Friday, May 8, 2009

Mangyans of Paitan, then and now

Commentary : Mangyans of Paitan, then and now

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: May 06, 2009

My wife and I were at the graduation Mass in the Mangyan Mission in Paitan, Mindoro Oriental, just before Holy Week. It was our first visit there in 35 years. When I looked to see whose hand I would hold as we prayed the “Our Father,” I saw three beautiful Mangyan children, three little girls, looking at me, their eyes bright with intelligence and curiosity. While her companions giggled, the girl next to me reached up her hand shyly and we said the prayer. When it was over, she thanked me.

It dawned on me as the Mass went on and I followed the little girls up to Communion that a culture that could produce such lovely children surely had the wisdom and inner resources to prosper in the modern world, with a little help from its friends. There were always various signs of cultural strength, but back 35 years ago, many people, even those friendly to the Mangyans, doubted there could be much progress.

It was agreed then that there were three essential realities that had to be in place for the Mangyans to be on the road to prospering: ownership of the land, control of their education system, and strong tribal solidarity—none of which could be had without a long struggle. The Mangyans needed a place of their own from which they could view the outside world at a distance, as it were, and decide what parts of it they should adopt and which to reject. They needed control of their own education to teach them to choose wisely, and they needed unity and trust among themselves, and a determined spirit.

People doubted that the Mangyans had the needed determination and willingness to struggle year after year for these goals. They had no stomach for controversy, people felt. The Mangyans wanted the land, but they refused to face up to the lowlanders invading their land. They were gentle to a fault. When they finally decided to put someone in jail for drinking too much and making noise, they felt so sorry for him that all the barrio officials spent the night in jail to keep him company.

They wanted education, but they took their children out of school to work and allowed their girls to marry very young. As a people, it appeared to many, they lacked confidence in their ability to achieve anything of worth.

When we returned 35 years later, we found the situation totally different. They now have title to the reservation of 200-plus hectares the American officials gave them in the 1920s, and they are completing their claim for ancestral domain, “for the whole mountain,” as one man said. They succeeded in this, we were told, by their tireless, dogged efforts over the years: hundreds of visits to offices in Manila; hundreds of court appearances; endless paper work and refusal to give up, no matter how difficult government officials made the effort. They withstood insults and setbacks. In the end, they got not only land, but they learned how the modern world works and how to deal with it. They became a confident, united people in the process.

They now have their own elementary school where their education graduates teach. They have their award-winning Tugdaan Mangyan Center for Learning and Development, which is under a Mangyan principal and teachers. The students study academic subjects, food processing, herbal medicines and similar subjects, all from a Mangyan perspective. Everyone calls them, “our schools,” “our teachers,” “our food processing.” Girls now marry at an older age.

The students have models in the teachers they see before them and in the Mangyans who built the schools and the furniture. They have their parents at their back saying, “Don’t be like us. Study, and learn the skills you need to earn a living.” They are pulled and pushed to do better.

How could such a change take place in 35 years? Surely we must praise the people who have achieved so much, yet manage to remain as friendly as ever. When an old Mangyan friend greets you after a long separation, you know, what a loving smile can really look like.

Then there are the people who helped: Sr. Magdalena Laykamm, the first of the Holy Spirit Sisters to live in Paitan, who learned the language and who set the nuns’ tradition of seeing the good of the people where others saw little. There was Sr. Victricia Pascasio, a key to the struggle for land; Ben Abadiano, who started the Tugdaan; and the SVD priests, such as Fr. Ewald Dinter, who have given their lives to this tremendously difficult work, walking sometimes 12 hours a day on a handful of rice and soy sauce to reach settlements high in the perpetual fog of the mountain top. Father Dinter is, as missionaries should be, an expert in Scripture and anthropology, and has hundreds of mountain tales.

There are others: Sr. Celerina Zabala and the sisters among the Mangyans today, and the government people who helped.

In the end, however, it is the people who reached deep down in their culture to find the courage, toughness and solidarity needed who must be acknowledged. Their schools and other successes speak of their culture’s values as clearly as the three little girls we prayed with at Mass.

(Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

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