THIS is not a review of that beloved film, “Call Me By Your Name.” This is a lament about us Bikolanos allowing outsiders to call us by names they believe, they feel are appropriate descriptions of who we are as people, of the places we live in, of the songs we sing, of the dances we dance, of the rituals we celebrate, of the days we memorialize, even of the food we eat.
Thus, we have started calling the food prepared from the only plant that can stand as trope for our everyday lives “laing.” The restaurants have renamed the “natong” or “gulay na natong” as “laing.” Even the most astute food writer who venomously is on the side of authenticity automatically calls the food “laing.”
There is no food called “Bicol Express” in Bikol. There was the train that is gone now; that was Bikol Express. There are conjectures about this brand of transportation. There was a period when that train was the fastest means to travel from this land to the central land of Manila where originated the names about us, the appellations that stuck like unwanted scent to our bodies. We do not expect the non-Bikolano to remember this origin tale but when we start calling the very spicy and hot “balaw” as Bikol Express then we had taken a journey to Neverland, a place where truthful names do not really matter.
Colonization had been bad enough. We live in a place called Naga. For a long time, people talked of the Narra (tree) as the source of the name. Were the trees abundant in the place? Wherever you look, Narra was never called “Naga.” Recent scholars though have started looking to our Asian neighbors – in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand – and encountering the “naga” or “Serpent,” the mythical monster. Riverine settlement or those by the rivers attested to a great Serpent ruling the rivers and streams. I subscribe to these because we have a festival, the Peñafrancia, which is built around the river.
We ask this question: what was the divinity before the image of the Virgin was made to use the river in Her fluvial procession? Was there a Serpent or a giant water animal lording it over the elements? In many Southeast Asian accounts, this Serpent has a crown on its head. In the Kalendaryong Bikol, a Bakunawa on the first page has a crown on its head. Was this the mythical Naga?
The name “Naga” was good for a long time until a town in Cebu was declared a city, making it the second city with the name Naga. We could go back to Nueva Caceres, a name given, it is said, to honor Governor-General Francisco de Sande, whose home was in the walled medieval city of Caceres. Not original perhaps but, others may say, who cares, the entire country had been named anyway after a king!
Our case is not unique. On the desktop of my laptop is a collection of songs for easy access. It is titled “Waray Songs.” My memories of childhood in the town of San Fernando, in Ticao Island had been the songs my grandmother, Emilia, sang with such sweet passion. YouTube has re-introduced me to these songs like “An Iroy na Tuna,” a song described as a Waraynon national anthem and “An Bahal na Tuba.” The Internet, for all the demonizing it has received, can be one massive lesson in enlightenment. One day, an interesting posting from Judah Singzon Aliposa, a good friend of my brother Carlo, was just the light I needed. For all my love for the “Waray” culture, the term, for better or worse, is deemed derogatory. The proper term for the language of the Samar-Leyte area is “Binisaya.” Judah has in fact posted the book, a dictionary authored by Eduardo A. Makabenta, Sr., with its revised Second Edition done by Eduardo T. Makabenta, Jr.
The Makabenta, Sr. is quoted by Judah as having questioned the use of “waray,” which means “nothing,” and “nil” as a name for a place and its people. Why indeed be called “nothing?”
In a massive launch of titles that brought the total of books published by Ateneo de Naga Press to seventy-six at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, one of the books was a translation of European short stories into the language spoken in Masbate, an island province that fuses the Bikol, Cebu, Kinaray-a, and Hiligaynon languages. The decision of the editors was to call the language “Minasbate,” a decision that removes the stasis in the more popular toponym, Masbateño. It was, as documented, not a smooth decision.
Take note En Villasis and Clinton D. Abilong, I prefer “Binisaya,” but this would make the language of Masbate more of Bisaya and Bikol.
The debate continues as we, to borrow the lines from Claude Levi-Strauss in “Tristes Tropiques,” “grasp the essence of our species,” an essence that is “in the scent, more subtly evolved than our books, that lingers in the heart of a lily; or in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding, one can exchange with a cat.”
Identities, after all, will be elusive so long as you call me by your name.