Rice and Magic

Is the rice we are partaking at present the same as those planted and harvested by our ancestors hundreds of years ago?

When Filipinos (and Bikolanos) talk of culture, rice is at the center of discourse. Rice and, when, harvested and processed, called by other names, is there in the everyday life of the people. It is, if we may poetize our claim, present in life, death, and life again – in the birth of a person, in his living in his death.

Rice abounds around us that we know it in the many forms it assumes, which compose the realities of a Bikolano, be he a “dakulang tawo” or a “sadit na tawo”. The notion of the Big People vs. the Little People is that most popular terms of bifurcation and social stratification created by the Jesuit social anthropologist, Fr. Frank Lynch, SJ, when he did his fieldwork in Canaman.

This column is the second part of my discussion about the work of Filomeno Aguilar, a Bikolano social scientist albeit in limited form. My topic proceeds from his book, Peripheries: Histories of Anti-Marginality, particularly in his Chapter 11, “Rice and Magic: A Cultural History from the Precolonial World to the Present.” The chapter basically looks at how rice has been transformed from a product around which were built important rituals to a diminished product, commodified and merely part of the bigger human economic undertakings. The transformation of societies brought with it significant shifts, which altered people’s view of rice as “plant and food.”

One of the domains that indicated changes in rice production and consumption could be found in the terms that our great-great-great grandparents used to refer to the plant.

Aguilar, quoting other scholars, mentions the dictionaries put out, by the Spaniards in the early part of the Spanish colonial period, which contained many terms related to rice. In Fray Miguel Ruiz’s Diccionario Español en Tagalo, for example, there are 201 food-related words, all pertaining to rice. The dictionary lists forty-one varieties of rice, “sixteen of which were identified specifically as referring to varieties grown in flooded rice paddies (“de tubigan”) and twenty specifically as grown in upland swidden (“de altos”).”

The case of sixteen varieties grown in flooded areas belies the claim of those who bragged how the “miracle rice” – short in stature and surviving waters – were new varieties.

Mentioned as further source of terms pertaining to rice is the 2013 article of Malcolm Mintz, “The Philippines at the turn of century with particular reference to the Bikol region.” The paper shows the range of terms linked to rice cultivation ad consumption in the Bikol language.

The variety and bounty of terms indicated how rice was power in the minds of the people. Rice was highly valued. Being a product of prestige, complex processes – rituals and ceremonials – were constructed around rice to show its significance.

Taboos and avoidance were present in the production of rice. There were things that one should not do and or avoid in order that rice will grow and be harvested. According to Aguilar: “Couples had to refrain from the most intimate contact, prohibited as they were from engaging in sexual intercourse three days before a harvest. Even casual neighborly interactions were not allowed during the harvest period.”

Stressing the avoidance, Aguilar writes: “It was as though all sociality was suspended to emphasize that social relations could only be possible through the beneficence of the rice spirits.”

The period before harvest was a liminal period – that space when powers were suspended or concentrated in one, when human activities were separate from the realm of the real. In this period, the only meaningful interaction was with the world of spirits. Women being the main harvesters, were therefore in communion with the spirit-world, making them the powerful gender in the rice universe.

Colonialism would introduce a big change – with the spirit-world of the pre-conquest age overtaken and dominated by the Hispanic world of a different religion and technologies. This period, according to Aguilar, reduced (reduccion is an appropriate term) the person into “living in compact settlements, or at least within hearing of the church bells (the notion of “naaabot pa kan bagting kan kampana” rings strong in this expression).” The farmer is reduced into a peasant, the women are banished as crucial participants in the ritual.

Aguilar notes how rice has always been a food for commensalism – the “we” in family or, in fiestas, the “us” in communities. The other food may be distributed but rice is always coming from a big plate, from which one gets his share.

In the fastfood world of “unli” rice, the product that was once revered because it required rules and rituals in order to be produced has become an imagined surplus commodity. Here is rice in its most vulgar bounty, available because you have paid for the chicken or pork or any other viands. The rice, once at the heart of the precious and the forbidden, is grossly served cheaply, without limits and manners.

Peripheries. Histories of Anti-Marginality is published by Ateneo de Naga University Press and is available in the said press bookstore and the world-renowned Savage Mind.