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FIELDNOTES: We Don’t Need Another Epic/We Don’t Need Another Hero

Tito Genova Valiente ONE of the exercises in a proper cultural mapping asks participants to identify heroes in their communities. The facilitator, for that is the also the proper name for the one conducting the mapping, clarifies what s/he means by heroes. They – heroes – are men and women who have made significant contribution to the communities. We are not interested in politicians and town officials because their presence is already marked in formal books and documents. These leaders, anyway, are always products of the elite and colonial imagination. What we are interested is excavating culture from below – finding what is important to people within. What cultural maps are doing away with are the formal, outsider’s notion of culture, one that is always monolithic and colored by the perspectives of those who see the Philippines and its localities from the central point-of-view. When done properly, communities are able to pinpoint the different contours and images in their cultures and, well, in their histories. When I facilitated the conduct of cultural mapping in selected barangays in Naga City and some towns in Camarines Sur, the maps yielded communities that gave importance to people like the best cook of “gulay na natong,” the “Partera,”(the local midwife) the “Paratukdo nin Caton,”(local teacher) etc. In Milaor, for example, good makers of boats were named important. Gainza, tiny and interior, yielded not the usual products written in many magazines – the “Santan” and “the alige” – but a pioneering Comedia troupe. The identification of a hitherto-unclaimed art form created a minor ruckus among the participants who thought that the artist behind the Gainza comedia was not from their place. How is Padian linked to Gainza? A cursory inspection would tell the observer that it could be the Naga River. But in the mapping of memory, some Bikolano-Chinese recalled how during World War II many of them escaped by the river and ended up taking refuge in some houses in the riverine town of Gainza. Gratitude between two groups is remembered but not necessarily written down as histories. These are vignettes, small stories. These are vanishing points. These tales are not written down because we belong to a culture that does not write down things. Some of us are non-literate, but not illiterate. The point of cultural maps as opposed to books and documents detailing how civilized we are is that we are recovering to define a new kind of “culture.” Epics are symbols and material tokens of a civilization as defined, embraced and propped up by the Western world. By the standard and gaze of the West, we are uncivilized, uncouth. It becomes imperative therefore for those communities in the non-West to search – invent – artefacts that will approximate the levels of civilization as the West wants them impressed upon the world. In these discourses, the antiquities of Greece and Rome are prime commodities. There is no greater artefact to uphold the civilization of a society than a culture of writing, extant literature that memorializes a grand past, a monumentalism beyond compare. The epic terrorizes us into believing it is the only sign of a good culture and traditi0n. Thus, when we stumble upon an “epic,” like “Ibalon,” we cannot let it go. Even when that piece of literature reeks of lines that do not belong to our tales, we spend energies and intelligence defending the “epic” as our own. At certain junctures of our literary histories, we marveled even at the existence of metaphors that are very close to Homeric narratives. We are like the Greeks! When the templates are Greek and Ancient World, what does a nation or a human community do when it does not possess those things that matter – statuaries, irrigation canals, stories about gods and goddesses? Well, we can always repudiate those Western claims and construct new ways of seeing. Perhaps, the reason we do not have written literatures in the past is not that we did not have literary traditions but that the proto-Bikolanos were into the transitory or ephemeral. Or, maybe we did not even know the transitory from the permanent. Or into something else we have not excavated. The Tandayag or Bakunawa speaks it all: the years and days are not sequential or cyclical. They are forever reborn. The creatures – like the Bakunawa – that are considered monsters or abominations are sources of energies and life in our culture, not the destructive force that the West reckons them to be. In the “epic,” Ibalon, there is a villain in the person of Oryol, a being depicted as a Serpent. In that “epic,” the female figure is demonized the way the Western and Eurocentric constructs have made monsters of mothers who are powerful and greater than the fathers of the land. The Serpent rears its ugly head in the epic where man has not left yet the Garden. Each time, we refer to an epic like “Ibalon,” we are not freeing ourselves from the image of the conqueror, the colonizer. Those images of powerful men as the beginning of civilization is ultimately the patriarchy that the West relied and still relies upon to rule kingdoms and colonies. These images run counter to the artefacts of cultures, where women, in the pre-Magellanic period, could also rule and could own properties. Here is an epic with metaphors and symbols that incarcerate us forever in the false image of those who wrote how they discovered us. Doing away with an “epic” will not kill us. As Fenella Cannell puts it in her Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines, “Bicolano people do not have a triumphalist view of their own culture, nor do they in everyday life reach complete resolutions to the problems of power and power relations.” Canell continues: “This should suggest to us, perhaps, that ambiguity, irony and irresolution are also kinds of social fact, not to be explained away simply as a way-station en route to a higher degree of cultural certainty , any more than they are to be portrayed as the ‘post-modernist’ fragmentation of some former cultural coherence.”

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