Looking for Buglas in Literature

By Ian Rosales Casocot

These days, I am trying complete a research project that has challenged me to trace the literary tradition of Negros Oriental and Silliman University, which means tracing much of its history, from the time young Rev. Roy Hill came down to the small settlement of Dumaguete from the grand city of Iloilo, in January 1901, to try to establish a small classroom preparatory for the eventual establishment of a school by Dr. and Mrs. David Hibbard in August of that same year.

The challenge has been both hard and exciting — and there is a lot I’ve gained in historical knowledge browsing through the old pages of 100-year old documents and newsletters and what-not, from ancient copies of Silliman Truth from 1904 (soon to become The Weekly Sillimanian) to the Silliman Annual in 1918 (soon to become the Portal yearbook), from the crumbling pages of the first Sands & Coral in 1948 to the various historical records set by Arthur Carson, then Edilberto Tiempo, Crispin Maslog, and Valentino Sitoy Jr., and finally Paul and Jennifer Lauby and Proceso Udarbe.

What is interesting is the way Silliman has largely impacted the development of literature in the province of Negros Oriental — but that is the very heart of my research. But in order for me to talk about the possible existence of a tradition of Sillimanian literature, it may be helpful for all of us to first put the local literature into perspective, since there is great temptation to confuse Dumaguete or even Oriental Negrense literature with that which is specifically Sillimanian.

It is fair to point out that before the Spaniards and the Americans came to our shores, the island of Negros, then known as Buglas, is largely an unpromising island inhabited mostly by Negroid people called Ata or Bukidnons. Most of the earliest records of the Ata basically paint them as a people devoid of a civilization, and charge them as mostly a savage lot who are nomadic. There is a tiny argument over their language, and most researchers think they speak in a kind of Cebuano, although some researchers argue that the earliest Ata had a little known tongue that was mostly monosyllabic. This language, however, has been abandoned, and is now dead, and so any chance to extract at least some form of pre-colonial oral literature is now gone.

The only recorded piece of oral literature — a chant or prayer to bless the results of a hunt — is one transcribed by Timoteo S. Oracion in his old study of the Ata’s culture and traditions. During each full moon, ceremonies (such as the dolot, or the harvest ceremony) are performed on the porch of a house in an Ata settlement, and during the ceremonies, gifts are offered to the spirits — called taglogars — and placed on a sakayan, an object shaped like a boat. “The babailan, who is believed to be able to communicate with the spirits,” writes Oracion, “dances around the sakayan to the accompaniment of a home-made guitar and agong,” and goes around the sakayan seven times, and chants:

Kamong mga tagpuyo sa kahanginan,
Sa langit, sa kakayohan,
Sa mga tuboran ug sapa,
Ang mga kalag sa katigulangan,
Duol na kamo ug kuma-on sa among gihalad.

You who are living in the winds,
In the sky, in the trees,
In springs and brooks,
The spirits of old folks
Come here and eat our offerings.

(Translation by Oracion)

But the words are already in the Cebuano of the settlers that have come from the nearby islands — and authenticity is hard to establish.

Spanish colonial sources largely skip cultural developments in Negros in their accounts of what was happening in their colony in the Pacific, and does scant mention of the province and its towns in a few of its census and tax records. There is thus no existing scholarship looking into the kind of folk literature that abounded in this place before the Americans arrived. We have virtually no records of Cebuano stories or poems or plays published in these shores, and when Silliman University came to establish itself in these shores, using English to “develop” the local communities, our folk literature was fated to disappear, so much so that in their surveys of the development of Cebuano literature in the region, poets and cultural critics Marjorie Evasco and Erlinda Alburo (both of them Silliman alumna) can only consider those literary texts they managed to from the islands of Cebu, Bohol, Leyte, and Siquijor — but none from Negros Oriental. Silliman can be said to be a culprit of this disappearance.

But not entirely.

In 1980, the Sillimanian anthropologist Elena Maquiso (and my aunt) — on assignment from the mythology class of Salvador Vista in the later part of the 1970s — compiled a series of folk tales in Cebuano into a book, Mga Sugilanon sa Negros — and in his introduction to the book, then Southeast Asian Studies Program Director MacArthur Corsino wrote: “The need to preserve the culture of the Cebuanos of Negros Island must be considered a prime stimulant of this publication. In this age of rapid modernization, the forces of assimilation change through cultural diffusion unavoidably wreck their ‘havoc’ on various facets of indigenous cultures. Lowland Cebuano culture which has dominated the eastern part of Negros Island, for a long time is daily reshaping itself as it accommodates to these external assimilative pressures, from Western as well as other Filipino (ethnic) cultures. Chief among such pressures on the Cebuano-Bisayan language is English as well as Filipino. Seldom can we hear now of those of the younger generations speaking Cebuano-Bisayan or Bisaya without English words inserted into the same sentence. A consequence of this phenomenon of changing cultural shapes certainly is the gradual loss of Cebuano folktales in Negros.”

The sugilanons or stories compiled in this rare volume published in 1980 by the Southeast Asian Studies Program of Silliman University (the library only has a single copy) are in Cebuano, and offer a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary folk in Negros Oriental. Vista’s class went to different towns in Negros Oriental and recorded tales as told to them in Cebuano, and among the stories recorded for posterity include such vanished tales as “Si Sisoy u gang Asawa Niyang Ingkanto” (Sisoy and His Fairy Wife), “Si Isko ug ang Baki” (Isko and the Frog), “Sinugdanan sa Tubod sa Mabinay” (The Origins of the Mabinay Spring), “Si Huwan ug ang Kaluha Niyang Sawa” (Juan and His Snake Twin), “Tulo Ka Gamhanang Pulong” (The Three Magical Words), among others.

The historian Caridad Aldecoa-Rodriguez (a Silliman alumnae) also has a compilation of folk tales and legends, compiled into her pink volume titled Negros Oriental and Siquijor Island: Legends, Beliefs, and Folkways, which she gleaned from her research (and eventual four-volume work) on Oriental Negrense history, including that from Siquijor, which used to be a sub-province of Negros Oriental.

But the truth is this: if there is any viable literary tradition from Negros Oriental, it is that of a native literature written from English (Abad’s term), and this is largely because of Silliman University, a mission school established by Americans in 1901, whose culture and taste proved to have lasting impact on Dumaguete City and the province.

A glimpse of the dominance of English in Negros Oriental can already be seen in a 1925 article by C. Mabasa in the old incarnation of the student organ, The Sillimanian. The article, titled “English in the Campus,” goes: “We should always bear in mind that if we are learning our own dialects, Silliman cannot help us out and we had better not be here. It is evident that we are here to learn among other things, to read, to write, and to speak in English correctly.”

That preference for English became official policy when the first Filipino President of Silliman University, Dr. Leopoldo Ruiz (who was inaugurated in 1953), emphasized a program for improving the use of English by the faculty and students, and, according to former University Pastor Proceso Udarbe, “urged everyone to speak English at all times, even outside the classroom, and instructed teachers to correct students whenever they misused the language.” Signs were also posted around campus exhorting students to “SPEAK ENGLISH,” and Ruiz soon secured funds from the Asia Foundation for Edilberto Tiempo to organize the Speech Laboratory, “where students spent hours with speech instructors and analyzing their speech habits.”

But even as we go back to 1901, when Silliman Institute was founded, the voice that would eventually become distinctively Sillimanian would already be set in the language of the American missionaries welcomed to Dumaguete shores. The earliest published works by anonymous Sillimanians in 1903 was written in English — with translations in Cebuano and Spanish — but the preference was clearly marked favoring the new colonial tongue.

In the history that would follow, we would find a local literature that would flower from the awkward romantic experimentations in the earliest years to one that would distinctively express the Filipino condition, particularly of the South, albeit one told in (or from) English.

The research continues, of course…

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