COMMENTARY: Durian City

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DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 2 Aug) – That Davao and durian both start with the same letter may be one reason the city cannot be dissociated from the fruit. Of course, signification is arbitrary; the city knows this too well and appears to reiterate the association in every corner. Arriving at F. Bangoy International Airport, one gets bombarded with images of the fruit, if not the face of the city’s mayor for 22 years, Rodrigo Duterte, who now sits as Philippine president. At the parking lot, Kublai Millan’s durian sculpture, two-storey high and made of plaster, yawns and in its maws inhabits a mélange of the Davao residents, the multicultural, multi-ethnic groups that are collectively called the tri-people of Mindanao: the Moros, lumad, and the settlers. The sculpture seems to simultaneously evade and suggest easy explanation about the city’s history of violence and usurpation.

During fruiting season, which signals the start of the Kadayawan Festival, durians pile up on roadsides, while vendors place Monobloc chairs and makeshift tables and serve the fruit with Coke. Its infamous smell pervades the hot, dusty streets and seeps into open windows of jeepneys slowing down in the heavy traffic. Eating durian entails a ritual of sort. The pulp-covered seed that can go as big as an infant’s fist is scooped by hand, and washing the smell off your fingers would have you dipping them in the water collected in the empty shell. For some reason, the process does get rid of the odor, which foreigners have been quoted to describe as rotten cheese. We are no cheese culture, so the reference most likely escapes us, other than a faint sense of inedibility in the cliché. But that observation, however numerous times it gets repeated, amuses the locals.

The Jesuit missionary Saturnino Urios, writing from Davao on 2 February 1893, describes the fruit as “greatly relish[ed]” by the natives, “but which [the Jesuits] could not eat because of its peculiar smell.” Another missionary, Juan B. Llopart, on 18 March 1893, writes: “Its fruit, as big as a melon, is well-liked by the people who get extreme satisfaction from eating it. Its skin is fully covered with bristles protecting it from being devoured by monkeys and other animals. When opened, it emits a very strong offensive odor to one unaccustomed to it. The shell is hard enough that even if it is pulled down from the top with long poles, as the natives do, it does not break on hitting the ground. Inside are many seeds enveloped in very tender meat, the edible part, fresh or cooked. The seeds are also eaten boiled or broiled.” These letters were written during their mission to convert the pagans of Davao, 40 years after Jose Oyanguren, however short-lived, usurped and governed it.

Moros and the “pagan” natives predominantly lived in the region. At that time, there were very few, if at all, Filipino migrants from the North. (“Filipino,” of course, referred to the creoles and not yet to the collective term for the people, both mestizo and natives, of the archipelago, a term appropriated by in the 1898 Philippine revolutionaries.) The fruit, then, had so much to do with rootedness that acquiring the taste for it, to stomach its smell, so to speak, would mean a gradual process of development interconnected with the community. Today, those who cannot take durian, for whatever reason, are chided for not being a genuine Davaoeño.

* * *

In Leoncio Deriada’s allegorical story, “Daba-Daba,” published in the anthology Davao Harvest (1979) and in his collection The Road to Mawab and Other Stories (1984), a Bagobo family keeps a small farm in Tamugan, where they plant small crops of sweet potatoes, corn, and rice. On the cliff stands a tall durian tree, which the “great-grandfather planted long ago.” The eldest son, Masaglang, is described to be “brave and strong like a durian tree.” The younger brother Dansig, seven years old, does not understand why Mr. Ventura, a Visayan for whom their father works, owns vast tracts of land for his abaca plantation. This industry marks the time of the story, along with the short presence of a half-Japanese Bagobo cousin who is son of an Imperial Army officer.

Perhaps immediately post-war in which homestead law was still in effect and the migration from Luzon and the Visayas continued, the story answers for the boy the reason for Mr. Ventura’s wealth. Three men, a Cebuano, a Tagalog, and an Ilocano, arrive to build a fence across the family’s vegetable patch. The wife, Anyaw, confronts them about it and gets rebuked that Mr. Ventura owns the land now. But the Bagobo’s resistance has delayed the three men, who leave with the warning of their return. And when they do, the patriarch, Asan, with the eldest, Masaglang, stands by to defend their property. An encounter ensues and the Tagalog and Ilocano are slain, while the Cebuano flees, screaming for help. Before he returns with the police and Mr. Ventura’s private army, the Bagobo family prepares to escape to the community on the other side of the mountain and ensures they leave nothing of their possession behind. Asan says, “They [the land grabbers] can have my land but not my animals and my trees. I’ll destroy them first!” and hands the youngest, Dansig, the dead Ilocano’s bolo to destroy the durian tree. The boy, as in a rite of passage, hacks at the trunk until the tree is mortally wounded.

The story attempts to provide a narrative of the massive land-grabbing during the first half of the 20th century from the perspective of the indigenous peoples (IPs). Collectively known now as lumad, a Binisaya word for native, they were displaced as the effect of the homestead law that encouraged Luzonian and Visayan settlement in Mindanao. Davao back then was a thriving abaca industry, which Filipinos from the north later dominated, taking over the American soldiers who left after World War II to fulfill its promise of granting the Philippines its sovereignty.

The title, as explained in the story, refers to the original name of Davao. Daba-Daba means “fire,” related to Mt. Apo, being the “land of fire.” But the historian Macario Tiu believes that the Cebuano settlers have fabulated this, based on the Binisaya word, “dabdab,” which means to set on fire. The legend has been woven into the narrative of Davao’s origins, history conflating the “foreign” and the “indigenous.”

That the durian tree, which has been passed down through generations, tall and strong, would have to die symbolizes the necessary death of the Bagobo family’s inheritance, and yet even the carcass, the tree’s lifeless trunk and dried-up limbs, would have to be taken down when Mr. Ventura razes the land over for an extension of his abaca plantation.

The three men remain nameless, distinguished only for their place of origin, and embody their foreignness and power. They represent the diverse peopling of Davao, which earned the epithet in textbooks as the melting pot of the Philippines. One can imagine this community of mixed origins, a babel of Philippine languages that found themselves uprooted and striving to thrive on new soil, scrambling for a common ground from which a singular identity could emerge. Where language spoke of culture, how did Davao, a multilingual pot, determine itself?

* * *

The Kadayawan Festival, held on the third week of August, stems from the IP’s annual celebration for bountiful harvest. Before that, there was Apo Duwaling, a portmanteau of Mt. Apo, durian, and the waling-waling flower, but Rodrigo Duterte, who was serving his first term then as mayor, renamed it into the Kadayawan sa Dabaw as the official celebration of the city in 1988. The word “kadayawan” comes from its Mandaya root, “madayaw,” meaning, “happy,” and stands for the festivity and the overall sense of gratitude to the gods for fruitful harvests. Compared to Apo Duwaling, an invented term by a group of scholars and cultural works, Kadayawan is a word rooted in indigenous beliefs, resonates deeper among the IPs, and pays homage to the eleven tribes living in Davao: Ata, Bagobo Klata, Bagobo Tagabawa, Iranun, Kagan, Maguindawan, Maranaw, Matigsalog, Obo Manobo, Sama, and Tausug. (In 2011, the theme was “Ten Tribes, One Vibe,” a gaffe from the organizers who, perhaps, would rather be more inclusive than their quip allowed them to be.)

The festival sharply contrasts with those in other cities, especially in the north, where festivals are named after their patron saint, a glaring reminder of our Catholic heritage from the Spanish colonial era. Instead, Davao City takes pride in the country’s pagan origins, putting a premium on a culture that has existed even before the Filipino-becoming, which is inextricably linked to its colonial history. One can infer a sense of pride from this exception, one that subverts the dominant culture that is imbued with Catholic iconography. However indigenized the other forms of Catholic worship, such as the Sinulog in Cebu, the pagan purity of the Kadayawan should be genuinely, paradoxically “Filipino,” as it attempts to strip away, at least on the symbolic level, everything foreign in our culture to return to our indigenous roots, however problematic and inexorably muddled with modern and Western practices.

The Lumad imaginary, then, is truly a Filipino invention, forged through years of migration and displacement, shaped by its origin, the Binisaya language, the same way that Mt. Apo, the durian, and the waling-waling were invoked to symbolize Davao, a city built from the razed-over vegetable patches of the IPs for the abaca plantation and, now, its community of concrete.

* * *

In a press conference following his second State of the Nation Address, delivered on 24 July 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte, in his characteristic adlib familiar to all Davaoeños, threatened to bomb the Lumad schools, which he accused of educating the children on radical ideas and training them to become communist revolutionaries. On 27 July, he clarified that the airstrikes would be done at night, when all the children had gone home. He furthered that the schools were producing “another generation of haters” and taught only “socialism and killings.” This statement, above the continuous assertion of the IPs for their rights and claims to ancestral domain.

Despite his retraction, the President has already planted the seed of how the politicized Lumad should be perceived: antagonistic and deserving of decimation. One suspects that the Lumad should remain docile bodies that helplessly rely on the state for subsistence. After all, a cultural artifact that defies the very nation-state that utilizes it for self-determination would be a paradox, a thing negating itself.

* * *

On the first week of August 2017, Davao has yet to see the bountiful harvest that the Kadayawan Festival will celebrate. No durian vendors line the street. Season came late, according to farmers. The durian trees were getting sick. Their flowers got infested with worms and fell to the ground; very little could cling on for fruition.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julian dela Cerna is from Davao City). 

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