Not long after the last bar of my mobile signal disappears, the dirt road we’ve been following vanishes too. Detouring from the concrete highway, our four-wheel drive had driven across a lush expanse, guarded by a menacing sawtooth ridge aptly called Devil’s Mountain, so named after the grass-covered landscape that turns a hellish reddish brown after every dry season. The onset of the habagat (southwest monsoon), however, has repainted the Mindoro countryside in vibrant hues, and incessant rains have dissolved farther sections of the road into precarious gullies of slippery muck. After roaring for 6km, traversing shallow streams along the way, our mud-splattered SUV eventually surrenders to a miry rice field and can go no further. Fortunately, our destination, Barangay Naibuan, is now within sight. We are now, as the old travel cliché goes, off the beaten track.
Accompanied by staff members from the municipal tourism office, photojournalist Martin San Diego and I are visiting the Mangyan villages of San Jose, the most progressive municipality of Occidental Mindoro, to document their distinct way of life. Martin and I have spent time with different indigenous peoples all over the country on separate assignments, but the cultural immersion in tribal communities on Mindoro island is a first for both of us, and we’re not sure what to expect. Mangyan is the umbrella term for the eight indigenous peoples of Mindoro — the Iraya, Alangan, Tadyawan, Tawbuid, Buhid, Hanunuo, Ratagnon and Bangon — who had already been thriving on the island for centuries when the Spanish colonizers arrived in the Philippines in the mid-1500s.
Like most of the 110 indigenous groups across the country, the Mangyan are marginalized by urban society; their centuries-old culture endangered by the pressures to conform to the ways of the modernized majority. For decades, waves of Christian settlers have displaced Mangyan natives, who, because of their peaceful disposition, often choose to retreat to the highlands rather than fight back. And even to this day, upland tribes — some of which have chosen to shun any contact with the outside world — have to defend what’s left of their ancestral domains from large-scale mining companies and illegal logging operations.
But Naibuan is a landmark example of Mangyan communities reclaiming what they’ve lost. Its village center is a mix of native huts and concrete houses surrounding a small elementary school and a farmers’ market that gets busy when villagers descend from the surrounding mountains to sell livestock, produce and handicrafts every Saturday. Hanunuo families began resettling the valley area in the late 1980s so they could send their children to public school, says local official Angelito Ero, because “we knew education could help improve our lives”. The Mangyans lobbied for 16 years for Naibuan to become a barangay, the smallest unit of government in the Philippines, in order to receive much-needed funding from the national government for education, infrastructure, healthcare and other areas of community life. Thanks to a plebiscite held in January this year, the 15 scattered sitios, or settlements, of Naibuan — with a combined total population of nearly 2,800 Hanunuo and Buhid Mangyans — officially became a barangay; the first and only barangay in the province populated and governed solely by Mangyan people.
In the village center, we walk past the single-storey elementary school toward the hillside home of Poldo Onilla, Angelito’s father-in-law and one of the prominent elders of the village. In the cogon-roofed bamboo hut, we find a handful of women artisans already gathered in the lanai to demonstrate their weaving skills. As concrete roads and bridges are expected to eventually make their way to Naibuan, the newly formed barangay — with the help of the municipal government of San Jose — is eyeing community-led tourism as the key to cultural preservation. The Hanunuo Mangyans, whose name means “true” or “genuine”, are known to be extremely proud of their traditions that have been handed down through generations, and today the weavers seem eager to showcase their skills. While I’ve long been familiar with Iraya Mangyan basketry made from nito (climbing fern) in northern Mindoro, I am surprised to discover that the southern groups, on the other hand, have a long tradition of loom weaving. Her mouth stained red from chewing betel quid, Hanunuo weaver Gina Abello deftly manipulates strands of black and white cotton threads to create a tight weave of habol fabric through a harablon, or backstrap loom, made from sticks and rods of bamboo and kamagong (velvet apple) wood.
“The younger generation in our village is still interested in weaving,” says Gina, 36, who has been weaving since she was 14. “We just lack the tools and raw materials to teach them and produce more.” The striped handwoven textile is traditionally worn as tapis (skirts) or used as blankets to carry children, but now also finds other contemporary uses as a material to make bags, placemats, table runners and wall décor.
Aside from their weaving, the southern Mangyans are also known for their colorful beadwork. Many villagers — regardless of gender or age — wear beaded jewelry, accessorizing themselves with necklaces and bracelets. Rosie Bercasio and Marissa Lucena, who brighten up the gloomy afternoon with their good-natured cackling, are considered two of the best jewelry makers in Naibuan. Seated around a winnowing basket containing blue, orange and white beads, the women carefully thread a nylon string through each plastic bead. “I remember my grandmother making jewelry from seeds and cotton thread,” says 50-year-old Rosie, “but we now use plastic beads and nylon so they’ll last longer.” Like the weavers, they create beadwork — such as earrings, necklaces, bracelets, headbands and pouch bags — on a made-to-order basis. Plans are underway to construct a handicraft center that will serve as an alternative source of livelihood for village artisans, as well as a venue for indigenous knowledge and skills to be inherited by succeeding generations.
Compared to other indigenous peoples in the Philippines, the most exceptional aspect of Mangyan culture — especially among the Hanunuo and Buhid — is, to my mind, their writing systems; believed to have descended from Brahmic scripts in India. While the use of other native Philippine scripts — such as the Tagalog baybayin — has long ceased due to three centuries of Spanish rule, the Hanunuo and Buhid alphabets survived the colonial era and are still used to this day. In 1999, these Mangyan scripts, together with the Tagbanwa and Palaw’an scripts from Palawan, were inscribed in the Unesco Memory of the World Programme, an international initiative launched to preserve documentary heritage of universal value.
“I was first taught by my parents how to write my name,” recounts the 46-year-old farmer Abing Dahas, who was introduced to the Hanunuo script — also called surat Mangyan — when he was only seven. The Hanunuo syllabary is composed of 15 characters, each representing a consonant inherently followed by the vowel “a”. Characters are modified with a kudlit, a small mark, to change the vowel sound.
Later on, Abing learned to write traditional Hanunuo poetry called ambahan. Traditionally recorded on pieces of bamboo in Hanunuo script, the ambahan is a form of poetry composed of seven-syllable lines with rhyming end syllables. Passed on from generation to generation, ambahan are used to express oneself artistically in special social situations such as parents educating children, courtship among young people or bidding farewell and sending a loved one off to another life. During gatherings, villagers may also challenge each other by reciting poems as a form of entertainment. Many of these are collected in the book Mangyan Treasures, published by the Mangyan Heritage Center, a library, archive and research center that, building on the work of Dutch anthropologist Antoon Postma, helps preserve the Mangyan culture. In the 1960s, Antoon Postma, back then a missionary priest, went to work with Mangyan communities where he spent the next 50 years of his life, documenting the richness of the culture. He fell in love with the people and the place, marrying his wife, Yam-ay Insik, with whom he had four children.
From the poetry alone, I can understand how someone might devote their life to helping preserve such a rich but threatened culture. It’s spare but effusive, aching and romantic. Abing shows us some verses he still remembers, etching angular characters on a fresh bamboo tube with a kitchen knife. With a sparkle in his eyes, Abing fondly recalls wooing his then-future wife with secret love letters he wrote in surat Mangyan on pieces of paper instead of bamboo. If he had chosen to, he could have picked an old ambahan from the collection, translated into English as:
“My sweetheart, my love so dear,
when I left, in coming here,
coming from my house and yard;
all the rice that I have stored,
I have left it there behind,
because I hope here to find
one more valued than my rice!
One to be my partner nice
to the water, to the field,
a companion on my trips,
and one who will share my sleep!”
The next morning, the sun comes out and we seize the opportunity to venture further out to Sitio Salidang, a remote community of Buhid Mangyans. Guided by barefoot locals, we follow a meandering trail for close to five hours, crossing countless stony creeks and forest streams. The softened path, kneaded by the hooves of passing horses and carabaos, is made arduous by deep pools of mud that occasionally trap our shoes and make funny sucking noises with every step we take. Eventually, we make it up the mountain and into a picturesque settlement: a cluster of huts straddling rolling pastureland. It overlooks the majestic central mountain range of Mindoro island, skirted by wisps of fog. While the Hanunuo we met at the village center make a living as farmers, the main livelihood of this faraway Buhid community is raising goats and cattle.
“The Buhid are very welcoming and receive visitors generously,” schoolteacher Michelle Lasugas assures the group as she leads us to an outbuilding that serves as her school’s kitchen and dining quarters. The sole educator of the community hikes to the village to teach and returns to her home in the lowland barangay of Batasan every weekend. “It’s really tiring work, but I got used to it and now enjoy it here,” she adds. “There are too many problems down there.” The NGO-initiated schoolhouse was established to provide preparatory education to the village children if their parents decide to send them off to attend public school. “They are hungry for learning here,” Michelle says. To welcome us, the villagers slaughtered a young horse injured from a bad fall. The tender meat from the unlucky foal was cooked adobo-style with calamansi juice and lime leaves, and served with a thick soup made from pigeon peas and banana heart. It’s a hearty meal worth the long trek, and it tells me that the Buhid will make fantastic hosts when hiking trails are established, and tourism makes it to the village.
On our last day, a group of men in loincloths and women in T-shirts and tapis gather on a hilltop to sing songs and present traditional dances. It’s a courtship dance, and men strut — to the rhythm of bamboo slit drums and a makeshift guitar — around a group of giggling ladies seated on the ground. The performance is followed by a preview demonstration of a daniw (since performing a real one with nobody ill is considered bad luck), an animistic healing ritual which calls on benevolent nature spirits to cure the sick though chanting. “Sadly, young people are no longer interested in these traditions,” laments Awhay Luson, the oldest performer in the group. Like many older Mangyan in remote communities, Awhay doesn’t know his exact age but assures me it’s definitely past the half-century mark. “I hope there will be more occasions such as this to share our knowledge so the next generation won’t forget what we have inherited from our ancestors.” And we leave Mindoro feeling Awhay’s prayer is now ours as well.
How to get there: Barangay Naibuan is located 27km north of San Jose Airport, and is best reached by a four-wheel-drive. Visits to the Mangyan communities may be arranged in advance through the Municipal Tourism and Community Development Office of San Jose. +63 929 448 8315; firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Smile magazine.