DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 12 January) – Increasingly, more writers are now writing about Mindanao. Both those who are Mindanao-born or residing elsewhere but have become fascinated with the various aspects of southern Philippines. One book that came out in 2020 which projects itself as a Mindanao travelogue is written by a writer born in Mindoro but eventually settled in Tacloban City. This is Edilberto N. Alegre’s “Biyaheng Pinoy – A Mindanao Travelogue.”
Dr. Alegre did his studies at both the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City and Kyoto University (BA English and Physical Sciences, PhD in Japanese Language and literature) and taught literature at various Manila Universities (UP and ADMU) and in Kyoto and Madrid. His essays on language, literature, food and culture were published in various publications, co-authored books on literary history (e.g. The Writer and His Milieu which won the National Book Award in 1984). His other books Inumang Pinoy and Pinoy Forever – Essays on Culture and Language also won the National Book Award in 1992 and 1993. He passed away on 11 January 2009.
The 438-page book, published by Bughaw, an imprint of Ateneo de Manila University Press, contains 45 essays. I was asked by his wife, Joycie to write the book’s Foreword, and this is part of what I wrote:
This is perhaps one of the most significant Mindanao travelogues ever written. It certainly chronicles the author’s extensively varied travels across Mindanao while lovingly documenting highlights of his sojourns in 36 well-written essays. From the titles of the essays he wrote of the places he visited (Cagayan de Oro, Butuan and mountain villages), locations of great interest to him (markets, trails, rivers), IPs he encountered (Manobo, Iranuns), of what took places as he journeyed (where he slept, traced trails, connected with dreams, meditated), people he got to know (Kagi, a Manobo woman) and mostly about food discourse (including ingredients such a kadios, basil and local herbs; familiar and native cuisine, ways of cooking).
Food figures prominently in this book because in the words of his wife Joycie’s Preface of this book, in “his research trips to the Visayas and Mindanao in 1989, he mapped out distinctive dishes and delicacies, local wines and pulutan, the kinilaw, and the tabu.” If this book saw the light of day it was because of Joycie Y. Dorado Alegre ’s commitment to get it published since she thought that “Ed was probably the only one in his time who was doing such critical reflexive meditations that could be useful for present and future researchers, it might be good to have them too in the book. . . . The book will then be a journey of a mind actively at work in doing baseline cultural research and reflecting on his own work. Such a design for a book is virtually a kind of intellectual biography.” Indeed, the reader will totally agree with her.
Why did he write these essays? First were the product of his conversations with Dr. Prospero R. Covar, Philippines Studies guru at UP-Diliman who helped the author decide the tasks at hand for intellectuals like him. Then later he had time to have a sabbatical in the U.S.A where he updated his readings (and discovered the theories of Edward Said and Michel de Certeau) and knowledge of current trends and reflected more on what his future tasks were to be. Towards the end of that short period he realized that “(t)here seemed nowhere else to go but to the field, to find out what we are really like, and then to writing, to weave the data into meaningful patterns. After eleven months in the US, I had to face the truth: I was not where I wanted to be; I was not doing what I wanted to do. And there was nowhere else to go. I faced up. I packed my rucksack again. It was time to discover new worlds.”
But before embarking on the task at hand, he got good advice from “Kagi and Bentangan (who) suggested to me a totally new approach to data-gathering and knowledge: dig in deep, keep going back, get involved in their lives. With them, one individual and the other an entire barangay, I took a different tack. I made an internal resolve—to continue seeing them not as sources of data but as places of warmth, of sustenance in a travel that goes on. They have become dear friends and not just resource persons.” This realization made a huge difference in the specific character of this travelogue the content and quality of which sets it apart from others.
Why did he travel through Mindanao? There are those among those who are stricken with wanderlust. They are people who cannot stay in one place for longer periods of time. They are world citizens and while they are healthy, can find the time and have financial resources, you will find them journeying down that road. Unlike those who would rather settle down, the travelers among us turn into migrants, travel writers, tourists, adventurers – for any reason to go and explore all corners of one’s country and the planet.
In Alegre’s words: “Life cannot be funneled into predetermined and predefined containers. It will always wiggle out of such molds. Even inside our genes there are latent renegades. That is why traveling is exciting—its outcome cannot be determined from the start. The trajectory perhaps can be arranged beforehand, but not all the events between departure and return can be predicted. There are always the little iotas of the unexpected, tads of surprises, teeny-weeny unknowns. It is partly for these that we travel.”
But why travel to Mindanao? Alegre answers this question: “The south was unknown territory to me. And I went to find out what it is. And traveling south, I gradually found our national culture. It was like going back to what we had forgotten in Luzon and even in the Visayas.” And what was his one big realization of his Mindanawon sojourns? “The one big lesson from my years of traveling in Mindanao is this: the Muslims, the Lumad, and all of us who are neither Muslim nor Lumad are all beyond the façade of institutional religion and the patina of colonial influence—more similar to than different from each other. In our commonality is our national identity.” He had encountered Mindanawons of various ethnicities, faith traditions, personalities and came to a conclusion that all “they were not different. They were not other. They too are Pinoy. That is what they gifted me with—a sense of the self. A sense of my cultural being, of being Pinoy.”
And yet in one essay – The Killing of our Ancient Cultures – he recognizes that in Mindanao more than other regions in the country, there are ancient cultures that are fast being decimated by the onslaught of contemporary incursions. It was his experience in Bentangan, a village in the town of Carmen, North Cotabato, the homeland of 400 Manobo households. The essay chronicles the fact that both the Spaniards and the Americans were never able to penetrate this locality, but migrant settlers did as Ilonggos arrive in 1930 hoping to take over lands. Eventually they took control of the land leading to massive deforestation even as they became the local political authorities.
He ends this essay with an indictment: “This is how we kill our ancient culture—we deprive those who continue to embody it, like the Bentangan Manobo, of their food resource. We condemn them to hunger, disease, poverty. We gloat in their gradual demise. We won’t help. We degrade their environment and, in effect, their own being. We kill them by being no better than the Spaniards and the Americans who tried to abuse the core of our being by making us ashamed of what we are. We kill our ancient culture by not caring.”
In Mindanao today, travelers continue to arrive. There are in fact those who turn into migrants and one specific group are young married middle-class couples with young children who are attracted to the promise of a better life in Mindanao, at least in areas that are deemed peaceful. That kind of decision then expand the population of Mindanawons. For we are not just descendants of the first settlers that date back to the Paleolithic Age; but also others who came much later as more travelers became settlers. But there are those who never really settled down and yet they return for more visits for they, too, would have embraced the spirit of this land and no longer consider themselves strangers to Mindanao. Such is what happened with the author. Until the end of his life, Mindanao haunted him as he made it his own.
In the book’s last entry written in 2000, he has the last words: “Beyond the travelogue, life has made real bondings. The book ends, life goes on unraveling.” For long after our own stay here in Mindanao – in the words of de Certeau – as “mystics in the land of perpetual departures” – there will always be those who will follow the trails we have explored in our own time and who knows a few travelers will be carrying a copy of this book to guide them through their sojourns.
[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Manobo Dreams in Arakan: A People’s Struggle to Keep Their Homeland,” which won the National Book Award for social science category in 2012, “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw). Gaspar is a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents.]