Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mga Dunganon nga Tawo

The book "Clash of Spirits" by Filomeno Aguilar, Jr. has some very interesting insights on Ilonggo culture and the concept of the "dunganon nga tawo." Translated literally in English, the Ilonggo term dunganon nga tawo means "a powerful man" or a person of great stature. I believe dunganon (pronounced as is derived from the root word dungog which connotes pride or self-respect. The terms dunganon and dungog are seldom used by people nowadays since many Ilonggos find these quite archaic or "too deep" (madalum). If ever they used, it is usually by old folks, such as for instance a grandfather advising his grandson to: "Magtu-on ka sang maayo para tapuson mo ang kolehiyo kay para man na sa kadunganan mo."

But back when it was more commonly used, the term dunganon was used to describe any person who exhibits any or all of the following qualities 1.) acute intelligence, vast knowledge and a sharp mind; 2.) indomitable willpower and self confidence; 3.) generates wealth and an awesome reputation; 4.) excellent oratorical skills, ample capacity to dominate others and subdue enemies; and 5.) lastly, incredible luck and fortune. In short, a dunganon nga tawo is a person who not only exudes an aura of power and self-mastery but someone blessed with good luck - qualities that inspires awe and respect from his fellowmen. The anthropologist Alicia Magos of UP-Visayas made a pioneering study on this primeval Visayan concept. According to Magos, dunganon is derived from the root word dungan which she defined as "a life force, an energy, as well as an ethereal entity, a spirit with a will of its own that resides in the human body and provides the essence of life. Apart from denoting an alter ego and soul stuff, the dungan as presently understood refers to such personal attributes as willpower, knowledge and intelligence, and even the ability to dominate and persuade others. (Magos 1992, 47-50)." Under the concept, everyone possesses a dungan (or dungog if you prefer) albeit of varying strengths or "force levels" but only a select few are blessed to be born with very strong dungan. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because the concept of the dungan finds many parallels in other cultures. The Chinese call it the chí, Christian doctrine calls it the soul and even Hollywood, in the blockbuster sci fi movie Star Wars, dub it simply as "The Force." The only difference is that in the Western ideology, the soul is depicted as either good or evil. Western philosophy sees life as a constant struggle to improve ourselves so that we eventually overcome the "baser" aspects of our being (hence, the one-dimensional characters of the "good" Jedi and the evil Sith in Star Wars). There is no such dichotomy under the primordial Visayan concept of the dungan. Instead, life is seen as a constant battle for ascendancy between and among people of varying levels of dungan or, to borrow Aguilar's words, "a recurrent negotiation over rank among adults of all social strata" (hence the title of the book "Clash of Spirits"). And in this constant clash of spirits, only the few exceptional individuals with very strong dungan reign supreme and become legends - mga dunganon nga tawo.

This belief in a spirit, a life force, a dungan that resides within us, is manifested in our present-day belief in the usug, wherein an infant gets sick at the sight of an adult stranger. It is believed that the child cries, vomits and experiences abdominal pains because the stronger dungan of the adult stranger upsets the presumably weaker dungan of the infant, hence the term "na usug" which, roughly translated in English, means "to nudge" or "to trip." To prevent usug, the adult wets a finger with his or her saliva and applies this to the infant to subdue the dungan of any approaching stranger. Many people to this day believe that an adult with an especially strong dungan can overpower and wittingly cause illness in another grown-up with a weaker dungan with just a light touch or a few words.

During pre-Spanish times, the datu (tribal chieftain) and the babaylan (shaman or priest) were the epitome of the dunganon nga tawo. Today, mention the word datu and it conjures a mental image of a person with a robust physique and regal bearing, an individual both wealthy and brave, a man comanding both fear and respect. Mention the word babaylan and it evokes in us feelings of dread and fascination, of sorcery and magical enchantments, anting-antings and hiwit. During the Spanish colonial period, the datu and the babaylan were replaced by the friars as the dunganon or "Big Men" of Philippine society. The descendants of the datu class they reduced to mere factotums (i.e. sacristans and gobernadorcillos) while the babaylans they drove away into the mountains and remote interior areas of Panay. With their "el arte de dominar el espiritu del Indio" (or the art of dominating the Indio spirit), these Spanish priests were able to completely subjugate the people and impose their will on our society for almost three centuries.

But not all Indios submitted to the friars. Quite a number, men of strong character and indomitable spirit - mga dunganon nga tawo - refused to be cowed by Spanish and later, American and Japanese, and resisted their rule. Dramatic individual examples of the dunganon during the colonial period were the mestizo Isidro dela Rama of Iloilo City and the babaylan Estrella Bangotbanwa of San Joaquin, Iloilo. In the book "Clash of Spirits," Isidro dela Rama is enshrined as a "great magnate" - impetuous, aggressive, prescient, original and shrewd:

"A consummate gambler, he supposedly began his career when he was 18 years old as a leaseholder of a small farm in Minuluan (present-day Talisay), Negros Occidental, with only 500 pesos as starting capital. He then proceeded to acquire vast tracts of land as well as a fleet of ships that plied the Iloilo-Bacolod and Iloilo-Manila routes. Driven by a vaulting ambition, dela Rama, after barely 7 years as a planter, was able to penetrate the exclusive circle of sugar merchants and warehouse owners at Iloilo. After 10 years in the lucrative sugar trade, he moved on to the most spectacular phase of his financial career as a large-scale importer of manufactured goods from Europe and North America. He reportedly used his own vessels to transport his imports, which were sold through his flamboyant shops in Iloilo and Manila. He travelled twice around the world and sent his two sons to study in Europe, one in Paris, the other in London. When Isidro dela Rama died in Manila in 1898, he left a fortune worth 2 million pesos.

Anecdotes about Isidro dela Rama suggest that he was possessed of an extremely strong dungan, the soul stuff that fortified him in his struggles and granted him enormous success. He astounded not only Indios and his fellow mestizos but Spaniards as well, including Iloilo City's harbor master, who tried to obstruct the movement of dela Rama's goods at the pier. Possessing the temerity to put himself above the law and exact his own form of justice, dela Rama publicly confronted the official with a gun in his hand, and got his way. His retort to Spanish abuses against the natives is encapsulated in a supposed quote: "Well, these injustices have never been committed against me, and anyone who does so, I either beat up or kill."

Dela Rama was also undaunted by Friar power. On one occasion, he was the only non-Spaniard among dignitaries invited to a banquet hosted by the Minuluan curate, Fr. Fernando Cuenca. One religious, who was new to the place, supposedly demanded in a loud voice why an Indio dared to impose his presence on that august crowd. With icy calmness, and without asserting his mestizo origins, dela Rama delivered his riposte: "I am an Indio and your reverence hold me unworthy of this gathering of Spaniards. Come down with me and, by my honor as a native, I assure you that I will smash your face."
(Source: "Clash of Spirits" by Filomeno Aguilar Jr. p. 159-160)

By the end of the 19th century, Spain's dominion over the Philippines was growing weak and this period was marked by a resurgence of the cult of the babaylanes. Various groups led by charismatic individuals waged "mini-rebellions" against Spain. Among the leaders in Panay was a certain "Dios Gregorio" and Clara Tarrosa from Tigbauan, Iloilo who claimed she was the Virgin Mary. Similar movements emerged in neighboring Negros island led by equally colorfully-named beings like the effeminate "Dios Buhawi," the black-bearded "Kachila" and the charismatic "Papa (Pope) Isio."

"A more spectacular demonstration of the resurgence of babaylan strength transpired in San Joaquin. Oral tradition among shamans of Panay recount 3 years of drought and famine that ravaged this town and left people dying of starvation and thirst, as all the rivers and springs had dried up. This was probably the same famine, mentioned in the Augustinian record, that befell San Joanquin in 1877 and 1878, when corpses were literally strewn around the town. According to the lore, people sought help from the parish priest, but he failed to induce rain. Desperate in his inability to alleviate the disaster, the curate advised the town leaders to call upon a babaylan known as Estrella Bangotbanwa, who ordered that 7 black pigs be butchered, shaved and covered with black cloth. She then took a black pig from the convent to the plaza, where she pressed its mouth to the ground until it gave a loud squeak. Suddenly, the sky turned dark and a heavy downpour followed. The butchered pigs and the sea crustaceans at the offering table sprang to life. Bangotbanwa had brought back rain and life to San Joaquin. Estrella Bangotbanwa's success over the Catholic Church has been immortalized through her elevation to the status of an ancestor (papu) with mystical prowess, and at present she is revered as the matriarch and founder of a group of shamans in Antique province."
(Source: "Clash of Spirits" by Filomeno Aguilar Jr. pp. 165-166)

A more recent incarnation of a dunganan was the late Rodolfo "Roding" Ganzon who, during his political prime, many Ilonggos considered as someone possessed of an exceptionally strong dungan. Like Isidro dela Rama a century before him, Roding Ganzon rose from simple origins to become Mayor of Iloilo City and later Senator of the Republic by virtue of his sharp mind, excellent oratorical skills, stubborn willpower and lastly, incredible luck. Other present-day examples of the dunganan in Iloilo City are Honorato "Tatoy" Espinosa (of Tatoy's Manukan fame) and Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez. It is rather a well-known "fact" among Ilonggos that Tatoy has a "special" friend, a white duwende who resides in his lot, who has brought him suwerte in the restaurant business. From his humble beginnings as a fisherman in Villa Beach, Tatoy today is said to be a millionaire several times over and his Tatoy's Manukan has become an institutional landmark in Iloilo City. Tatoy's success story is a constant source of inspiration for the poor who no doubt dream that one day meeting their own duwende who will give them suwerte and deliver them from poverty. And who in Iloilo City does not have an opinion about Secretary Gonzalez? Irregardless of whether you agree with his politics or not, Secretary Gonzalez is undeniably a man possessed of a very strong dungan: not only does he possess a keen intellect, strong willpower, luck and the unconditional loyalty of his followers but he also has an uncanny ability to "subdue" his "enemies" - all the hallmarks of a classic dunganon nga tawo. And while Tatoy may have had help from his supernatural, "other-worldy" friends, Secretary Gonzalez I believe could also claim to have very powerful friends, albeit of the natural, "worldly" kind. If the two were born during pre-colonial times, Tatoy would easily have become a babaylan while Secretary Gonzalez in all probability would have risen to the rank of datu.

As a student of Philippine politics, I am interested in this idealized concept of the dunganon nga tawo because I am convinced that this belief in a primordial dungan, even in a subconscious level, somehow has an impact on how Filipinos, and most particularly Ilonggos, formulate their choices during elections. As we all know, politicians (especially the opposition politicians) love to depict elections as a contest between "good and evil." In fact, all the campaign speeches I have listened to always boils down to this same old message: "I am good, my opponent is bad. So vote for me." But applying the Clash of Spirits concept of the dunganon nga tawo, depicting elections as a fight between good and evil is like asking people in a bulangan (cockpit) to choose pula (the red fighting cock) instead of puti (the white cock) because the puti is evil . It is totally immaterial. This is because, under the concept of the dungan, elections are nothing more that jousting tournaments for mga dunganon nga tawo. During elections, voters are not looking for who is good or who is bad, who is right and who is wrong, who is better and who is not. People generally are not interested in a candidate's platform of government. What they are more interested in finding out is whether a candidate possesses the attributes of a dunganon nga tawo. People want images, not ideas.

This then will explain why the vast majority of Filipino voters do not go for the "most-qualified" candidate. This partly explains why Antonio Trillanes achieved a surprise victory as senator during the last elections despite having no money, negligible political network and limited experience. Trillanes fits the description of a dunganon nga tawo to a tee - fearless, outspoken, willing to fight for his beliefs - and I surmise people bought his underdog image. This also explains why Erap remains popular (as various surveys show) despite his being convicted for plunder because, like Trillanes, he fits the mold of a dunganon nga tawo - his rebelliousness against the hoity toity Establishment, voracious appetite for life, and legendary sense of humor - and it endears him to the masses. I suspect that some politicians have long ago discovered this facet of the Filipino psyche and have sought to manipulate their image and mannerisms to acquire the aura of a dunganon nga tawo - the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos easily comes to mind.

By way of closing, I leave you with this anecdote from the book "Clash of Spirits" of how hacenderos in the past used their hacienda workers' belief in the spirit dungan to exercise better control over them:

"Aware of the efficacy of the mirage that had been constructed around their class, many planters behaved in the mold of the strong dungan spiced with paternalism and acquired tremendous spiritual reputation in the tradition of ancient magical individuals. The rich planter Juan Araneta, for example, was rumored to have a spirit-guide called the Sota - a spirit being of small stature with a body that was half black and half white, a feature described in Ilonggo as kambang. It was said that Araneta possessed a commanding voice and was full of knowledge and wisdom. His reputed powers included the ability to heal, to take giant steps and to see from afar, to vanish before one's eyes and reappear in another place instantaneously, to produce objects from nowhere, and to fly on his magical white horse.

Hacenderos in Negros cultivated this image and a few actually fabricated situations to demonstrate their supposed magical abilities. To this end, some planters even resorted to asinine tactics like prying under the huts of workers to eavesdrop on private conversations, later using the information thus obtained to tantalize the workers. Other planters relied on technologies unknown to the workers, such as binoculars and dynamite, to perform feats for which the natives had no explanation except anting anting. The planter elite's spurious claim to spiritual wonders was given credibility by their generally aggressive dungan, their ruthlessness and the fear they evoked, their bravado and gambling, and the accumulated riches that were assumed to be a sign of commendation by the spirits."


dyscalculia said...

woooow what a shocker!!!! im frank frm san joaquin and a professor in one of the universities here in iloilo city... i was amazed by the babaylan story of estrella bangotbanwa which had traspired in my hometown.. im very sure that only a few of my co-san joaquinhons (maybe less than 10, i assume)knew the story... i cant wait to tell my family and friends about this...its great knowledge knowing ones culture and history.. lots of thanks!!!!!

David B Katague said...

What a fascinating and interesting article. Is the book "Clash of the Spirits" now available for sale. Reading your comments on "usug" reminds me of the latest incident that my grandchildren experienced when they visited Marinduque last year. Note that I was born in Iloilo, studied in US and now retired in Marinduque and California. Reading your article on the Ilonggo culture,reminds me of my childhood days. Keep up with the good work thru your blogs on Ilonggo culture.

ryan said...

nice post ;)

Brian Brotarlo said...

I'll get a copy of this book. It's curious that we have to rely on historians to write about the uses of magic in the Philippines. It seems to be beyond the ken of our fiction writers. They are too literal, is my feeling, naively believing the historical spin of people in power.

Giby said...

Very informative! Excellent writing Kas! Proud of you!

Anonymous said...

nice viewpoint sir!i am studying the culture of negros and by reading your article, it gives me a little bit of "feel" of what it is like to be a Negrense. I am interested in the story of Estrella. If you can write an article about her, it would be a great help for me.. Thanks again. :-)