[PHOTO - Illustration by Igan D’bayan] 

MANILA, JANUARY 9, 2012 (STAR) PENMAN By Butch Dalisay - The terrible devastation wrought recently by tropical storm Sendong on Northern Mindanao and its people reminded me of another sad fact — of how little we Filipinos, especially those of us who consider ourselves metropolitan Manileńos, know about that part of the archipelago, which may as well be another country.

For many who have never ventured south of Cebu, Mindanao is simply one vast green but war-torn landscape, made postcard-pretty here and there by the colorful costumes and festive music of Muslim and indigenous tribes.

As it happens, some of my students in Diliman come from there and have written with deep caring and sharp insight about their roots in Mindanao — a kind of personal travelogue we strongly encourage because every new piece about the place reduces our estrangement from our own historical and cultural selves. Let me start this New Year by drawing excerpts from the essays of three young women—Mindanaoans and Palanca winners all — writing about home.

In “The River of Gold,” Jeena Rani Marquez explores the legend of a golden fish in the Cagayan River:

If you’re a native Cagayanon, you have probably heard of the “giant fish” tale along the Cagayan de Oro River. Some say it’s just a myth, a legend, a tale from the old age carried over the years. Based on the story, the giant fish even ate a priest from nearby St. Augustine Church.

“When I was six I was brought to a place where a gigantic fish made of solid gold swam in the depths of the first river one sees after coming down from the city’s airport in a valley. In my mind’s eye I could see it glistening in the sun and gliding beneath the river’s old steel bridge of cold gray. I had wanted to see the bizarre fish so badly, but I was told that, like the engkantos in the suburbs, it chose the people to whom it revealed itself. I would wait for the fish to emerge from its murky home; it might just show itself to me. It never did.

“Who had seen the fish? No one knew, but oh, it was down there. The city’s motorelas — little vehicles built with the heart of a tricycle and the body of a six-passenger jeepney emblazoned with its owner’s name in bright red — raced through the shaky Carmen Bridge when traffic was light. I would wonder if any of those motorela passengers or drivers had seen it. But none of them said anything about actually seeing the fish. Even at night, when city lights transformed the turbid river into a glass sheet of orange shadows, the golden fish did not show itself to anyone. It was just there, living among us.

“It was almost sacrilegious to proclaim ‘There is no fish,’ at least from my side of the city of half a million people. Some of the older people of the city swore they had seen it. The colossal fish had emerged from the Cagayan River sometime in the 1950s. It was so huge that all of Cagayan de Oro City shook violently in a mighty quake when it came out of the depths of the Cagayan River.

“Those who had seen it in their childhood claim it was not a fish; it couldn’t have been because of its towering height and the power of its majestic movement. It was a sleeping red dragon which lived in an invisible river beneath the San Agustin Cathedral on one side of Carmen Bridge.

“Beneath the Cathedral there are secret passageways which priests had used as escape routes during the Japanese Occupation. According to the city’s elders, one underground tunnel goes all the way to the pier of Cagayan de Oro because the body of the priest who had bathed in the river and disappeared was found at the pier.

“The golden fish in the river was supposed to explain the de Oro part of the city’s name. And then there’s the ancient Bukidnon word cagaycay, which means to rake up earth with a piece of wood or one’s bare hands; it can also refer to gold ore from streams or rocks gathered from a river. Another place name origin version claims Cagayan means ‘place of the river,’ from the Malayo-Polynesian kagay (river), well, for obvious reasons: a river does run through the city, with headwaters as far as the Kalatungan mountain range of Bukidnon. The Cagayan River is the dividing line between Cagayan de Oro’s two congressional districts and is believed to be the city’s sole witness to its ancient secrets.”

In “Story of a Stray,” Elena Paulma pays tribute to Butuan:

The Kingdom of Butuan was an ancient Indianized kingdom in pre-colonial southern Philippines centered on the present Mindanao island city of Butuan. It was known for its mining of gold, its gold products and its extensive trade network across the Nusantara area.

“I left it at 16 to go to college in the big city of Manila, unaware that I would soon confuse whomever I was with about where I came from.

“’Where?’ people would ask again, and I would say for the second time, ‘Butuan City.’ The next question would come right on cue. ‘Where’s that?’ which could be translated into ‘Where on this planet earth is that?’ from the way it was asked.

"It got so that I learned to whisper the word ‘Mindanao’ because sometimes, people literally backed away a little, asking cautiously, ‘Are you a Muslim?’

"Once, somebody asked, ‘Do you have buses there? What about movie houses?’ So I tried to speak Tagalog without the Bisayan accent, but sometimes I got caught when I could not find a Tagalog word for what I wanted to say. There I would be, having this perfectly friendly conversation with a classmate or dorm-mate, and I would make the vocabulary blooper, and she would ask, ‘Why, where do you come from?’ and that would be the end of our five-minute friendship.

“Of course, not everyone was like that. Some of them even recognized it, saying, ‘Ah, Butu-an’ very kindly, carefully. And I would be kind, too, and keep my mouth shut about its being pronounced ‘Butwan’ because butu in our language is not often used in polite society as it refers to a male’s rather private appendages. Since the suffix ‘an’ in our language would roughly translate into ‘a place of,’ that would have made Butuan a very interesting place.

“But there are perfectly civilized explanations for the name. One version says that it came from a certain Datu Bantuan who once ruled the Kingdom of Butuan. One other version attributes the name to batuan, a fruit I yet have to meet. The version I like the most is the one that says it comes from the word but-an, which refers to a person who is ‘good.’

And lastly for now, Tess Garcia recalls in “Lifelines” her first encounter with a telephone in Surigao City:


“The first time I saw a telephone was when I was six years old when my parents finally decided to have me tag along on their evening trips to the nearest RCPI. There is only one main road in Surigao, and that is Rizal National Highway. 

"It starts from the City Hall of Surigao and goes deeper into the heart of Mindanao, which is why Surigao’s tourism copy is ‘Gateway to Mindanao.’ RCPI is located on Rizal, just a few meters from the City Hall and the flagpole said to be where the Philippine flag of Aguinaldo was first hoisted in the island of Mindanao.

"RCPI faces the Luneta where the only gazebo in town resides, and the rickety slides that screamed tetanus whenever we played after school. The school and church, San Nicolas, happen to face the Luneta’s other side, too.

"These buildings make up the ‘city’ part in Surigao City. It is also a fact that after seven in the evening in those days, RCPI was the only establishment open for customers, mostly families of overseas workers and students being educated in Manila or Cebu.

"The City Hall, the Luneta, the school, and the church would be empty except for a few stray dogs and maybe the occasional drunk singing? Manilyn Reynes’ Sayang na Sayang Lang.

"Imagine my excitement when my parents finally let me out after dark. I had always wanted to see what the city was like after hours, even if it was just a trip to the telegram and long-distance place.”

I hope that we’ll get to read more from these new authors, and more about Mindanao, in the years to come.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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