By Gloria Esguerra Melencio
Two nameless women had rocked my cradle. My Bisayan mother, amiable and loving, had lulled me to sleep while singing the song “tanaman nga marampag” (thick bush) or telling the story about Mt. Mandiwing, a mountain that existed only in my dreams. My Ilocano grandmother, strong and stoic, had bathed me, played sungka with me and taught me how to read the alphabet.
They are Filipino women whose cultures from north and south make me the Filipina that I am today.
My Catholic-born mother, a mamaratbat (prayer leader) in Leyte, is usually called to pray for her dearly departed relatives or townmates in far-flung areas in her hometown in Palo . She does lead the pangangadi (praying) in her native Waray language and had memorized kilometric lines of prayer she recites in a rhythmic sing-song intonation.
Mostly old women, the mamarat bat or pamaratbat also lead the prayer for the Holy Rosary (Santo Rosario), for the dying (paghinutas), for the dead (tresayo), or during the 40th day death anniversary (ika-cuarenta nga dias).
The 1895 Father Antonio Sanchez’s Diccionario Bisaya-Espanol Para Las Provincias de Samar y Leyte defines the word “mamarat.yon” sa “de patay” that clearly relates it to death. It also lists the word “pamaratbat” as being accustomed to responding in the prayer.
This Bisayan ritual of pamatbat has been handed down through generations of women. There are male pamaratbats, however, but they are so few and I have yet to see one in Samar and Leyte.
I once asked my mother why she does lead this prayer ritual. She said: “Para kunta mabuligan ko pagtabok an kalag han tawon” (To help the soul of the poor one cross from the physical world to the spirit world).
The ritual praying becomes a community activity where relatives and friends get together, condole each other and make the pain of death bearable for the living. This necessitates cooking and eating sans singing and dancing. The Waray-waray people forbid merrymaking during grief. Times such as fiestas and birthdays when they can drink the native wine tuba, sing and dance to the hilt can always wait.
Nanay, too, is a walking historian, rather herstorian (the Filipino word mananalaysay is non-sexist and egalitarian), who knows by heart the names of the ancestors of the family requesting her to do the pamatbat. She holds a long list of names of dead people whom she calls one by one during her praying. Mind you, the name of old Bancao, a 17th century Bisayan chief who fought the Spanish conquistadores bravely – made it to Nanay’s and other mamaratbat’s recited prayer!
My Ilocano grandmother, also a Catholic, traces her roots to the Carbonel-Novicio-Lagasca clan from La Union and Pangasinan. Mamang’s strict, disciplinarian ways irritated me but had somehow rubbed on me and have become my survival tools in my personal battles. My Nanay’s amiability and softness have tempered my Mamang’s stoicity and hardness in me, that I believe keep me calm and centered even in times of crisis.
When my sick father was about to give up in sending me to school, Mamang fought poverty tooth and nail to send me to college. Ilocano parents when faced with difficulty send their sons first to school one after the other, and daughters last should there be resources left. Or the chicken thighs and breast are reserved for the father and sons while the bony parts and vegetables are for mother and daughters who eat them without complain because it has been their way of life. (This must be one of the reasons why Filipino women live longer than men.)
But I had Mamang who defied this unwritten male-centered Ilocano tradition. She would wait for me in the balcony in the evening while keeping an eye on the bowl of dinengdeng, broiled fish and warm rice she covered for me lest my intrepid brothers or the male cat feast on them.
Mamang, just like Nanay, are obscure in history books. While Ilocano middle and upper class women such as bolo wielding Gabriela Silang or poet Leona Florentino found their way to recognition by virtue of their own courage, tenacity and wealth, the names of their more popular husband or son come close beside theirs. Their profile description goes like this: Gabriela Silang, widow of Diego Silang; or Leona Florentino, poet and mother of Isabelo delos Reyes.
Yet, Mamang and Nanay – just like other nameless women who comprise a little less than half of grassroots women in Philippine society – have been feeding and attending to children, cleaning homes, doing the laundry, cooking food and washing the dishes to send everyone else to school and to work. They keep life going, so to speak.
I share this story with other Filipino women whose stories are no different from mine.
(P.S. I always keep my married name. My husband lets me write historical features like this one despite unwashed dishes and an unkept house. He sometimes helps me with the chores. I do not mind keeping the middle name my father gave me by virtue of paternity law. Mamang and Nanay gave me my first name; rather, Mamang suggested, Nanay accepted. This reminds me of the egalitarian pre-colonial period when children carried only first names their mothers gave them.)