What if one flees the enemy—or better, pursues him—only to find that the enemy is one’s self? Such is the fate of the post-colonial subject, whether identified with the colonizer or the colonized. Indeed, one could argue that the lines between colonizer and colonized, such as they were drawn, have long bled into each other.
Rogelio Braga’s novel “Colon” takes to task the narratives of nationalism in the Philippines. It attempts to dismantle, or at least interrogate the meanings attached to the scholar and the savage, the capital and the provinces, re-presenting each one in what Braga hopes is a fresh light. It is possible to discern an effort to present a three-dimensional view of Philippine society, where the picturesque personalities of Manilenyo call center agent, Moro merchant, or university professor, are never quite what the reader thinks they will be.
In Braga’s own articulation of his poetics, he states that he wishes to provide a counter-narrative to the dominant mode of Filipino nationalism. He calls this counter-narrative “Moroismo.” He links the origins of this Moro nationalism to the colonization of the Philippines, particularly the “illegal” annexation of Mindanao and Sulu to the Philippines during the Treaty of Paris. The struggle of the bangsa (nation) of the Moros is one that must be legitimized, according to Braga, rather than treated as a form of rebellion against a “legitimate” and “national” government. Moroismo is described by the author as both a theory and a practice that seeks to break the well-established colonial narratives about the Moro via scholarship and the literary arts. He argues, moreover, that the Filipino idea of the nation is a Western one, and that the “Filipino” himself is the colonizer. His novel makes much of the distinction between “Moro” and “Filipino” in his characterization, and eventually creates a gap where we find a sub-group of people that is neither one nor the other: the settlers, who in each representation exhibit neither the forgivable (in the context of the novel) ignorance of imperial Manila and Luzon, nor the open-handedness of provincials from the other parts of the country, such as the Visayas. The settlers, in fact, are the villains of the novel—and by extension, as Colon was written by the admission of its author in the context of both theory and literary practice—the villains in the narrative of the Bangsamoro.
A Nation vis-a-vis The Nation
According to Ernst Renan, contemporary political and historical discourse describes, for better or for worse, groups of people in terms of nation-states. The great civilizations of the past, such as Egypt or China were “flocks led by a Son of Heaven or a Son of the Sun.” They were in no way to be described as nations the way the term is understood today. Today’s “nations,” such as the French or German nation, are the products of circuitous paths and various vicissitudes that led, somewhere down the line, to a “fusion of their component populations.” One cannot think of France or Germany or England today as a collection of Franks or Saxons or Picts. The prevalence of a common religion, the rulership of a single dynasty or the will and desire of their component provinces resulted, in time, in a population that perceived itself as united within a single entity called “France” or “Germany” or “England.” The idea of race as a political category must be “surrendered as a chimera,” for what are now the French and the Germans can no longer identify themselves or classify themselves in terms of races.
Of course, this “Western” concept of a nation is problematic when applied indiscriminately to the Philippine context. Given its colonial history, the Philippines cannot claim to have fused or integrated its component populations in the same manner as the Western nations that Renan uses in his example. At the time of the Spanish conquest, it might be argued that the various populations in the archipelago that the colonizer arbitrarily declared “The Philippines” were separate ethno-linguistic groups that, if they were not racially pure (we can argue that there is no such thing as racial purity), could still be anthropologically divided into tribes because they still recognized themselves as such. The tribes that came more easily within Spanish rule and the Spanish reduccion were more easily integrated into the Filipino nation at the time of the Revolution of 1898 because, having adopted Christianity and conceded leadership to an ilustrado class that initiated the break from Mother Spain along the same lines as Spain’s other colonies, notably those in the Americas. The Muslim and lumad tribes of Mindanao, on the other hand, because of their fierceness and the wild remoteness of their homelands, managed to escape a similar homogenization under both the Spanish Crown and Aguinaldo’s government.
To the American Vic Hurley, writing in 1936, it was the United States that finally brought the Muslim tribes to their knees. He describes it as a battle between “the Kris and the Krag,” and acknowledges the superiority of the Moro as a warrior. Hurley’s narrative of the American conquest is largely unencumbered by the scruples of the social scientist. While he may be writing a history, his account is colored by such gory (and exciting) details as American officers losing their limbs after being hacked by the sharp edge of a kris, and Moro warriors running to meet a barrage of artillery fire with nothing but spears in their hands as the superior artillery of the Americans laid low their proud cottas. Despite the liberties that he takes in making his story entertaining as well as historical, Hurley nevertheless establishes, through the metaphor of the kris and the Krag rifle, that this proud warrior people did indeed succumb to a technologically superior fighting force in the manner that Harold’s Saxons fell to William the Conqueror’s Normans, or that the cumbersome Crusader knights were foiled in the deserts of the Middle East by the Saracens with their light armor and swift steeds. They succumbed to the extent that in the years immediately before and after the Second World War, the power of the Moros was broken sufficiently to admit the imposition of American rule over their lands.
The last portion of Hurley’s “Story of the Moros” is titled “The Moro’s Plaint.” Here, he reveals that “the Filipino hates and fears the Moro” and that “The Moro, on the other hand, views the Filipino with contempt.” Hurley calls attention to an often overlooked alliance in the story of Moros, Mindanao, and the Filipino nation: that between Moro and the United States Army. The very same people whose fathers had fallen by the Krag were disarmed under American rule and thereafter sought the protection of the US Army. According to Hurley, when independence for the Philippines was imminent in the late 30’s, the Moros declared that they did not seek independence with the rest of the country. In fact, they threatened to pick up arms again and continue to wage war against Filipinos.
Moro and Filipino
A facile description of the plot of Colon would be “the Da Vinci Code, but with Moros”: the action begins with the death of a passionate young scholar who has discovered the truth about a powerful secret group. The protagonist must re-discover this truth by putting together the clues that he has left behind. In the course of her quest, she realizes that she is the ultimate target of these shady killers, who wield power not just on the level of mere brute force but also on the level of ideology. The literariness of the novel—what perhaps separates it from the pulp suspense thriller—lies in is its ending: it does not end in a chase and the destruction of the villain, but in the protagonists decision to end, at least on her part, the cycle of violence that has caught everyone in its fatal web.
The conflict in the novel centers around the identity of Blesilda, a fairly ordinary 40-year-old woman. In the opening lines of the story, the protagonist, who is also the first-person narrator, says:
“Ang alam ko wala akong nakaraan, pero hindi ako sigurado doon. Pero ang alam ko rin,
mayroon akong kinabukasan—du’n, sigurado ako roon… Kung ano man ang nakaraan ko, ang sabi lang sa akin, huwag ko nang itanong. Basta magulo—magulo hindi dahil walang nakaalam pero dahil sadyang magulo raw. Marahas.”
This opening is akin to Jose Rizal’s introduction to his annotations of Morga’s history, which goes: “ Like almost all of you, I was born and brought up in ignorance of our country’s past and so, without knowledge or authority to speak of what I neither saw nor have studied, I deem it necessary to quote the testimony of an illustrious Spaniard…” Rizal goes on to express his hope that his work on the history of “our ancient nation” will help to “rectify what has been falsified or is calumny.”
Blesilda begins by declaring that she has no past, but this declaration is belied by her saying that she has been told not to ask about it as well as her knowledge that this past was a violent one. She is also quite certain that she has a future. In Rizal, the past that is evoked is also lost; the writer and the reader to whom he speaks share alike in this lost past, a past that is “lost” because they are ignorant of it. This ignorance has robbed the subject of his authority, such that he must depend on the words of another to narrate his own history. At the same time, Rizal is obviously making a leap when he mentions “our ancient nation.” This phrase, ostensibly about the past, is where Rizal defines an entity that will come into being only in the future: the Philippines as it would be described in due time as the need for a Filipino narrative emerged around the Revolution of 1896.
For Blesilda, the process works in reverse: instead of making the leap from a group of diffused peoples to a homogenized whole after learning of an imagined nation, she begins with an already-homogenized identity which is to broken down by her discovery of a significant fact about her birth. Her identity is broken into Filipino and Moro. Soon enough she will be Filipino OR Moro; in the end, she has transitioned to Moro.
The distinction between Filipino and Moro is heavily foregrounded in Colon. This distinction, which is so essential to the author’s Moroismo, harks back to Hurley’s description of the Moro’s plight in the mid-1930’s, and even further back. The Luzon-based ilustrados of the Revolution did not think much of the Moro. Felipe Buencamino is recorded as having described the Moro as living “in complete ignorance” and being “Mohammedans to a fanatic degree,” practicing slavery and polygamy into the bargain. They also “did not recognize the Philippine Government of Malolos as a supreme authority” (Abinales, 7). These statements illustrate the extent to which the Spaniards shaped the ilustrado view of the Moro people. One must also note that Spanish history and literature, especially the romances that so influenced the Tagalog literary tradition, is replete with stories of the Christian knights of Northern Spain fighting the Moors that occupied the South.
Colon’s insistence on the separation of Moro and Filipino is rooted, then, in some historical context, but the idea of Moroismo as expressed in Blesilda is created in the same manner that Rizal delineated the Filipino nation—that is, by weaving a narrative that refers to a myth of “Moro” or “Filipino” rather than any sort of lived cultural identity. Blesilda has unexplained dreams of blood and violence and an aversion to pork despite having been raised from infancy by parents who certainly did not consider pork a taboo. Given an assignment in Theology class, she develops a fascination for Islam. In a similar fashion she is instantly drawn to Naheeda and Lolo Cali, the Moros that she befriends in Colon. Even giving allowances for the fictional nature of the work, it points toward an almost fairy-tale essentialism which is all the more obvious given the social realist tenor that informs the text.
Orientalism, Hegemony, and the Academe
The novel makes heavy use of characters connected in some way with the academe. Justin, who discovered Blesilda’s “true” Moro identity and uncovered the Ilaga, a (not-so-secret) organization of killers hired to terrorize the Moros, is a call center agent taking a Master’s in History at UST. So intrepid is he that he goes to the extent of talking to MNLF and MILF rebels for the sake of his research. His thesis uncovers so much uncomfortable truth that thugs hunt him down to get their hands on it. He gives up his life in exchange for his knowledge and two other characters die trying to protect the document.
A minor character named Gng. Roquino is persecuted and removed from her teaching job at a big university for giving her students an alternative view of history. She exposes accepted Filipino history as a Christian history, whether it is Ileto’s idea of a peasant revolution inspired by the Pasyon, or the Church-backed EDSA, whose mythology was built largely out of Christian imagery: nuns and tanks, rosaries, the Shrine with its Mother Mary. The rather eccentric Gng. Roquino considers the knowledge she is sharing so controversial that she must hide what she is doing from the powers-that-be by covering the glass panel in her classroom door with paper.
The supporting cast of Moros are quite scholarly too. The woman Naheeda is given a back story as a student in UP, where her activism is dampened first by her fellow tibaks eliding the difference between her identity as a Moro and theirs as Filipinos, and then by the strong elitist hierarchy within the Moro student organization. Here, the sons and daughters of powerful clans are depicted as both oppressors and sell outs. They expect ordinary Moros like Naheeda to assume a subservient role within the organization as they pander to the powerful Filipino establishment. Lolo Cali, who is a father figure to Naheeda and later on to Blesilda, is a professor-turned-peddler who reads “A Passage to India” by EM Forster to pass the time in his stuffy little store on Colon Street. Lolo Cali says he once had a brilliant student named Akbar; Akbar liked Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
According to the author’s poetics, and indeed, going by the protagonist’s opening words about a lost past, there is a need to expose what has long been hidden and to deconstruct the accepted narrative. In Justin’s words, “Filipino nationalism is just a grand Tagalog project.” The academics in the story function as a means to dispense all the history lessons the reader needs in order to understand the story and its themes. At the same time, they are a critique of the academe’s role in reinforcing the hegemony of the Tagalog, Christian mythology that dominates Philippine history. Through the versions of history articulated by each of these academics, the usual dichotomies of Filipino and colonizer, ignorant and educated, Islamic and Christian, history from above and history from below, are revealed to be inadequate in constructing the history of the people.
Yet, ironically, or perhaps out of necessity, the Moro characters in the story nevertheless succumb to a kind of Orientalism.
In her first encounter with Naheeda, for instance, Blesilda remarks internally: “Kaya pala matatas siyang managalog, nag-aral sa Manila at edukada na makikita na sa kanyang kilos at pagsasalita.” Granted, this perception is filtered through the consciousness of a character that grew up “Filipino” and who admits that she has no firsthand knowledge of the Moro beyond stereotypes. Nevertheless, Naheeda’s explanation that she has gone to UP, Lolo Cali reading E.M. Forster and Akbar with his Conrad (both canon texts in post-colonial discourse) seem heavy-handed. And this awkwardness in itself belies the aspiration to transform the concept of “Moro.” The representation of the Moro here makes a barely concealed assumption: that the reader, like Blesilda, will be pleasantly surprised and even remorseful at the realization that the Moro is human, that the Moro is tibak, the Moro is a professor, and the Moro is a reader of Forster and Conrad. And yet, what is there to be surprised about? The Moro IS also professor, activist, Manilenyo—writer, doctor, public servant, policeman, and more.
This open confluence of the academic and the Orientalist begs the question: Is it really possible to learn, theorize, or read one’s way to a superior, or at least, a less encumbered understanding of a marginalized group in whose lived experience one has not participated? Or will the academic, clinging to his precious papers, withholding and dispensing knowledge at his discretion, simply become another conduit for his particular configuration of biases and inclinations? In taking up the cudgels for the Moro without sharing in the identity of the Moro (for Braga acknowledges the distinction between Muslim and Moro, the difference between religious identity and cultural, the hybridity of the Moro condition) through the medium of the novel (a Western form, as is pointed out in the record of the 2014 UP Writers’ Workshop proceedings on Colon) and within the context of the academe, merely another manifestation of the hegemony of the Filipino narrative as derived from the West?
In the story, the thesis that Justin wrote is saved. It wins an award and becomes required reading for Peace Studies subjects in classes all over Mindanao. The word, the knowledge, truth—a specific knowledge, a specific truth, is heard because it successfully navigates the processes and politics of the academe: written in a big Manila University, presented in an overseas conference, and winner of a national award.
Space for the Settler
Colon brings us face to face with the forces that have oppressed the Bangsamoro: the Manila-based Filipino whose greatest crime seems to be ignorance and blindness caused by the grand narrative of the Tagalogs’ nationalist project, for example, and even the powerful Moro clans who aligned themselves with the Americans and the Philippine government to maintain their wealth and prestige. Yet the greatest indictment is reserved for the settler, the third and most numerous among what are called collectively “the tri-peoples of Mindanao.”
The villains of Colon are the Ilaga. They are the Illuminati of the story, the secret organization that is pledged to kill the Moro. Yet the Ilaga of history must be separated from the Ilaga as they are depicted in Colon. The actual Ilaga was active in the early 70’s, where they committed as many as 21 massacres between 1970 and 1972 in Moro areas like Lanao, Cotabato and Zamboanga. The most famous of this occurred in the masjid in Manili, Cotabato. In the novel, Blesilda turns out to be the sole survivor of this massacre. And in the novel, the Ilaga are still active and organized, still cutting off ears and committing murders with impunity, chasing Blesilda and her friend Aldo around metropolitan Cebu in an unmarked van. This active, well-organized, millennial Ilaga must be viewed with the same caution as Dan Brown’s Knights Templar or Priory of Sion. While calls for the Ilaga to organize anew in response to the threat posed by the MILF have been reported as recently as 2015 (Mariveles, “Mindanao, A Memory of Massacres”), the ease with which the historical Ilaga carried out their atrocities would be challenging to replicate in an age of increased transparency, when uncensored photographs of events like the Maguindanao Massacre can be shared within hours of its occurrence.
In the novel, the settler characters are all either actual members of the Ilaga or sympathizers thereof. The first conversation Blesilda has with someone who is “in the know” is with a taxi driver from Iligan who says, in awkward Tagalog, “…talagang hindi mo alam iyan kay walang ganyan sa mga Tagalog diba? Alam mo ba kung gaano katapang ang mga Ilaga?” The same man links Gringo Honasan to the Ilaga, then adds, “Kung wala ang mga Ilaga, nakuha na nila ang Mindanao. Hindi naman tayo papayag dahil pare-pareho naman tayong mga Filipino diba? Kahit na magkakaiba ang relihiyon natin—Kristiyano, Muslim, Iglesia ni Kristo—iisa lang naman ang Diyos. Pare-pareho tayong mga Filipino.”
Given the way the novel defines the Moro and Filipino nations, the last couple of sentences are nothing short of sacrilegious. Note also the italicized third person pronoun “nila” which evokes and maligns the Moro, the Other.
Anecdotal accounts from Iliganons who lived through the 60’s and 70’s do tend to valorize the Ilaga. These vigilantes were recognized as not being “on the level,” in a manner of speaking, but a necessity in the face of the increased boldness of Moro rebels and the escalating acts of banditry victimizing ordinary members of the community. For what Colon fails to throw into the balance when judging the “settler” are the accounts of violence perpetrated upon them: killings, kidnappings, beheadings, and white slavery. The American Hurley, among others, unequivocally declares that the Moro did not fear mere death; the US Army only managed to quell the juramentados by burying their bodies with the carcasses of pigs. The Ilaga, whose virulence may have originated from community remembrance of the fearsome Moro pirates who plundered coastal villages and enslaved their captives, dealt out a similar brand of brutality: by mutilating their victims instead of felling them with a gunshot, they could induce the same kind of stomach-turning terror in the enemy as stories of slow, gruesome death by beheading.
The Ilaga were recruited from among settlers, and their intent to fight back against incidents of kidnapping or banditry may have started “organically” from their community, but their activity was given its longevity and vindictive brutality by being validated from the colonial center—funded and assured of some measure of impunity. They were a guerrilla-type solution to the increased friction between settler communities and the Moro occurred as a result of the intrusion upon Moro and lumad lands instigated by the economic interests of the national government. The settler himself—the Bisaya farmer, for example, or the Chinese merchant, did not arrive with a Bible and a Toledo blade as the Spaniards did, or with schoolbooks and rifles like the Americans. He arrived in Mindanao out of economic necessity, just as the ancestors of today’s Moro did centuries ago when they arrived on the islands of Mindanao and drove its previous occupants—violently, for the most part–away from the coasts and into the hinterlands.
The settler characters written as actual members of the Ilaga are Miyong, the father of Blesilda’s friend Aldo, and Professor Samaniego. Miyong is a poor Ilonggo who is lured to Mindanao with the promise of land and opportunity. He leaves his wife Veron and his children in Negros for the Land of Promise, but the lucrative opportunity he was promised also results in a bad case of PTSD. Miyong returns to his family brutalized and psychologically damaged. After he kills his own little son in a fit of madness, his adult children decide to lock him up in hut some distance away from home and beat him regularly with the whip known as ikog sa pagi. In himself Miyong is a litany of the sorrows of the poor Bisaya, victim of wealthy landlords, suffering from poverty and consumed by vice. For him, there is some redemption, at least at the end when he is shown weeping at the wake of his son Aldo. His family scream the obvious at him: he has killed two of his sons through his participation in the violence perpetrated by the Ilaga. The madness of Miyong is both retribution and alibi. The trauma generated by the evil that he has done effectively severs him from a part of his humanity. His role is not unlike that of the noble savage, who kills and cannibalizes his enemy (a clearly defined enemy, and one determined by the other’s race or tribe) partly out of necessity and partly out of ignorance.
Professor Samaniego, who turns out to be the arch-villain of the book, is a more complex character. Samaniego’s duplicity is hinted at from the beginning: “Kahit sa kanyang edad nakikita ko na matipuno pa rin ang katawan ng propesor…Nang tumayo na siya sa upuan hindi mo maiisip na may edad na siya at lagpas na sa singkuwenta.” There is something not quite right about the professor, although he is very accommodating of Blesilda and Aldo. This is a trope common to suspense thrillers, where the villain whose true intentions are initially concealed appears first to the protagonist as a strong and reliable ally. Professor Samaniego is able to fill in the missing pieces in Justin’s story. It is from his own lips that we hear Colon’s strongest and most virulent accusation against the settler. Samaniego recounts how Justin once called him and said angrily:
“‘Hindi ibig sabihin na du’n ka ipinanganak, du’n ka lumaki, nakita mo ang katotohanan at ikaw lang ang katotohanan. You—we—are not in the position to tell them how to heal themselves. Who are we to tell them that they should forgive and forget and time heals all wounds so fucking move on…ang tagal ko nang Filipino propesor, pero walang nagsabi sa akin na may dugo ng mga Moro sa aking mga kamay. Walang umaamin. Walang humihingi ng tawad. And don’t impose to me (sic) your Christian hypocrisy…’”
Braga expresses similar sentiments in a think piece he wrote for Rappler titled “Duterte’s historical revisionism: A settler hijacks Mindanao.” The statement used by President Duterte–“I am from Mindanao”—is objectionable to Braga as according to him it becomes a kind of “buffer” that silences criticism from those from Luzon or the Visayas. He attributes to it a kind of defensiveness, a fear of the abandonment of the allies in colonization (Luzon and the Visayas), as well as a fear of the spectre of the wronged Moros and indigenous people. This is an extension of the “villainization” of the settler; Braga claims that “I am from Mindanao” is statement that can only be made vis-a-vis a “narration of a homogenous Philippines.” Interpreted in this manner, the statement becomes an alibi, artificially naturalizing the President’s claims to superior knowledge as a matter of common sense by virtue of his birth or nurture.
Furthermore, Justin, the “enlightened” Filipino from Manila, seems to be implicating Samaniego in his ignorance. The Manilenyo is just blissfully unaware because matters have been concealed from him. Samaniego on the other hand has the power of intellect and privilege (he is an academic) as well as proximity to the Moro. Yet, he has chosen to ally with the forces that have kept the Moro in subjugation by claiming “alam ko ang mga sakit at sugat naming at alam naming kung paano ito hihilumin.” Samaniego is rendered objectionable when he says “May mga bagay na dapat na mas mabuting itago na lamang… Mahapdi ang sugat na nakatiwangwang sa daigdig.” If the settler did indeed consciously insist upon concealment then his behaviour would be disingenuous. But it is equally disingenuous for Justin to shift the blame for his ignorance on Professor Samaniego.
Braga’s issues with settlers are rooted in Orientalist assumptions and derive from the zeal of the convert. Within the world of Colon, people are polarized into Filipino and Moro. The phrase “Filipino sila” and “isa kang Moro” that appears in Justin’s last email to Blesilda appears again and again in various permutations throughout the story. The resistance to homogenization retreats into mythologizing through a selective portrayal of Moros and settlers. Blesilda somehow transitions from Filipino to Moro after learning of her true identity and spending a couple of weeks with a couple of pleasant Moro friends. Within the novel, no space is granted for the settler. He is arbitrarily assigned to a Filipino identity; he is arbitrarily assigned his guilt.
Abinales points out this very problem in his introduction to “The Joys of Dislocation: Mindanao, Nation, and Region”:
“There is a popular predilection to equate Mindanao with Muslims. The rest of the Island’s peoples—its lumad and its rich diversity of settlers—are notably absent from the grand narrative. This is quite peculiar because both populations could be said to have occupied larger portions of Mindanao….Migration…may be a relatively recent phenomenon…yet one cannot ignore the impact—good and bad—of migrants from the north on Mindanao’s history.”
One might say that this “popular predilection” is due to the mythologizing of Mindanao and its people. From history books to mass media, literature, cinema, and popular culture, the instinct is to dwell on the exotic, Arabian Nights aspect of Mindanao. In the Philippine imagination, Mindanao is Islamic, a region to be conflated with the Middle East of the Crusades or the land of the Moors in the romances, complete with textiles, veiled women, bearded, warlike men. Voices from Mindanao that do not conform to this idea—as Braga’s novel does, quite neatly—are open to criticism from the gatekeepers in Imperial Manila who would respond with the pronouncement that “that does not sound like Mindanao.”
Braga says that Mindanao was never the land of Christian settlers, that it in fact belongs to the Moro and the lumad (Braga, “Duterte’s historical revisionism: A settler hijacks Mindanao”). The perpetuation of this kind of thinking is not any less harmful than the “settlerjacking” or “homogenizing” against which Moroismo struggles. It ignores the possibility that there is a space for the settler. There is a third space between Filipino and Moro that Colon neglects, and that is “Mindanaoan.”
Justin tells Professor Samaniego that the Professor believes he has a monopoly on the truth by virtue of his being Mindanaoan. To that accusation, there is no other word but to use Samaniego’s own to describe Justin: hilas. Hilas is a Cebuano word that might be loosely translated as hubris, but it is hubris that implies overweening pride and arrogance offensive not to the gods but to one’s fellow men. Justin is hilas because he dismisses out of hand lived experience as a valid means for coming to an understanding of one’s world and one’s condition. He focuses on the idea that growing up a settler in Mindanao immures the individual in a set of static prejudices that are inimical to understanding the Moro culture or the aspiration of the Moro.
The idea of performativity is one that is closely tied to gender identity, yet a similar principle applies to cultural identity. Filipino, Settler, and Moro are cultural identities, and they allow for a certain amount of fluidity. The experience of growing up within these identities shapes the individual’s relationship with his or her own body, the bodies of others, and that of his or her environment. Just as the commuting Manilenyo can expertly wedge his body into a packed train or acquire a sixth sense about pickpockets, so does the Mindanaoan’s heart rate speed up at the sight of an unattended backpack; dressing, conversing, and dining also become acts in which the Mindanaoan performs his or her identity.
Since the heyday of the Ilaga and the Hukbalahap, an entire generation has died out. The men and women who experienced life in Mindanao under American rule, the “Peace Time” of the 20’s and 30’s, have either gone to their eternal rest or have retired from active life, being now in their late 80’s and 90’s. Mindanao has been evolving in its way. Abinales points out that between the fierce war that the Americans fought to subdue the Moros and the 1970’s when pressure on Moro fighters from the Marcos government led to the resumption of conflict, there was a period of sixty years’ peace in Mindanao. The conclusion that Abinales draws is “Leave us alone.” The day to day lives of Mindanaoans have long incorporated the negotiations necessary to getting along without bloodshed. These negotiations have included intermarriage, the sharing of resources, technology, and space.
In an interview regarding the idea of a “third space,” Homi Bhabha declares that “in any particular struggle, new sites are being opened up, and if you keep referring these new sites to old principles, then you are not actually able to participate in them fully and productively and creatively” (Rutherford, 216). In the Mindanao struggle, it becomes counter-productive to draw the lines again and again between and among Moro and Filipino and Settler. Doing so limits the imagination to thinking in terms of historical conflicts and tribal scores to pay off, blinding one to the “new sites” for discourse that are opening up in the Land of Promise.
One of the strong points of Braga’s novel from an aesthetic point of view would be its use of place and local color. The reader gets a sense of authentic place and time. The sights, strong smells, and sounds of Colon leap off the page. The details are carefully rendered, creating the spaces of the boarding house, seedy parlor, and movie house that appear in the story. The same is true of the Universities and classrooms and office spaces. Blesilda inhabits a world that is quite real for the reader. However, it is interesting that in her peregrinations from Metro Manila to Metro Cebu to the Negros countryside, Mindanao itself is always only an idea. It appears to her as the conflict-ridden zone portrayed in the mass media, as the scene of unspeakable violence perpetrated by the Ilaga, as the heartland that Lolo Cali and Ida fondly call Ranaw. But Blesilda, our erstwhile Filipino-turned-Moro never steps foot on Mindanao soil. As the story ties up its loose ends, Blesilda returns to Colon after the publication of Justin’s book to visit the new family that she has found—Lolo Cali, Ida’s sisters, and the mysterious Moro woman who visited her foster parents’ wake and turns out to be her aunt. Blesilda resolves she will not die a Moro at the hands of Filipinos, but on the novels last page, she crosses the street to enter a mosque, having been drawn by the adha.
The novel, then, stops short of actually bringing the reader with Blesilda to Mindanao. The protagonist remains in Manila, in Cebu, in the north where Mindanao continues to exist only as an idea rather than as earth under her feet. Does it make a difference? Perhaps.
It would be naive to declare that Mindanao no longer suffers from colonization, or that the tri-peoples have ironed out all their differences. The Moro still suffers “colonialism without closure” (Wadi, 22), along with the lumad and settler population. The colonizer now is not from overseas: it is much more likely to be large corporate entities and multinational companies greedy to benefit from the area’s natural resources—entities that funnel money back to the pockets of Manila-based tycoons and politicians.
However, as Bhabha says, a people are always being constructed. In the face of blatant exploitation from capitalist forces and the blurring of ethnic and racial borders due to the passage of time, a new identity—the Mindanaoan, might very well emerge. The glimmer of this possibility was perhaps most evident in recent times with the Marawi siege, when the “settler” communities of Lanao rallied to help the Marawi evacuees as the Moros of Marawi smuggled their “settler” friends out of the city. Perhaps, in light of the push for Federalism espoused by many of Mindanao’s people, a compromise can be reached that would render the term “settler,” with all its connotations of imposition and alienation, quite obsolete.
According to Simon During, literature is not necessarily the nation’s “other.” While the post-colonial novel has for some time been a means to resist hegemonic narratives, the novel in aid of the narrative of a nation also has its place. Society deserves—perhaps needs the novel to move the discourse forward. Colon has done its part to articulate ideas of “nation and narration” in the case of the Moro and Mindanao; perhaps, it will not be long before other contemporary novels, other narratives, follow suit.
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