapwa as a cultural and social concept is inclusive
-- kapwa as spiritual concept has boundaries

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Partial List of Books by the bed:
The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic
The New Imperial Order: Indigenous Responses to Globalization
Shrouds of White Earth
Liberation and the Cosmos
Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities
A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness
Indigenizing the Academy
Blackfoot Physics
The Wayfinders
The Turquiose Ledge
Tending the Wild
Shadows in the Sun
Postindian Conversations

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Lullaby for Rising by Oscar Penaranda

Lullaby For Rising*

the well of memory runs deep
a bottomless spring
you must dive into and explore
like a healing hilot's hand
or perish
You have to steel yourself, prepare
growing into it
struggle without losing the spirit of gratitude
always saying po and salamat
for that is a healing too
paghihilom din yan
like giving 
and getting comfort from the friendship of
self, family, community
and ancestors
birthing and baptizing
yourself anew
Find the tanglad that will flavor whatever nourishes you
for we are all of mixed heritage
many colors  in our diversity
and we are all of one heritage
one color in our humanity
once you find our indigenous connections
learning the wonderful force of bayanihan
from our manongs and manangs
and kaibigans

Mabuhay ka, my child.

Oscar Peñaranda
April 28, 2012
Santa Rosa
Sonoma County,

*(poem composed from the one-word contributions of participants at the Asian Community Forum, at SSU, on 4/30, organized by Karen P/FANHS, CFBS, FACSCI, FAASSU).

sonoma county  salamat   comfort  connections kaibigan, mixed heritage, family, friendship, diversity, bayanihan tanglad  growing  wonderful  learning, paghilom, malalim, manong

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Asian community forum, 4/30

soon there will photos of the April 30th event on Fb of the rituals, panel discussion, dances, fashion show, and other elements of the day-long program. people will see the images and make up stories about what they are seeing. so let me give you a map for viewing. looking at the photos, some  may wish they had been there:
  • to hear Manong Peter Jamero
  • to hear the heartfelt sharing of the intergenerational panelists about growing up Asian and/or Filipino in Sonoma County
  • to enjoy the performances of the college students, or chat with Christian Cabuay about baybayin
  • to cheer on the models of Marybelle Bustos' ethno-fusion/fashion show
  •  to be mesmerized by Christine's rendition of Ili-Ili 
  • to be soothed by the opening and closing ritual by Lizae, Alexis and Titania
  • and wish they had been part of the closing circle where we thanked and honored our ancestors and each other as future ancestors.
  • to partake of the bountiful and delicious luncheon buffet
some will see the photos and be glad that they were part of this day. they will be grateful to have had the opportunity to:
  • co-create, to collaborate, to cook, to decorate, to share
  • listen to an intergenerational panel talk of how we are weaving our connections
  • get their books signed by Manong Peter 
  • get their name done in baybayin. 
  • model beautiful indigenous attire from Titania's baul/treasure chest and Marybelle's cachet of accessories. 
  • witness the talented Fil Ams at SSU do their tinikling and hiphop and folk dance choreographies
  • meet new people, listen to each other's stories
  • support the fundraising efforts of young people who are going to Kapwa 3
  • learn and embody new perspectives 
  • share dreams about our shared future in Sonoma County and beyond 
many will feel awe and pride at the beauty of the Filipino indiogenius even if they have never heard of the word before. maybe they won't be able to adequately articulate the feeling of being surrounded by Kapwa and yet they know that it feels good and it feels better than other events they may usually attend.

some will see the ethnic/indigenous elements and will raise questions about cultural appropriation. orientalism. exotic self-representation. nativism. some might say that this is all wrong or disrespectful of indigenous peoples' traditions and practices. some will say that we are merely being nostalgic or romantic about our pre-colonial past.

it is usually those who are never present at these events who say these. how can they know otherwise when their books tell them so? visual representations are easy to deconstruct using one's theoretical lenses and assumptions but critical perspectives are nothing more than an invitation to get a closer look at what we are resisting. remember that the shadow hides many gems.

we create the communities that we want to belong to.

so what are you seeing in these photos?

Friday, April 27, 2012

for waiwai who loved us

we lined her resting place with sage, lavender and rosemary vines. we covered her body with roses and purple clematis and jasmine and then we wrapped her in Ma's barong. she is beautiful. i made a bouquet of flowers of bearded iris, dogwood, and roses from the garden and placed it on the mound marked with stones. it was 12noon, April 27.

i never thought i'd cry so much over a cat. to think that when we were growing up, i used to burn our cat's whiskers because i wanted to see how it would react (sorry!)...during Waiwai's decline she taught us a lot about hospice and how to be with death and dying. am glad we didn't euthanize her and brought her to the vet so she could disappear from us. there is something beautiful, even if sad, about being with her in her final moments this morning when she was gasping for breath and when she breathed her last. we were able to soothe her and place our hands on her.

when i told family and close friends about her, i realized that she has been part of our community all along, like a trickster even, who was weaving her magic around all of us when she would sit in the middle of our circles, or go to the bedrooms when Katrin and Venus and Frances were with us and she would spend her time with them in bed. how she always greeted everyone and was always trying to get attention. in later days, she didn't seem want to be around people so much but when people were saying goodbye, she would always come down and join in. Frances wrote a poem about her and everyone has been sharing their memories of her. Katrin, who believes in reincarnation, said maybe she is already reborn as a baby in the Philippines:-)

what she taught me is that she is not just a "pet" - an object of affection - but a cat being. and that means a lot!. 

here's frances' poem for Waiwai:

her sweet sharp purr
a melody
the softest paws
pad pad padding
through the kitchen floor
keeping time
to my
heart's beat

scrambling to my feet
i find
all she needs
is some 
to sweeten
this already
oh so sweet

licking the
in her waiwai way
she reminds
to stop

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Embracing and Celebrating Diversity: An Asian American Forum

Karen Pennrich, president of FANHS Sonoma County, is leading the organizing of the "Embracing and Celebrating Our Diversity: An Asian American Forum" on April 28 at Sonoma State University's Cooperage, from 10am to 3am.  The event is co-sponsored by the Ctr for Babaylan Studies, Fil Am Students at SSU, Fil Am Community of So Co, the SSU Diversity Committee and the SSU Multicultural Center. Now that is what I call collaboration -- getting all the local organizations working together.

There is indeed a new energy around here. The local organizations are working together, pooling and sharing resources and there is mutual support for each other's activities and events. New folks are coming forward to volunteer. New events like book readings, fundraisers for relief efforts in the Philippines, fundraisers for members with critical needs, music and dance classes, language classes -- are just some of the manifestation of this new energy.

The reach of this energy extends beyond Sonoma County. CFBS volunteers - Lizae, Titania, Alexis, Marybelle, Jay, Christine are also joining us this day. As we integrate ritual, music, creative arts into a community forum, we are creating integral wholeness. We consciously approach our organizing and conceptualizing from this perspective. Kapwa is wholistic. Body, mind, and spirit are nurtured.

And the students: Michael, Danielle, Jenn, Andrew, Samantha, Richard, and others -- we are connecting the university with the community! You are the future leaders of our communities. Thank you for your commitment to FAASSU and to your studies and to this community connection. Your voices are important. We need to hear you!

Thank you to Elisa Velasquez, Chair of Diversity Committee at SSU for supporting the forum thru the Richard Rodriguez memorial award. There will be many more opportunities for collaboration in our future. Salamat!

Friday, April 6, 2012

reviewing my old blog (kathang pinay). today reviewing march 2004. so many lovely posts then. i look back on this road i've travelled and see now that it is a road that chose me. they must have known. they must have waited. they must have set out these markers so i would find my way. i made my way slowly without this foreknowing. and now the road ahead beckons even farther. now i have traveling company. we laugh. we grieve together. we dream. we  dance. we sharpen our warrior eyes and tongues. we write. we teach. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

connecting the dots

mental health and climate change
 too much rain in Baguio
floods in Legaspi, Bacolod, Mindoro, Panay
giant agriculture machines in the midwest
monsanto's gmo seeds and fertilizers
brewing wars
small organic farms growing
trayvon martin
hate groups growing
facebook addiction
grief ritual needed
community needed
conference in june
keynote talk

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

so many beautiful things are flowing....

  • reading Greg Sarris' not yet published manuscripts of fiction and non fiction and learning a lot about local native communities past and present
  • anticipating KAPWA 3 conference in Baguio in June-July
  • March 31 Open House with Titania and Rocco's 7th birthday
  • supporting FANHS Sonoma County's April 28 event: Asian American Community Forum
  • re-building departmental program
  • Shailja Patel's visit today in my class. Luminous human being. 
  • April 4, Lakota Sun Dancer and elder will be visiting same class
  • meet up with Tera, Lily, and Therese at the Asian Am Studies Conf in Washington DC, April 14
  • promotion: in process
  • planning for Grace Nono events in the Fall
  • Schooling the World - screened at home with friends
  • reading Wayfinders by Wade Davis
  • reading Turquoise Ledge, Leslie Marmon SIlko
  • the chicks survived week one. all looking good.
  • beloved community thriving; gratitude for volunteers

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bravo to poets!
After yet another committee meeting last week, I sighed to a colleague that I miss the days when I used to hang-out more with poets. I also miss teaching ethnic literature. But wait! I do incorporate literature in my other courses. In fact, this coming week, Shailja Patel will speak to my students. Shailja is a poet and performance artist. Migritude, the book and performance, demonstrates how an artist can integrate poetry and activism into a beautiful work of art on stage. Much like what Eileen Tabios has done in the past with her performance piece, I Take Thee English.

Looking forward to Wed and Shailja.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Schooling the World
Showed this film last night to a small group of folks. Co-hosted by J, a long-time activist in this area, we had a a very diverse group: immigrant Pinays, US-born Pinays, lesbian elders from different ethnic backgrounds, and two white men.
After the movie, we passed around the talking stone so each one can take a minute or two to respond to the film.
In a way it's a difficult film to watch as it invites the viewer to review our fundamental assumptions about schooling. Schooling, as it's promoted by US-led globalization efforts, is a movement that seeks to mold every country and every child, to cater to a global, urban, consuming culture. Call it progress, modernity, development.
Not every one is convinced though and the folks around the circle confirm this.
But what to do? Since we are all products of this schooling system, how do we envision a different kind of education?

Grace Lee Boggs says that revolutions are no longer just about ideologies that compete with each other. Revolution requires putting spirit back into the work that we do in the world. Work that humanizes; work that creates community; work that seeks new ways of envisioning the future.

Every little step we take towards this future counts. It begins with asking questions. It begins with learning how to question what we know. It begins with paying attention to the voice that speaks to us about our feelings of emptiness and shallowness in spite of our material wealth. It begins with paying attention to the moments that do make us feel whole and joyful -- moments that don't last long but leave an imprint in the soul for a very long time. These are the memories that are hard to forget or numb out. They will come back again and again to haunt us, to woo us, to bring us back to what matters most.

The women of Ladakh know what matters. The young people that leave the village to get an education in the city know what matters. But once they are entrained and entranced by the urban life, how will they cope with the sense of what's been lost?

I know this question and I have lived it. And I say Yes, there is a way.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Buaya People of the Cordillera

(From Verbal Arts of Philippine Indigenous Communities by Herminia Menez-Coben)

The Buaya, crocodile people of the Northern Kalinga, have an epic heroine who was a headhunter as well as a shaman who danced on the edge of axes and tips of spears (58).

Her name is Emla in the Kalinga epic, gasumbi. In the epic, Emla and her female cousin, whose brothers Gawa and Battawa, are in the same epic cycle, the epic singer depicts the heroine as capable of heroism that is normally attributed to men only. She hesitates at first but then undertakes to lead the headhunting expeditition by: reading the omens; commands her pet crocodiles to ferry her fearful partner across the river; and as soon as she spots the victim she shouts, "I shall strike first!" As the head falls, she cries "The crocodile hit you through this woman, Emla!" She invokes her village affiliation as a member of a fearless people, Buaya, named after the fiercest animal in the Cordillera. Emla carries the severed head back to the village while the cousin brings the victim's heirlooms.

Emla's recitation of the palpaliwat/raiding boast in the epic represents transgressive performance that points to a deeper meaning of her role as shaman and warrior.

The performance of the raiding boast by heroine of the Buaya epic is anomalous since in real life only men can participate in palpaliwat. But the gasumbi singer is a woman and could have reinterpreted warrior politics as a genre of her own creation. Singers portray Emla as a true dulliyaw, a fearless warrior in the epic. Gawa, the brother, even relinquishes the center stage to Emla in the epic.

In another episode, Emla and her cousin kill two male village leaders that even their brothers never dared to attack.

Emla is not only a killer but a life-giver. Emla as shaman and warrior departs from the pattern (men-centered) as the gasumbi celebrates women's unique achievement as healer and seer, not as a child bearer.

Among the buwaya, female sexuality was not linked with reproductive ability but with shamanistic power. The most powerful magical woman, like the bravest headhunters, possessed the greatest sexual allure as depicted in the erotic embrace of the dancing warrior and shaman during the headhunting feast.

"The sacrificial efficacy of the Buaya festival to dedicate the head involves a miming of erotic excitement."

Among the Buaya and Buaya only, a female shaman accompanied the headhunters to enemy territory to cast the first spear.

The gasumbi singer portrays the epic heroine who kills and also resuscitates (life-giving). Taking a life in order to live (ref origin of the headhunt). (63)

Headhunting among Buaya declined in the 1930s and had not completely vanished in the mid 1960s while the gasumbi was still performed.

The last headhunter killed 10 in 1964.

There were still female shamans who officiated in the traditional rites.

The epic singer who is also a female shaman had a vested interest in keeping alive not only the verbal art but the practice of headhunting itself.

Buaya shaman is called dorrakit in Isneg.

Severed head = ritual payment to the spirits

Shamans as cultural brokers. Later Buaya shamans substituted human fingers, human hair mounted on carved wood, as substitute (77).

Leny's notes:
There was a time when I didn't bother to learn about our verbal arts among indigenous folks. I was a product of a colonial (mis)education, after all. Now that I am trying to learn and understand the indigenous paradigm, I could read about these practices and glean from the fragments gems that I recognize and even sense in my own body and psyche.

Emla - warrior and shaman of the Buaya in northern Kalinga. She who remains alive in the epic...she who remains potent even through the silencing of the practice that has been made illegal by the modern state.

I recall Renato Rosaldo's story about headhunting and grief as he did his research among the Ilonggots. He lost his wife in that trek as she fell to her death off a cliff. In that moment, he said, he understood what the headhunters have told him all along: 'we need a container for our grief'...

In the indigenous world view there is reciprocity and the understanding of sacrifice - taking a life to sustain life - as something that is part of what it means to sustain life on this side of the world. We give and we take to maintain balance.

How did we lose this respect for the intimacy of death? How did we come to call it violent?

Rosaldo, returning to the Iloggot village years later, asked the folks what they remembered of the old days. The folks refused to talk. "We are christian now," they said, and "we no longer practice our heathen ways." But they also said, "it pains us to remember who we used to be; please do not ask us anymore."

I read about it all the time: the pain of remembering what was been lost on the road to civilization.

When does remembering give way to the healing of those violent memories? Can we still walk on the same road? If not, what is this alternative road?

No, I wouldn't go back to the days of headhunting. That is not what re-indigenization means.

Friday, January 27, 2012

connecting the dots...

manifest manners
soft imperialism
creative literature as shamanism
visual memories
vizenor vizena
no victimry
winter hibernation
freud or jung?
vine of memory

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

BAbaylan and Strategic Essentialism

Reclaiming the Southeast Asian Goddess:
Examples from Contemporary Art by Women
(Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia)
ネシア),” (trans. by Izumi Nakajima), _Image & Gender_, vol. 6, 2006, pp.105-119.
By Flaudette May V. Datuin
In this essay, I will invoke – as a form of strategic essentialism - the figure of the
Southeast Asian goddess and the babaylan, the ancient priestess as theme, metaphor and
signifier for women’s life-giving, nurturing and healing powers. By reclaiming the legacy
of the Southeast Asian goddess, I will present the emerging outlines of a Southeast Asian
feminist framework revolving around embodied spirituality – a concept where the body is
construed as an anatomical, spiritual, social and psychic space grounded on fluidity and
wholeness, instead of hierarchy and dualities. In the process, I will argue that while most
women artists in Southeast Asia are not consciously and overtly “feminist,” they
nonetheless point to the contours of emerging feminisms in Southeast Asia, and perhaps,
in Asia. These “feminisms” cannot be defined solely on the basis of individual autonomy,
hinged on sexual and body-centered liberation (as in radical feminism); or on “equal
rights” in an untransformed social structure (as in liberal feminism).Drawing from my
ongoing study and engagement with women artists in the visual arts of Southeast Asia, I
will present examples of how selected Philippine, Indonesian and Thai women artists
articulate and embody the Southeast Asian goddess figure through their lives and their
Babaylanism as Strategic Essentialism
This year, the Philippines is celebrating one hundred years of Philippine
feminism, which – according to official state historical sources - is said to have entered
the country with the founding of the Asosacion Feminista Filipina (Association of
Filipina Feminists) on June 30, 1905. This indicates that, as early as 1905, Filipinas – or a
least the elite suffragists – already have a consciousness of the term and concept
‘feminista,’ and that instead of naming their association Asosacion Mujeres (or women’s
association) for example, they deliberately defined and located themselves within an
international revolutionary movement, which challenges the status quo by unmasking the
gendered dimensions of “larger” social ills, in this case brought about by an abusive
Spanish colonial administration.
However, the feminist historian Fe Mangahas argues that even before the
founding of this feminist association of elite Filipinas, there is an even earlier,
‘indigenous’ form of “women’s consciousness that evolved within our own Philippine
historical and cultural context.” She calls attention to the pre-colonial priestess or
babaylan, a figure which “even to many feminists today remain an esoteric topic if not a
dead relic of the past.” (Mangahas 2005, 1) Mangahas rightly argues however, that the
babaylan is an important figure for today’s feminists, or at least for Filipina feminists and
I will discuss this important legacy in more detail, shortly. Meanwhile, Mangahas insists
on naming and articulating the term babaylanism, not only to re-discover and re-member
the babaylan, but also to constantly use babaylanism as a term to name, describe and
connect Filipina feminism more firmly with the babaylan’s proto-feminist strategies of
During my recently-concluded five-month research in Japan as an Asian Public
Intellectual (API) fellow under the administration of the Nippon Foundation Fellowships,
I have come to realize that ‘feminism’ is not a positive term in Japan, and that it is
frequently criticized, especially in local media, as a Western import. We are suffering the
same negative reception in the Philippines, though at a different -perhaps less oppressive,
more tolerant register. However, because of 500 years of colonial history – 400 under
Spain, 50 years under the US, and still counting – we feel at its most acute, a problem
shared by most postcolonial feminists: that of locating a female identity and feminist
movement in relation to questions of national and cultural identity, and in light of
postcolonial challenges to the hegemony of “white-middle-class” feminists and their
‘naïve’ and ‘imperialist’ belief in a universal sisterhood. In the visual arts, we often refer
to the hegemony of 70s middle class Anglo-American feminists, of which the vaginal
imageries of Judy Chicago have become paradigmatic of an essentialist and nostalgic
body-centered strategy.
It is in this context that it has become ‘fashionable’ among a sector of Philippine
academic and NGO community – and not only among feminists - to distinguish ourselves
from Western theorists and to seek ‘indigenous’ frames and models of identity by
recovering our pre-colonial past. During my API fellowship, I came across several
Japanese counterparts to this nativist movement, of which I cite two: The Kyoto 1942
symposium of intellectuals, academics and critics aiming to critique “Japan’s course of
modernization in terms of refuting Westernization” (Munroe 1994, 24); and in the
appropriation of Japan’s first ancestral goddess Amaterasu by Takamure Itsue – a pre-war
feminist philosopher and historian (albeit with no professional training as one).
According to Ueno Chizuko (in Buckley 1997), Takamure proposed the idea of a
‘maternal self’ as a Japanese cultural ideal set in opposition to the Western ‘individualist
self’. By identifying herself and all Japanese women with the first, great goddess, she
offered a feminist counterpart to a larger anti-Westernization and counter-modernism
project. Framed by what Ueno described as ‘reverse Orientalism’, this maneuver led to
Takemure’s active participation in the war, which she justifies as a ‘sacred war’ that
fights for a rapidly disappearing maternal self, as seen for instance in individualist
feminists’ focus on such issues as the woman’s vote (like the Asosacion Feminista
Filipina), rather than on their feminine virtues, power to give birth, raise a family, lead
and mediate between the community and individual.
Takamure is heir to the tradition of the first maternalist feminist – Hiratsuka
Raicho – the founder of the first feminist journal in Japan. As early as the 1900’s – at a
time when feminist Filipinas were also consolidating – feminism was already present in
Japan, and a debate was already raging between individualist feminists and maternal
feminists, of which Hiratsuka was a key figure. She argued for a Japanese indigenous
feminism distinct from Western individualism by asserting the specificity of womanhood
and in more practical terms, by demanding maternal welfare from the state and the
community. In effect, this debate in the 1900s defines and intimates the contours of
similar fissures between feminists from the pre-war (Takemura’s time) period till the
present, as in for instance “radical” versus “liberal” feminism; between feminists arguing
for legal reforms vis-à-vis those who have shifted attention back to the private domain of
male-female relationships (Miya Yoshiko in Buckley 1997). There are also present-day
“versions’ of maternal feminism, exemplified by what Ueno (in Buckley 1997) calls
‘maximalists’ or ‘ecofeminists,’ whose critique of Japanese industrial society resemble
the maternal feminists’ counter-modernist and anti-western idealization of local virtues of
motherhood, nature and nation.
We can see from the Japanese and Philippine examples that Asian feminists are
caught in a dilemma: when our feminism chooses to stress the feminine, as in the case of
maternalist and maximalist feminists, we run the risk of essentializing and orientalizing
ourselves as “Asians” and as ‘natives’ and in ghetto-izing ourselves as women and as
feminists. In the case of Takamure, it can also turn the other way – to women’s cooptation
and complicit participation in a war that caused untold suffering to Japan’s
former colonies. However, as I will hopefully show in this paper, uncovering, tracing and
re-discovering an ancient past, as the pioneers Hirakuta and Takamure have done, may
offer a challenge, which I admit is risky- to a dominant historical view that denied
women’s specific feminine form of power, creativity and pro-creativity. By reclaiming
the goddess and the babaylan and by naming my feminism as babaylanism, I invoke what
Spivak famously termed as ‘strategic essentialism,’ a deconstructive position she
summarized as ‘saying an impossible no to a structure that one criticizes, yet inhabits
intimately.’ (in Kelsky 2001) There is space for opposition here, as the structure that I
inhabit intimately is not monolithic and riddled by fractures and contradictions. It is from
such gaps and fissures that I may find the spaces for returning the patriarchal gaze and for
interrupting its official versions of history.
Let me now present my paper by telling three stories. One took place in 1997 in Bali and
another in Bangkok in 1995. The other happened in Manila in 2004.
Story # 1: Re-Imagi(ni)ng Sita
The year was 1997, and the place was Ubud, Bali, the last leg of our research in
Indonesia, which started in Jakarta, Bandung and Yogyakarta in Java. We stepped into
Bali via bus from Yogyakarta, which took 12 hours. By way of background, we were also
scheduled to go to Vietnam after Indonesia. Before Indonesia, we were in Bangkok,
Changmai and other cities of Thailand in 1996. “We” means my partner and the father of
my daughter, who was yet unborn at that time. (I gave birth to her in 1998, after the field
research, but conceived her at almost the same time that I was conceiving and “giving
birth” to the exhibit-conference on women artists of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and
the Philippines, held in Manila in 1999).
One of the first women I met was Ni Made Sri Asih, whom I intercepted after her
class with young girls at the Seniwati Art Gallery for Women – which was at that time
the only gallery exclusively for women artists in the places I visited. (Perhaps it still is
the only of its kind in Southeast Asia until today). Before the interview, I saw a photo of
one of her works at one of the catalogues at Seniwati, which appeared at first to be totally
ordinary, as it was rendered in what I thought was “typical” Balinese style. Upon closer
look however, I was to be proven wrong.
Hanoman’s Task, 1996 exhibit the characteristics of the Pita Maha school of
Ubud, one of the competing schools of style and technique of Modern Balinese painting.
While they may look alike on the surface, modern Balinese paintings are complex
products of several stylistic schools, which are hybrids of precolonial and modern
aesthetics brought about by colonial art academies, tourism and migrations, among others
(Djelantik 1990). The stamp of Pita Maha in Sri Asih, can be seen in the painting’s
monochromatic but lushly painted surfaces, well-planned linearity and well-balanced
spatial orientation and arrangement.
In Hanoman’s Task, Sri Asih depicted a popular scene which is often painted by
famous male artists, most of which I saw at the Bali Museum. The scene takes off from
the Ramayana, which shows Rama’s envoy, the white monkey Hanoman, informing Sita
that her husband, the newly installed king, is on his way to rescue her from the clutches
of the evil god Rahwana, who kidnapped and held her captive for 14 years. The scene
also captures the moment when Hanoman tries to find out from Sita, upon Rama’s orders,
if Sita is still chaste after years in captivity.
Informed by the “right-to-my-body” feminist framework of equal rights I
inherited from western feminism, I was indignant, not only at Rama’s jealous doubts, but
also at the idea of Rama checking up on Sita’s chastity (I assume, of course, that Sita is
technically not a virgin, since she may have had a sex life with Rama before she was
abducted by Rahwana) even before he can find out how she was after going through her
horrible experience. I was more astonished to find out that Sita had yet to face another
ordeal, when she had to go through fire to prove her purity, the moment she returns to her
husband’s arms.
It is this trial-by-fire of Sita’s purity that Arahmaiani, an internationally wellknown
multi-media Indonesian artist, has challenged in her video I Don’t Want to be Part
of Your Legend. Well-known for her daring works which often get her in trouble with
authorities, Arahmaiani produced this video as part of her ongoing critique of her
country’s unholy alliance with imperialism and globalization, as well as its particular,
Islamic brand of patriarchy and militarism. Referencing the Indonesian traditional theater
form wayang kulit, this video shows a dry leaf shaped in the form of a wayang (shadow
play) figure, which will slowly burn, as Arahmaiani’s voice defiantly chants a
lamentation in the background. The burning of the leaf symbolizes, not only Sita’s refusal
to be part of the patriarchal legend, but also the need to go through the cleansing power of
fire, from which a renewed and stronger Sita will emerge.
From Sri Asih’s point of view however, Sita need not be viewed as refusing to be
part of the “legend” – she submitted herself for trial-by-fire, and we will not understand
this if we view this seeming complicity within the framework of equal sexual rights and
sexual liberation. According to Sri Asih, Rama was not acting out of typical male
chauvinism. She explained that the most important value in Hinduism is the sacredness of
the body, and it is demanded both of females and males. Because spiritual and physical
purity go together, Sri Asih would not have respected Sita had she allowed herself to be
violated by Rahwana, because she would have lost her spiritual integrity.
The faith in Sita’s strength resonates in the painting, where Sri Asih shows the
topless Sita (in the Balinese style), holding a keris (Indonesian sword). A passage from
the art historian Astri Wright is instructive and I will quote her description at length:
“Sita here is not the tearful, passive abductee on the verge of losing hope so often
encountered in Javanese versions (of the scene). Here, Sita occupies the center of
the canvas. She is ready for battle, sitting erect on Hanoman’s shoulder, her keris
raised and ready in her right hand (although she no longer needed it now that she
is safe with Hanoman), and her left hand in defensive posture enhanced by the
dance convention of draping her selendang (shoulder cloth for holding things)
between her fingers. She appears to be giving the monstrously featured white
monkey the order to proceed, to carry her (even if that means touching her) across
the waters.” (Wright 1996, 26-27)
Far from being the hapless victim, Sita had the power and strength of her
individual volition. Had she succumbed to Rahwana, it was not because she was helpless
and therefore blameless, but because she had somehow spiritually faltered along the way.
From a symbol of fragile femininity and oppression, Sita – in Sri Asih’s re-vision –
became a symbol of a strong, courageous woman who withstood her ordeal of 14 years,
tenaciously guarding her spiritual and physical purity.
Thus, when we talk of Sita, we have to bear in mind that body, spirit, mind cannot
be separated; and the social person, specially in Southeast Asia, must be understood, not
in fragmented ways, or through the sex/gender, mind/body, nature/culture dichotomies
that form the key ordering principles of traditional western thought – both mainstream
and feminist.
Story # 2: Thoranee and the Mural Painter
My second story is about the Thai mural painter Phaptawan Suwannakudt, a
pioneer, the first and until recently, the only woman mural painter in Thailand. Taking
over from her father Paiboon, the leader of the traditional mural revival in Thailand, after
his death, Phaptawan gracefully entered a male domain, traditionally off limits to women,
and took the lead. And as American artist Ann Wizer, one of the commentators in the
1999 Women Imaging Women Conference put it: “She’s somehow done all of this
without rebelling or breaking from the traditional form of visual narrative…and without
losing anything from the long rich history of Thai tradition.” (in Datuin 1999) Her
subversion also becomes even more significant when we also take note of the way she
persisted in practicing an art form that has a low and peripheral status compared to the
contemporary and academic “fine” arts practiced by her colleagues.
One incident that illustrates her initial difficulties happened when she was a
teenaged apprentice to her late father’s mural projects. It involves Phaptawan’s sarong
(Thai tube skirt), which she hanged out to dry in the workers’ common bathroom. When
one of the elderly male staff members saw the sarong, he angrily flung it out of the
window. Phaptawan said that it was because her gesture offended the man, since
women’s sarongs must not only touch male skin; they must not be hung above men’s
heads, the most sacred part of the Thai human anatomy. Touching women’s sarongs
would contaminate men, since it comes in contact with menstrual blood, which is
believed to be a polluting and destabilizing substance that disrupts men’s mental and
spiritual equilibrium (Tanabe 1991).
The power of menstrual blood over men is very similar to the kind of power
attributed to “monstrous feminines,” whose female power men secretly but at times
overtly and violently, envy, hate and fear. This is exemplified in the burning of witches in
the middle ages and in the outlawing of native rituals presided over by ancient priestesses
or babaylans in pre-colonial Philippines (I will talk about the babaylan shortly). The
monstrous feminines are the Sirens and Medusas who kill unwary men, the female
vampiras and aswangs (Filipino blood-sucking and meat-eating vampires), and
mangkukulams (Filipino witches) who can cast a curse or spell on offenders.
To recollect that sarong-throwing incident and the painful lessons associated with
it, Phaptawan fashioned an artwork by hanging several sarongs on a clothesline above
waist level, in defiance of what she calls “age-old Thai beliefs.” The piece was shown in
Bangkok in 1995, in an exhibition called “Tradisexions,” which put together some of the
most active and militant women artists in Thailand. It was in the Tradisexions exhibit that
I first met Phaptawan and it was during my conversation with her, right there under the
sarong clothesline, when the idea for researching and documenting the lives and works of
women artists in Southeast Asia occurred to me for the first time.
Tradisexions became the precursor of Womanifesto, an art event that occurs every
two years, gathering women artists from all over the world. Starting out with an
exhibition and artists talks in 1997, it is said to be the first of its kind in Asia. Its recent
activities went beyond “mere” exhibitions, including a ten-day Workshop in 2001, held in
a remote setting of northeastern Thailand with no formal exhibition of works planned
thereafter. It involved an international group of 18 professional women artists, curators
and art administrators including 5 student volunteers studying cultural management. They
interacted and exchanged not only with each other, but also with the local community.
In 2003, Womanifesto produced a publication/box of stories called
Procreation/Postcreation, which is about collecting/archiving/documenting personal
stories, old and new beliefs and tales, medical facts, sayings, advice, taboos, recipes,
lullabies, poems and more - before some of this knowledge gets forgotten and lost in
time. It is also about exploring old and new myths surrounding both pro and post creation
and how these myths have influenced our thinking in the past and, continue to do so
today and into the future.
I have not been involved in any of the Womanifesto events, but I was there in
1996 when the Tradisexions group gathered to brainstorm and plan what was to become
an important event for women artists in Thailand and beyond. I returned to the
Philippines in 1997, after a two-year stay in the Thailand, and embarked on my
subsequent researches in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and recently, Korea, China
and now Japan. But before I left Thailand, I journeyed with Phaptawan to the north to
visit some of her murals. During that journey, one of the images that struck me most was
that of Thoranee, the Earth Goddess, whom the Buddha called upon to bear witness to
his right to enlightenment. In Phaptawan’s reconstruction of the story of the Boddhisattva
Subduing Mara at Wat Si Khom Kham, Phayao, 1990, she placed the Boddhissattva at
the apex of the painting, his right hand on his knee, fingers pointing to the ground,
summoning Thoranee. While the Boddhissattva seems to occupy the more dominant
position, his inert, meditative stance is set in striking contrast to that of Thoranee, who is
shown effortlessly, sensuously, wringing her hair, thus unleashing a deluge on the forces
of the evil Mara. While the Buddha connotes sublime tranquility, Thoranee is depicted as
an active power – the embodiment of nature’s capacity for creation and destruction.
Story # 3: Mebuyan, the Many-Breasted Goddess: Coming from a Long Line of
Let me now fast forward to 2004 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP),
Manila, right before I left for this fellowship. During the opening of a major exhibition by
women artists in the Philippines (which I curated), we invoked the many-breasted
goddess we call Mebuyan through a performance ritual (led by Racquel “Kleng” de
Loyola, and other young women artists Maan Charisse de Loyola, Ramona dela Cruz,
Teta Tulay, Vivian Limpin and Lea Lim). In the ritual, Mebuyan moved with the
spontaneous rhythm of percussions and guitar effects; and the chanting of prayers
composed by participating artists – prayers that express women’s deepest longings,
desires and visions for the future. Mebuyan then proceeded to “paint” the empty wall
with fluids squeezed out of the many breasts of her rubber latex body suit - signifying
women’s life-giving powers, capacity to nurture, create and re-create themselves by
fusing the ordinary and sacred in art. As she turned on the lights of the gallery, the exhibit
formally opened and Mebuyan welcomed the guests to a space, which was turned into a
metaphorical house by more than 50 women artists, working on a wide range of styles,
themes, images, artistic media and coming from diverse, geographic, artistic and
philosophical locations.
Through movement, sound, and light, Mebuyan performed the theme of embodied
spirituality where body is not just anatomy but a social, psychic and spiritual space that
is characterized by fluidity and wholeness. Through Mebuyan, we summoned the figure
of the babaylan, the ancient priestess/healer, a figure that compels us to remember that
once upon a time, there were shamans who were mostly older or menopausal women, or
men who aspired to be women or binabae. The babaylan is usually an older woman,
because her expertise in rituals, including memorization of songs, poems, stories, beliefs
and complete medical knowledge required long years of training and practice.
According to the historian Zeus Salazar (in Datuin 2002), the babaylan was
• The central personality in ancient Philippine society
• The spiritual and political leader
• The vanguard and bearer of knowledge in the fields of culture, religion and medicine
• A proto-scientist, the first specialist in the social sciences and humanities, who took
care of religious ritual and the mythology of the barangay, the basic political
economic unit of ancient Philippine society
• An administrator, who also assisted the datu, the political leader, in running the
barangay’s political and economic affairs.
The most practical route of transferring the society’s knowledge is from a babaylan
mother to daughter, who will continue, and add on to this inheritance through
generations. Such accumulation of knowledge and its continuity was interrupted, when
Spanish priests attempted to wipe out the practice of spirit or anito (Tagalog or Filipino
term for spirit) worship with the rites and saints of Christianity. In the wake of their
destruction, the colonizers imaged the babaylan as an “monstrous feminine” and labeled
her as a sorceress, a witch, a mangkukulam, whose black magic casts evil spells.
In more thoroughly Christianized societies, especially in lowland urban areas, the
babaylan’s influence was significantly diminished, and her role in nation building,
especially during the Propaganda and Revolution, was reduced to a minimum. In her
more “benign” forms, the babaylan evolved into assistants of priests or hermanas, while
others concentrated on being good housekeepers and caretakers of children. However,
the babaylans continued to exist and enjoy a relatively high status and prestige, despite
certain constraints, in secret societies. Vestiges of these groups are still present among
communities in regions away from the lowland urban centers, where women remained
caretakers of the communities’ native intellectual and scientific heritage.
Today, the babaylan’s presence is seen:
• In the hermana, who performs church duties
• In the manang or unmarried aunt who acts as surrogate parents
• The grandmother who looks after her grandchildren
• Women weavers, faith healers, herbolarias, midwives, who continue to pass on their
knowledge to their daughters
• In women who entered areas formerly held by the datu and panday, or the native
technologist – the doctors, psychologists, lawyers, historians, nurses, teachers
• In women artists and writers and cultural workers, such as the women of Kasibulan,
the group that staged the abovementioned exhibition, as their 15th anniversary
The presence of modern-day babaylans in our midst gives us concrete examples of
some anthropological accounts explaining the more fluid agrarian societies in Southeast
Asia. In these societies, the binarist distinctions between say, public and public spheres,
individual and culture are not pronounced, if they exist at all, because of these societies’
egalitarian and complementary structures of kinship, assignment of roles, prestige
systems and religious activities. Women in these societies are not publicly visible but
they are not visible in formal politics or the great religions endorsed by the State,
according to Karim (1995). “Their inputs into politics and religion exist in the informal
sphere; but this sphere is so visible and important that it is hard for social scientists to
come up with a general statement to the effect that women are less important.”
Food preparation, dressing and preparing the altars and votive figures for ritual,
among other activities assigned to women, can be considered “peripheral,” but only
according to our definition of religious rituals as hierarchical and formal practice. In the
context of day-to-day activities where relationships are flexible and fluid, it is difficult to
say that gender roles in ceremonies necessarily imply hierarchies of power and
dominance. Even if they do, it is also difficult to determine whether or not they are
oppressive or favorable to women.
This fluidity of power relations can also be discerned in Jean Francis Illo’s
research on the “maybahay,” (literally owner of the house), a Filipino term used to define
married women or “housewives” - “who do not work for wages,” and do largely
household work. Illo (in Karim 1995) argues that women imbue the term with different
meanings that transcend their definition as “housekeepers.” To the maybahays,
“economic and non-economic work are inseparable, and their being maybahay means
being a total worker, producing both goods and labor.” Such findings not only challenge
existing concepts and policies of so-called development programs, they also compel us to
consider the home – and its corollary terms nation, region and identity - as a highly
ambiguous and problematic location. It is a space where women’s self-concepts and lived
experiences do not necessarily coincide with individualistic, largely Eurocentric, binarist
models and definitions of oppression and liberation.
Alma Quinto: Fiber, Cloth, Needle
I discern this attempt to visually present a non-binarist model of life in the way
Filipina artist Alma Quinto mobilizes fiber and foam and re-forms them to produce works
that signify what the artist describes as "the struggles of memory against forgetting." In
her work for the 2004 Havana Biennale entitled "Soft Dreams and Bed Stories" for
example, she presented an installation of tapestries, soft sculptures of toys culled from
Philippine mythology and folk stories and a bed, shaped in the form of the babaylan or
ancient priestess. As in her other works, these pieces embody and reiterate the following
threads of Quinto’s artistic vocabulary:
1. The artist’s belief in and commitment to the power of art to transform, heal and
empower. Her tapestries re-collect the painful stories of Quinto’s students in the
art workshops she conducts for CRIBS Philippines, a Manila-based institution
where girl survivors of abuse are housed and cared for. In those workshops,
Quinto encouraged the children to remember and disclose their stories by writing,
drawing, painting and embroidering their traumatic memories on grids of cloth.
Through what Quinto terms as "creative visual autobiography," the children’s
painful memories are not only retrieved, but also reshaped, through the processes
and materials of art. Art in this case is much more than therapy, outlet or means of
"catharsis." It is not just a way of coping with pain (as in art therapy), but also as a
means for reconnecting with others and the larger domain of culture, where the
survivor returns to live.
2. The artist’s refusal to "purge" needlework of the "stigma" of utility and decoration
by creating an interactive bed, tapestries and soft sculptures that function as
mediums for telling tales and weaving stories. In the process, she challenges the
sexist and dualistic distinction between "high art," traditionally associated with
masculinity and the feminine and feminized "low arts" of handicraft. By
referencing the intricate relationship between process and material in women’s
traditional arts, Quinto dissolves this duality by challenging the assumption that
making art and designing functional objects are two conflicting occupations.
3. The interactive and collaborative character of the artist’s pieces, which
encourages the viewer to initiate a tactile, therapeutic and celebratory encounter
with the works. The works are not to be "looked at" with a disembodied seeing
eye/I, but must be felt, touched and appreciated for their textural and performative
properties. Thus, the artist-as-medium urges us to recover those forgotten
gestures, which have become increasingly automatized and mechanized within the
consumerist and mediatized habituations of our daily lives
4. The artist’s use of recycled materials or discards, such as foam and "retazos" she
collects from thrift shops or "ukay-ukay," which she stitches and glues together
through a technique closely aligned with the additive and cumulative process of
quilting and patchwork. When women quilt, they "make do" with whatever is
available, to produce utilitarian objects through a focused, meditative and
communal language which they can rightly call their own. As women go through
the motions of quilting, sewing, tearing, stitching, they summon each fabric and
thread, and proceed to re-form, re-use and re-stitch it, not only for what it could
contribute to their over-all plan or design, more so for what it means to them,
emotionally and historically. And as can be seen in the tapestries woven out of the
children’s stories, cloth and needlework are harnessed as medium for feminine
meditation, communication and resistance.
5. The artist’s symbolic and iconographic motifs, which are visual testimonies of
memories associated with the realm of the night, dreams, sexuality, and
re/birthing as well as the real, the lived and the mundane. In her use of the
babaylan figure as bed, Quinto alludes to a life-giving primeval presence, who
ruled the realm through her restorative and healing powers. The bed or mattress,
on the other hand, "is a symbol of modern domestic life, as the artist puts it.
"Foam, the basic material for the mattress, is a modern invention intended to
provide comfort and warmth…The mattress represents everyday life and
domesticity and it is where one retreats and rests, thus providing a source of
empowerment." She also creates toys drawn from Philippine mythology and folk
to visualize stories, as exemplified in her work in the Havana Biennial, where the
soft toys symbolize the objects of desire (their lost childhood denied them a "soft"
and comfortable life) of girl survivors of abuse and their objectification (as sexual
In Quinto’s maneuvers, I am reminded, not only of her connection – no matter how
tenuous – with the cloistered elite Filipinas of the 19th century (such as Paz and Adelaida
Paterno), but also of other women who continue to produce their own cloths to this day.
As products of tourism and industry, textiles signify the subjugated ‘third world’, which
continues to be plundered as fertile source of touristic souvenirs and trinkets, of industrial
raw materials and cheap labor, and as dumping ground for the first world’s finished
products. But for women weavers in Mindanao in Southern Philippines like Magpunlay
Madagasang for example, there are clear distinctions between the cloth that they produce
for outsiders and that which they produce for their own community’s special needs.
(Quizon 1998). They do not view commercial weaving as a degradation of their skill, or
as a ‘dying out’ of their cherished traditions, as nativist and purist scholars would bewail.
Instead, they view it as their own way of actively engaging with the demands of the
changing times. Through a combination of doing and undoing, mobility and
accumulation, improvisation and obedience, these women not only articulate their
experiences and self-defined positions; they also assert themselves as active agents of
change, in whose hands tradition does not die, but is transformed and evolves into
contemporary forms.
As Quinto puts it: ‘”I am using the very same ‘tool’ that our colonizers used to
subjugate women to liberate/empower them.”
It is from such a complex, often precarious negotiation, that we women can find and
reclaim our common grounds, our gestures, our methods, our language.
The power of cloth to bind and express women’s creativity is also evident at the
abovementioned exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where the
centerpiece is a collaborative patchwork called Puso or Heart, from which veins radiate
towards the entire length of the floor and ceiling. The heart-womb originated from the
women of Luna Art Collective, who distributed the veins to women from the
communities of Cebu, a major island port in Central Philippines, which were in turn,
extended by the artists in this show, who added their own veins, in ways that enact the
additive and patchwork process of the “quilting bee.”
This exhibition was held in connection with the 15th Anniversary celebration of
Kasibulan (Kababaihan sa Sining at Bagong Sibol na Kamalayan or Women in Art and
Emerging Consciousness), a group of women artists in the arts (visual arts, dance,
literature, theater, etcetera). It was formed out of a series of consultations with women in
various professions in 1987, and formally registered as a non-stock, non-profit
organization in 1989.
Its founding members include a nun, who at that time was a designer and maker
of handcrafted leather bags (Ida Bugayong, who edited and designed this guidebook), a
sculptor (Julie Lluch), and three painters (Brenda Fajardo, who helped conceptualize the
exhibition design and provided the sketches; Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, the founding
president; and Ana Fer). They were later joined by terracotta artist Baidy Mendoza, who
along with Sandra Torrijos, Lia Torralba, and Cajipe-Endaya, also served as president.
The present president is Edda Amonoy, under whose able leadership this exhibition was
planned and realized.
In a territory where the key players are men, and where the turning points for
women hinge on their entry to movements and institutions initiated by men - such as the
entry of the first woman student Pelagia Mendoza to the 19th century Spanish colonial art
school, Academia de Debujo y Pintura and the token inclusion of Anita Magsaysay-Ho in
the 13 moderns, the privileged list of pioneering moderns led by the Father of Philippine
Modernism Victorio Edades – the founding of Kasibulan is a feminist art-historical
watershed because it marks the first time women consciously decided to carve their own
niche and tell their own stories, on their own terms. By banding and bonding together in
their own space, the conscious stirrings and debates on feminist practice and theory
emerged and took place among women artists, who fought for visibility and the right to
represent themselves, in their own eyes and through their own voices.
Since its founding, Kasibulan has nurtured and continues to nurture a significant
group of women artists through exhibitions, forums and other activities which not only
challenged women’s negative and stereotyped images but also questioned the very
parameters of art and artistry as they are defined in mainstream culture. In its many
projects, the Kasibulan linked up with women in the communities (such as artisans in
Paete), with women in non-art sectors (such as Filipina migrant workers, public school
teachers of Marikina, street children of Malate), and women in other disciplines such as
medicine, law, and labor.
Towards a Southeast Asian feminine/feminist Aesthetics: Crossing the Sex/Gender
In the practices of Kasibulan, Seniwati Art Gallery in Bali and Womanifesto in
Bangkok – three models from the Philippine, Indonesian and Thai examples - we see how
women artists return the gaze of the patriarchal vision, not only by exercising the power
to define and re/present themselves, but also by defining some of the contours of an
emerging feminine aesthetic. This aesthetic is grounded on a “dialect” (Pollock 1988)
that borrows from, as well as re-tools, the legacies of modernism, colonialism, and
globalization, among others. This visual “dialect” recasts the slogan “the personal is
political” through strategies that demonstrate, not just the political nature of women’s
private individualized subjections, but also the possible options for healing and
empowerment for women in the region. In the artists I cited, one possible route is the
celebration of an ancient female figure – whether it be the goddesses Sita, Mebuyan and
Thoranee or the Philippine babaylan or ancient priestess. At first glance, this strategy of
reclaiming an ancient model seemingly transposes us back to the maternal benevolence of
a “pre-cultural” and “pre-colonial” past of indigenous peoples. The recourse to the
goddess constructs the female body as ancient, non-western, original, frozen in a
timeless, inert space, existing outside the cycles of the seasons. Our bodies become one
with the earth and its primeval guiding spirits, here represented by the Goddess – the high
priestess-babaylan, Mebuyan, Thoranee and Sita – thereby assigning and consigning us to
a reserved oasis of “nature,” outside the flow of historical time, enthralling, timeless and
never changing.
Alma Quinto for example is aware that her combined use of the female body and
figure of the babaylan might unwittingly support patriarchal constructs by upholding
stable, essentialist categories of femaleness, and in this case, an essential Southeast Asian
femaleness, as “counterpart” to the universal, Western, white femaleness. However, she
also deliberately reclaims these images to articulate her longing for a female idiom, and
distinctly feminine aesthetics grounded on a nonlinear or circular sense of history, which
is noncompetitive and nonhierarchical. Her direct reference to the woman’s nurturing
body, her womb, her breasts, her navel, and her vulva or vagina, intimate her connection
to the feminist project of finding a feminine space revolving around co-existence and
communion, instead of conquest and castration, on restorative union, instead of abjection
and victimization.
It is no longer possible to recover a Southeast Asian past in its pristine form, let
alone a pure Southeast Asian identity; however, we can regain control, repossess, and
recreate again and again. The key term is “version,” which the artist produces to provide
a medium through we can enact our transformations and find our direction, action,
The return to the goddess may also have resonance with the body-centered
approach which became a dominant feminist strategy among visual artists in 1970s North
America. Such strategy revolves around a mind/body, sex/gender, nature/culture binary
frame. In these women pioneers, sex is aligned with the body’s anatomy, its biological
and therefore universal given, while gender is aligned with culture, which determines
how sex is going to be produced, accounted for and represented. However, as the “new
feminisms” of the 1990s have taught us, and following Judith Butler and Michel
Foucault, the body is not just anatomy, but a cultural and psychic space, which has a
geographic and historical location. It is not a prediscursive, biological, and politically
neutral surface on which gender is inscribed. Sex is not to biology as gender is to culture,
because sex itself is as culturally constructed and historically contingent as gender. My
anatomical body itself is the object of study, the very battleground on which cultural
constructions and practices compete.
Thus, as I choose to reread the women’s works I encounter, particularly in
Southeast Asia, and probably now, in East Asia, I see a refusal – at times conscious but
more often unconscious - to sever the mind and the body, sex and gender, nature and
culture. As Quinto puts it: “Whereas the colonizer emphasized the dualistic body and soul
relationship, my work focuses on the unity and dialectical relationship between them. The
soul dialogues with the body, and the body in the soul is there to enlarge the soul.”
These women’s works and words show that perceiving and articulating images is
not only about sight, but also about gesture, disposition, volition and emotion. The body
is not just the physical body, but a psychic and psychological feminine space, which is
imaged and imagined, not as a place of comfort and reassurance, but a place of pain and
disquietude, as well as of possible liberation through conflict, negotiation, and
confrontation. The interiors and interstices of the female body – the battleground of male
creativity – are re-visualized in their own terms, in their own voice.
Within these developing outlines of a feminine aesthetics, we can redefine the
“aesthetic,” not as a function of pure form and the pure gaze (pace Bourdieu), which the
critic supposedly perceives and relentlessly inspects for its sake. Instead, the “aesthetic”
is all about encounter, affect, gesture, and movement. Form embodies not just style, but
also testimonies of struggle, pain, gains, and triumphs.
I use “testimony” to emphasize the inter-subjective modes in which women retell
their experiences and memories, through processes that transcend the confines of solitary
“genius” or the domain of bellas artes aesthetics. Because their homes and bodies are
contiguous with the art world and the “world,” women offer testimonies that may not
necessarily be overtly feminist, but take on various forms from a range of locations. In
their own ways, these women offer a range of possibilities for resistance, both within a
collective movement and within the mundane spaces of the everyday. In the process, we
can begin to understand the power of art to transform the “world” by revealing their
doubts and pains about that world, as well as their faith and joy in its possibilities.
Let me illustrate by citing a testimony from Phaptawan again, who relocated to
Sydney in 1996, and has since moved on to produce individual art pieces about her life,
but still within the stylistic parameters of Thai mural painting. In a text for a catalogue of
her exhibition she sent me very recently, she talked about her father, her life as a
pioneer’s daughter, and her own displacements, first as a Thai child who grew up
traveling and living in temples, where her father’s projects were; and later, as a Thai
mural painter who was frustrated with her studio practice in a foreign land. “Who would
care for Thai mural painting anyway?,” she asked. What soothed her homesickness was a
private routine: She observed the trees and gave them Thai names. She expressed this
routine in a “language I am most comfortable with. This language is not Thai, is not even
my skill in Buddhist temple painting, and is not the secret tune in me I inherited from my
father, but it is (all about) seeing the world with all that made me who I am. I use it to
explore the world. The reward was, no matter how personal and how secret, that as I
walked and looked up at the trees, all of a sudden people in the streets were not strangers
to me anymore.”
Her latest work, An Elephant Journey refers to her relationship to her new home,
and the way she locates herself in the Australian Bushland. Although the Australian
geography and the elephant “do not belong to each other, they look into one another and
see the reflection of each other. What elephants see and what the landscape reveals is the
way I see myself attached to my new home. Chang [Thai word for elephant] was the
nickname that my father gave me on the day I was born. It was also my father’s
nickname, known from the way he mimicked the elephant walk. I am most comfortable
when thinking about myself being an elephant. I carry my name as my totem.” The
elephant and a secret tune her father taught her when she was a child “may echo forever
in me and the elephant may never depart. While it may remain personal, it is my utmost
emotional contact with the world and how the world makes sense to me. An Elephant
Journey observes how this secret tune plays its part with the place I am in. I use it as a
language to communicate with other people, and how I would see myself attached to the
other secret tunes, that are mingling in the shared space.”
Through cloth and fiber as seen in Quinto, through paint and brush we see in
Phaptawan and Sri Asih, as well as in the secret tunes and personal totems of
Phaptawan’s dislocated universe, the personal and the private cross over to the public
sphere, at the moment when women struggle to make sense of the “world” through
thought, feeling and action: naming trees in a secret language, humming secret tunes,
sewing cloth to remember and heal trauma and pain, and reimagining Sita as a
commanding presence ordering the white monkey to move on. I daresay that women
artists – modern day babaylans - may be able to tell us certain things about ourselves – as
women perhaps, or as Asians, however those difficult terms are defined. As Malaysian
artist Teoh Joo Ngee states “Art does not depict things as seen, but as things to be
seen.” (Interview 2004) Women artists can make us see what is not seen but from a
woman’s point of view, shaped and nurtured in that highly-charged, constantly shifting
geographic area called “Asia.”
It is in this in the context of telling another history, and of creating other
possibilities and constructing better worlds that we claim our legacy and our link to the
goddess and the babaylan. And as the young Filipina artist Lea Lim (in Datuin 2004) puts
it in her statement, the babaylan’s “efforts have customarily gone unnoticed,” although
she is now “slowly realizing reverence well-deserved.” But if we have indeed come a
long way, the fight ain’t over yet: women continue to be imaged negatively and
victimized in real and reel life (in movies, in fiction, in ads, in the visual arts). Women
artists continue to labor away in silence and in the shadows, and that is why we continue
to mount all-women’s shows, conduct researches and write our compensatory histories on
women artists. Such feminist art-historical, critical and political strategies are not without
their practical and theoretical problems, and I have discussed this more fully elsewhere
(see Datuin 2002). But I take solace in the thought that we come from a long line of
babaylans. As such we “persist” - again to borrow from Lea Lim - continuously doing
what needs to be done, our hands as persistent as the wind, blowing the dust that wanders
and settles again and again, quietly. Ceaselessly. (Roll VTR)
Babaylanism as Reminder for us NOT to Forget
As I write this essay and as I sift through the boxes of materials I have amassed
during my year-long research as API fellow in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan,
one of the figures that strike me most is the figure of the Korean mutan or shaman as she
is deployed in the works of Tomiyama Taeko. The mutan for Tomiyama is a central
metaphor “who links the living and the dead, the present and the past, existing separate
from the state or ethnicity…In the world of illusion, the shaman gives voice to the ‘han’
or deep resentment and sorrow of the victims.” (Tomiyama in Jennison 2003, 190) In her
1986 work ‘In Memory of the Sea’ the shaman is a principal figure and mediating image
in the story of a Korean woman who is asking the ‘Spirit Miko’ to search for her sister
who was taken away during the war and forced into sexual slavery in the Japanese
Imperial army. The shaman also appears in a series of paintings and collage in the 1980s
dealing with Korean conscripted laborers and ‘military comfort women.’ This series
became the multi-media slide work, ‘The Thai Girl Who Never Returned Home’ in which
the shaman bore witness to the events of the life of a young Thai woman, Noi, who
becomes a victim of the so-called sex trade in contemporary Japan and Southeast Asia.
I cite Tomiyama because I am struck at the “self-critical gaze” she casts on herself
and her own people “as an assailant,” as the art historian Hagewara Hiroko puts it writing
about Tomiyama’s work (Hagiwara 1995, page numbers not available). In her works,
Tomiyama breaks the silence and disrupts the modes of official forgetting, through a
strategy that mourns for the dead – not to melodramatically re-enact the suffering – but to
publicly re-member and re-imagine the other and bring the dead ‘into social life’. It is in
this sense that Tomiyama, born in 1921, is a pioneer, “precursor to and in a sense in a
continuum with, more recent projects by artists and curators who are creating spaces at
the intersection of discourses on the representation of war history, visual arts and
diasporic communities.” (Jennison 2003, 186)
In the 21st century, we are all carrying an enormous traumatic weight, and it is in
this context that feminist investigations into the visual poetics of shame and trauma have
emerged in recent years. This field is still emerging, and hence still inadequately
theorized, and it is an urgent theoretical agenda that I hope we will pursue in our present
and future discussions. In this paper, I contributed to this agenda in a very preliminary,
maybe even circuitous way, by reclaiming the babaylan, the mutan, the priestess, and the
goddess as figures that can mediate between past and present, bring the dead back into
social life through public mourning, and compel us NOT to tolerate, NOT to look away,
NOT to turn our backs, and most importantly, NOT to forget. And thus, we persist,
quietly, ceaselessly.
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