Thank God, I am a Filipina

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.)

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7 responses to “Thank God, I am a Filipina

  1. Is it possible to record all these prayers? I hope we can preserve our good tradition and heritage by documenting all of them. We now have the technology to do this.

    Thanks for sharing the good side of our history. =)

  2. May Rendon-Cinco

    Hi Glo! I am witness to your Nanay Tita’s very profound practice of being a Mamaratbat during the 9th day of Nanay Tomasa’s death. Her delivery of every line of prayer made me awaken all the time as if I understood everything. I did not feel it was a long prayer.

    It was unfortunate for me not to meet your Mamang but with the conviction you have toady I guess I had known her that far.

    Last March 8, it was a personal choice that I commemorated the 100-year International Women Day with “Women and Spirituality” as a theme. I can’t do big things but just like your Nanay and Mamang my spirituality comes from the calming and softening of the heart for myself and for others – a quiet initiative to peace and harmony.

    Thanks Glo for inspiring me (or us) by writing your thoughts and feelings. Go…go…go…

  3. Bernie, it is they who keep our culture and society alive.

  4. Hi,
    Kumusta po. I have a question in regards to prayer for the deceased. There’s a 9 day novena, then, there’s the 40 day, finally, the one year death anniversary novena. Is there also a 30 day novena exclusively for a deceased female? Please enlighten me with your knowledge. Salamat sa tulong.

  5. Gloria Esguerra Melencio

    Tinanong ko po sa nanay kong mamaratbat kung may 30-day novena para sa babaeng namatay. Wala raw, sabi niya. Dinadasalan ang babae man o lalaking namatay sa ika-siyam, ika-40 araw at sa babang luksa ng kamatayan pagtuntong ng isang taon.

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