Angela Manalang-Gloria on the Morality of the Bicolanos



I was planning to write about one of the streets of this city again this week when I took a break and pored over my copies of papers from the H. Otley Beyer Collection found in the National Library.


The flooding of new information about our cultures has relegated the old name of Beyer almost to the dustbin. The American anthropologist spent most of his years in the Philippines and died here He taught in the University of the Philippines for many years. In 1925, he became the first director of the Department of Anthropology.


That year, a young woman was enrolled in his class. Her name was Angela Manalang-Gloria. She was born in Pampanga but her parents moved to Albay and settled in Tabaco. She studied in St. Agnes and moved to St. Scholastica, then to UP.


In the class on ethnography of H. Otley Beyer, Gloria submitted in March 1925 a paper with this title: Domestic Relations and Morality of the Bicolanos.


The choice of topic could sound odd to students of literature. In the university, Gloria was said to be the rival of another great poet, Jose Garcia Villa. Garcia Villa would outrage many with his literary experimentations but in UP, Gloria did steal the thunder from him because of the poem, “Revolt of the Hymen.” The poem was part of a work Gloria submitted to the Philippines’ 1940 Commonwealth Literary Award. The manuscript was said to have been deemed immoral not because of the word, hymen, but of the word “whore,” which appeared in the poem.


But here she is writing an ethnography on morality, one that certainly would annoy any Bicolano.


The paper begins with the description, “The land is very fertile and makes living an easy matter.” Then she continues: All this richness of resources conduces to an easy way of getting a living to a life that is carefree and unconcerned with the thing of the morrow and, therefore, to greater propensities for pastimes and vices.”


With the ecological stage set, Angela Manalang-Gloria proceeds to define the inhabitants of the region: The Bicolano is cool-tempered, timid, docile, and hired (sic) hearted man, and a family lover.” She continues: “He may live in poverty, but his happiness more than compensates his lack of wealth.”


We know what she is doing – she is romanticizing poverty. The wonder of it all is that this observation (and hasty generalization) still exists today in many accounts about us. We could understand then; she was writing in the 1920s.


She starts the comparison with the Visayan (sic) by pointing to the Bikolano’s “lightness of character.” The words are vague but they seem to be patronizing.


The poet’s attempt to cultural description pushes her to make a correlation between geography and character, climate and personal psychology. Listen to her ruminations: “The absence of great hardships that make a man struggle keenly for life gives to Bicolanos no ambition [underscoring mine], no desire at all to go beyond his dirty, unkempt horizon and explore the regions beyond.”


So, it is true, that lightness of character is no compliment. Bicolanos, to her mind, are timid and does not have the courage to go out and sally forth and be adventurous.


Love enters the picture of this uncanny ethnography. She declares: “When love is concerned, the Bicolano makes a good husband. However, he prefers to work only about three days a week and spend the remaining time loafing around and gambling what he has gained by hard labor.”


What about the women? “Bicolana women are good wives, but like their husbands, they neglect their homes to go about gambling.”


What kind of people – Bicolanos – did she interact with?


It seems, our great-grandparents are on the losing end of her proposition. Describing the homes of the ordinary Bicolanos, she writes: “Their homes compared to those of the Tagalogs and Pampangueños, are markedly ill-kept; indeed, the statements hold true of the highest class of the Bicol population.” This clarification is meant to stress that, all throughout, she is describing the Filipino lower classes.


The next paragraphs in the paper resort to the old stereotype about Bicolanos, which could be said of other ethnolinguistic communities, with regard to fiestas and other occasions like baptism, wedding, and even funeral. People spend money on these events to show to the community that they could foot the bills for these significant rites of passage.


The Bicolanos, in her observation, would spend more on dresses and appearances than on food. She cites occurrences where “not infrequently, a girl’s attire is more costly than the home wherein her family lives! [exclamation mine]”


Angela Manalang Gloria has strong words against the Bicolanas, in that they would ask money from parents so they could buy dresses that they could wear to the salonan or dance halls. That mothers would give their daughters indeed money to buy fancy clothes. And the girl in that get-up could work to earn some money for the family.


There are other details, which are still true today, For example, Gloria says the community tolerates concubines and accepts them. Pitty (sic) or “petty” stealing of coconuts and fruits were almost accepted. In the end, this poet admits how the Bicolano’s morality has reached the lowest level but points also to the negative influences brought about by foreigners – the Spanish, the Americans and the Chinese.


Now, I wonder what grade she received from H. Otley Beyer. If she were in my class on Introduction to Sociology/Anthropology, which I taught more than thirty years ago, I would have asked her to do more fieldworks, repeat her observation and rewrite the paper. Or, I would have failed her.