History and The Cebuano Body

DIYANDI - DIYANDI By Linda Kintanar-Alburo () - September 25, 2005 - 12:00am
Richard Field, a constant British visitor to Cebu who has written a novel on Lapulapu and Magellan, was wondering why the statues of Lapulapu bear no tattoos even if the history books say that body painting was a mark of the Bisayan warrior of old. There seems to be no excuse for this amnesia, but I should have told him that our notions of beauty and body beautiful have undergone change under the two colonial masters and the smooth untextured body as sculpture model is now taken for granted. Only recently have some painters revived the art of body painting, and then presumably only for decoration.

Indeed, the body as site of history is an interesting topic. History and folklore show us that the pleasure-loving and easygoing Bisayans have always valued long, shiny and fragrant hair (thanks to biyasung, tuno sa lubi and ajonjoli juice before; and to Palmolive, Rejoice, ad infitum today). Some women still cannot do without wigs just like our women of old (indeed there are numerous indigenous Bisayan terms for types of hair décor or wig, like panta, buhukan, pulikay, tagalabung, tagbung, bangulu, and tagabuhuk). However, we certainly don't file our teeth anymore (a practice called bansil), nor wear tattoo as a form of covering (called batuk, which sounds like and is related to the Indonesian batik).

The Jesuit missionary Francisco Ignacio Alcina (1668) observed that the women often wore flowers in their hair and that - commenting unkindly like a typical Westerner on the colonial subject - no matter how ugly they were, they wanted to appear beautiful. Actually, what got me to write on this topic was a paper read during the recent seminar-workshop in Visayan Studies by a young history teacher of USC, Robert Rublico. The paper was on the Cebuano body as a medium of culture and of culture change. I liked Robert's choice of two Cebuano zarzuelas as sources for his study: Vicente Sotto's Gugma sa Yutang Natawhan (1902), considered the first realistic play in Cebuano, and the popular Mini of Buenaventura Rodriguez The former is about the revolution against Spain, while the latter, already set during "peacetime," deals with the quest for the elusive authentic self. (Both plays are found in our anthology published by the Ateneo Press in 1997).

Just as the British missionaries did in the Hawaiian islands, the Spanish colonizers first had to make the natives ashamed of their nakedness and believe that the body was reflective of the soul. This they did thoroughly through the confessional, during which the kneeling sinner listened through a list of titillating sinful details on body abuse/ misuse which the confessor read through item per item while the sinner answered yes I did or no I didn't (a list I found in a 1745 manual by P. Sebastian Totanes). That was supposed to have a civilizing effect, transforming the Cebuano into the conservative, covered and obedient body that he is said to be (yes, even today).

In Sotto's play the Cebuano body is constructed within the nationalist frame that allows the main character Ricardo and his compatriots to sacrifice it out of love for the native land, gugma sa yutang natawhan. Here, body and heart and mind are one, and Ricardo's rejection of the gesture of submission, kissing the friar's hand, is part of this fusion.

The Cebuano body was again reinvented by American colonialism into a more modern image of the "civilized" that included values of industry, health and sanitation. If the institution of the church forged the pacification of the "unruly" Cebuano body during the Spanish period, it was the institution of mass education that perfected the pacification campaign for the Americans. Modernization meant (and still means) a healthy people with healthy mind and healthy body. It is no coincidence that in Mini, the author's spokesman is a medical doctor, Dr. Casas, who doubles as counselor to the fishing community in the play.

I invite the reader to complete for himself a picture of the changes through our history by collecting images showing body movement, dress and hair styles, hygienic practices, food tastes (and perhaps even notions of other bodily pleasures). For the literature fan, there's a whole lot of fictive, dramatic and poetic material to pore through. And for the cut-and-paste scrapbook lover (or the scan-and-save computer addict) there are probably still some old magazines in Lola's aparador which have pages on fashion and fashion accessories, recipes, exercises, health tips and hairstyles to amuse yourself with.

At least, that's something to do while the rain is here to stay.

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