Stories are the lifeblood of a people. In the stories people tell lies a window to what they think, believe, and desire. In truth, a people’s stories soundly encapsulate the essence of their humanity. And this circumstance is not peculiar to any one group. It is as a thread that weaves through the civilizations of the ancient East and the cultures of the industrial West.
So significant is the role they play that to poison a people’s stories, says African writer Ben Okri, is to poison their lives. This truth resonates in the experience of many. In the folklore of the Tagalog people, tales abound of a mythical hero who, once freed from imprisonment in a sacred mountain, would come to liberate the nation. The crafty Spaniards seized upon this myth and used it as a tool for further subjugation. They harped on it, enshrining it in the consciousness of every Tagalog, dangling this legendary champion in front of their eyes as one would the proverbial carrot. So insidious was this myth that suffering in silence and waiting for deliverance became a virtue. And for a time, it lulled the people into a false sense of hope, smothering all desire to rise up in arms.
Yet stories can also stir up a people long asleep, awaken senses that have lain dormant or been dulled by the neglect of many centuries. Throughout history, not a few have expressed the belief that the pen is more powerful than any sword, double-edged though it may be. Nonetheless, that the purpose of stories is to change lives may not be immediately self-evident. But history, or more significantly individual insight, stands witness to this truth. And perhaps it is partly this realization that compels Federico Caballero, a Panay-Bukidnon from the mountains of Central Panay to ceaselessly work for the documentation of the oral literature, particularly the epics, of his people. These ten epics, rendered in a language that, although related to Kiniray-a, is no longer spoken, constitute an encyclopedic folklore one only the most persevering and the most gifted of disciples can learn. Together with scholars, artists, and advocates of culture, he painstakingly pieces together the elements of this oral tradition nearly lost.
His own love for his people’s folklore began when he was a small child. His mother would lull his brothers and sister to sleep, chanting an episode in time to the gentle swaying of the hammock. Sometimes it was his great-great-grandmother, his Anggoy Omil, who would chant the epics. Nong Pedring remembers how he would press against them as they cuddled his younger siblings, his imagination recreating the heroes and beautiful maidens of their tales. In his mind, Labaw Dunggon and Humadapnon grew into mythical proportions, heroes as real as the earth on which their hut stood and the river that nourished it. Each night, he learned more about where their adventures brought them, be it to enchanted caves peopled by charmed folk or the underworld to rescue an unwitting prisoner from the clutches of an evil being. And the more he learned, the greater his fascination became. When his mother or his Anggoy would inadvertently nod off, he would beg them to stay awake and finish the tale.
His fascination naturally grew into a desire to learn to chant the epics himself. Spurred on by this, he showed an almost enterprising facet: when asked by his Anggoy to fetch water from the river, pound rice, or pull grass from the kaingin, he would agree to do so on the condition that he be taught to chant an epic. Such audacity could very well have earned him a scolding. But it was his earnestness that clearly shone through. Not long after, he conquered all ten epics and other forms of oral literature, besides.
When both his Anggoy and his mother had passed on, Nong Pedring continued the tradition, collaborating with researchers to document what is customarily referred to as Humadapnon and Labaw Dunggon epics. Although his siblings also share the gift of their forebears, he alone persevered in the task, unmindful of the disapproval of his three children. He explains that like a number of people in their community, they find no pride in claiming their Panay-Bukidnon heritage. In the Light of things, such an attitude is completely understandable. Clearly experience has not been kind. Even history is rife with instances of intolerance. Prejudice, after all, has always been the recourse of those who cannot look beyond differences in speech and clothing.
Nong Pedring takes upon himself the task of setting things right. He works with the Bureau of Nonformal Education, travelling from barangay to barangay, trying to convince the older folk of the necessity and benefits of learning to read and write. Although he is warmly received in these places, he has an admittedly difficult assignment. The older people generally no longer feel up to the challenge of learning a new skill. Besides, they see little use in it. He appeals to them by saying their help is needed to put into writing their indigenous beliefs, traditions, and literature. Once documentation is completed, teaching the younger people, especially those who have expressed interest, becomes simple and uncomplicated.
In the epics of his ancestors, he finds the root of many of the convictions they adhere to even today. And the concerns addressed by the epics are diverse, from human and family relations to matters that affect the environment. In the epic Tikung Kadlum, a man incurs the wrath of a man-eating witch for cutting down a tree without permission. To make matters worse, the tree happens to be one that the witch particularly held in regard. In exchange for the tree, she demands the life of his two daughters. This in her mind is a truly fair exchange. The lesson is clear, universal, and enduring, one every person would do well to heed: at all times, justice must be meted out.
In his own way, Nong Pedring strives to dispense justice in the community through his work as a manughusay – an arbiter of conflicts. In the days before the advent of the local government system, arbiters like him were consulted on matters concerning family, neighbor relations, and property. Even today, the barangay officials in his home in Garangan call for him to help in resolving these affairs. Nong Pedring willingly assists, believing this to be the better way. He feels disputes need to be discussed by those concerned at the level of the local government. He disagrees with the rashness of immediately going to the courts without attempting any resolution. Apart from being expensive, it has the tendency of alienating people further, threatening to destroy the very fabric of the community he, as manughusay, has sworn to safeguard.
And his influence extends far beyond the bounds of his community. He is considered bantugan, a person who has attained distinction. Dr. Alicia Magos a respected folklorist from the University of the Philippines in the Visayas who has worked with him on the documentation project, says Nong Pedring has the heart of a scholar. He understood her vision for the culture of the Panay-Bukidnon. Perhaps even to say that he shares her vision is not an overstatement.
For his part, Nong Pedring stays resolute in his purpose. Unlike the hammock that has played so important a role in his story, he is swayed neither by the criticism of some nor the adulation of others. He continues to travel form his home in the mountains of Calinog to the busy district of Iloilo City , patiently doing his share in the work that has spanned nearly a decade. Dr. Magos credits him with opening the eyes of academicians, advocates, and artists to the beauty of Panay-Bukidnon oral tradition. Yet the greater triumph is one nearer to Nong Pedring’s heart. His children and family have of late rediscovered pride in their heritage. They are no longer ashamed of their roots as they once were. To Nong Pedring, there is perhaps no better reason than this to carry on with his work.