Sundays and saints’ days were the only days when cockfighting was legal under the Spanish—and since it happens to be both (see term #12, Sinulog) as I write this, it is a good time to introduce the kristo, or all-around bookie and cashier. A kristo brokers bets by pointing at the two opposing parties, arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, hence kristo. Hand signals indicate the amount of the bet and other details. You had better know what you’re doing and be able to choose fast.
I don’t think I could—both because of my general indecisiveness, and because I have pet chickens now and have become squeamish about the whole enterprise. I know that many prizewinning cockerels in the Philippines are very well cared-for birds. Until the fight itself, these birds live far better than their factory-farmed chicken nugget brothers in America. What can I say? My poultry ethics are convenient, not consistent.
Nevertheless, I do want to see a kristo in action. These men manage to keep track of dozens of bets in each fight, all in different amounts, all in quick succession, and without the use of a computer or even pen and paper. In fact, kristos in the early American period were often illiterate—which, if you think about it, makes sense. Literacy ruined memory. Our forefathers learned poems, songs, stories, histories, and religious revelations by rote, yet I can’t keep track of my grocery list without Google Keep on my Android.
Pathetic, the kristo says. Pathetic.
By the way, when the kill-joy Americans arrived, they tried to replace cockfighting with baseball. Though the great American pastime caught on—shout out to the Manila-based champions of the 2012 Big League Softball World Series—it never replaced cockfighting.
(Note: This post was originally written on January 9, 2016.) It’s fiesta time, people! You thought the holidays were over, but in Cebu they are just beginning. All you need is some nutmeg, a drum, and a statue of Baby Jesus.
The nutmeg is a nod to history. Spices are why Magellan sailed to Cebu. In medieval Europe, this stuff was more valuable than its weight in gold. It not only tasted good, it warded off the bubonic plague, too! (Don’t try that at home, folks.) By the early 1500s, the Portuguese had locked up the eastern trading routes around Africa and India, leaving the Spanish to sail west off the edge of the world. No, just kidding. Anyone with education back then knew the world was round, but they didn’t know a good route around the Americas. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan told King Charles I of Spain that he could find a western passage for the right price. It took him two years to make good on that promise—two years of being chased by the angry Portuguese navy; surviving mutinies, storms, starvation, and winter; and crossing the un-pacific Pacific Ocean. Finally, Magellan and his remaining crew arrived in Cebu in 1521.
There Magellan managed to convince the raja of Cebu, his harem, and the entire settlement to convert to Christianity. The people already had their own idols they danced to, but they pledged to put those away in favor of a present from Magellan: the Santo Niño, or Child Jesus. Magellan even offered to make Christianity work for his new ally, Raja Humabon, now called Don Carlos. Carlos pointed out that the raja of Mactan, a small neighboring island, was spurning the right and true religion. Off Magellan went to fight Lapu-Lapu with an unnecessarily small number of Spanish troops: forty-nine to Lapu-Lapu’s fifteen hundred. Magellan must have never heard MacArthur’s (or the Princess Bride’s) twentieth-century warning to “never fight a land war in Asia.” Intending to be a Christian miracle worker, he died a Christian martyr. His body was not found after being torn apart by the Mactan defenders, adding to Lapu-Lapu’s legend as a true nationalist hero. He even has a delicious fish (local grouper) named after him. Very cool.
The Spaniards staying with Don Carlos overstayed their welcome, possibly raping some of the raja’s women after a fiesta (not a tradition of Sinulog). A few of Magellan’s crew, under the captaincy of Juan Sebastian del Cano, made it back to Spain after circumnavigating the globe for the first time. This was the last the native Filipinos saw of the Spanish for a while. Other Spaniards made it to the southern tip of Mindanao long enough to name the islands Las Islas Felipinas in honor of Phillip II, but it took 43 years for Miguel Lopez de Legaspi to make it to Cebu. What did he see there? People dancing to the Santo Niño! (Probably among other idols, but he did not emphasize that part.) A miracle!
Soon came the friars, and Catholicism was in the Philippines to stay. Every town’s church is named after a saint, and that saint’s festival day is celebrated with a procession of the wooden santo statue along the main thoroughfare. In Cebu the sinulog, or “current of the river,” was also danced to please the Santo Niño during his parade. Native drums, gongs, and frenzied movement resemble the pagan festival it once was. Sometime in the 1980s Cebu’s Sinulog became big business, and people travel from all over the world to see it. The schedule for this year’s event includes an entire month’s worth of events, from a historical recreation of Don Carlos’s baptism to a singing competition (Sinulog Idol, of course!). The Santo Niño also travels round trip to Mactan (Lapu-Lapu would not be happy, I think) the day before the big parade, which itself lasts about twelve hours. The costumes are out of sight. In comparison, Americans have no idea how to throw a parade. Even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade cannot beat this, especially since Sinulog is a regional celebration. I’ve not even mentioned Quiapo’s Black Nazarene, Iloilo’s Dinagyang, Bacolod’s Masskara, Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan, and so on.
If you live in Cebu, I hope that you were not planning to drive anywhere this week or next. Happy Sinulog!
To be honest, I’ve known very few Filipino vegetarians, though maybe it’s simply the company I keep. This does not mean that I’m a huge fan of roast suckling pig, or lechon, but I see its attraction.
To appreciate the Filipino national dish, you have to be willing to see your animal go from farm to table right in front of you. (And for that, I must apologize for the featured Creative Commons photo by whologwhy.) I’ve used a photo below of how the lechon would likely be served to you, cut right off the pig after being roasted on a spit for hours.
Typically, the younger the piglet, the more fatty and therefore the more prized the lechon. Personally, I prefer more meaty lechon, which my barkada (my peeps) took as evidence of my poor taste. I let them have the lechon while I slyly ate all the kinilaw na tanigue (ceviche Spanish mackerel) or fresh lumpia (spring rolls), among other dishes.
The lesson is this: do not disparage Filipino food. Anthony Bourdain has visited the islands twice—most recently this past month—and he called the local lechon the “best pig ever.”
In August 1901 over five hundred American teachers arrived in Manila aboard the USAT Thomas, and the term “Thomasite” was born. A strategy begun by the Army to “pacify” the islands, the American colonial authorities established a coeducational, secular, public school system throughout the Philippines. Often seen as the best thing the Americans did in the islands, it is not without its critics. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Good: Many Thomasites were flexible, adventurous people who truly loved their students and their host towns. Some never left. I modeled Georgina Potter on some of these people, including Mary Fee, who will come up again. The best, most democratic administrator was David Barrows, who emphasized solid academic subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic so that Filipinos could find professions, not just jobs. He also implemented a test-based scholarship system to American universities. Barrows opened more schools and trained Filipino teachers to take them over—something now termed sustainable development.
The Bad: In his time, Barrows was considered a failure because Filipino students were not achieving to the level of Americans in standardized testing—yes, back then we were just starting to “teach to tests.” A thinking person might understand that this is because Filipino students were being taught in a foreign language. This is a good time to mention that everything was taught in English. Why? The Americans said that Filipinos had not learned enough Spanish to justify that medium, and the local languages were too many and too varied to be practical. Most importantly, the Americans—particularly the Easterners and Midwesterners who came to the Philippines—only spoke English. Moreover, they already had the textbooks printed. Hence, Filipino boys and girls were learning poems about…snowflakes? Fortunately, Mary Fee and others rewrote some of these early readers with local themes, proving that not all Yankees are idiots.
The Ugly: The next superintendent after Barrows returned the educational system to its original focus: industrial education, based on what were then called “negro schools” in the States. White (really his name) thought that Filipinos should be taught “practical subjects” like carpentry and gardening, as well as “character training” like cleanliness and conduct. (Such prejudice was so prevalent at the time that English-speakers had not yet coined the word “racism.” It was simply the norm.)
And then there were some individual Americans who, in the words of Javier Altarejos, were “unfit for travel abroad.” Harry Cole, stationed in Palo, Leyte, wrote that “when I get home, I want to forget about this country and people as soon as possible. I shall probably hate the sight of anything but a white man the rest of my life.” My antagonist, Archie Blaxton, channels good ol’ Harry quite a lot. (I did not have to make up horrible, racist stuff for my characters to say. I just looked up what real Americans did say. It was not encouraging.)
In the end, the educational program was successful in making Filipinos believe that a brighter future was possible under the Americans—not fighting the Americans. Whether this was cynical manipulation by the colonial government or a sincere intention to do good abroad, that’s up to you to decide. From my research, the two were tied up together in what President McKinley termed “Benevolent Assimilation.” Many Filipinos did like the schools, and they certainly respected their teachers. Most importantly, some families managed to do what Barrows wanted: to “destroy that repellent peonage or bonded indebtedness” in which they found themselves. And the Thomasites gave me great plot ideas, so I’m not complaining.
Featured image of students from Noveleta, Cavite, from the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive.
The carabao is the national animal of the Philippines. It’s a good choice because this beast of burden can do everything. It can haul a house’s worth of goods (up to 3500 kilos or 7700 pounds), turn a mill stone, or carry several passengers for hours. It is your pick-up truck, tractor, and engine all in one. A contemporary observer wrote that the carabao was “patient and tractable so long as he can enjoy a daily swim. If cut off from water the beast becomes irritable [and] will attack men or animals and gore them with its sharp horns.” Americans were a bit dramatic, of course. They resented the carabao for clogging carriage traffic as it lumbered through Manila at two miles per hour.
The true test of the carabao’s usefulness is that there are still 3.2 million in the Philippines. According to a 2005 United Nations report, “99 percent belong to small farmers that have limited resources, low income, and little access to other economic opportunities.” At the dawn of the 20th century, though, every farmer and hacendero relied upon the carabao, which is why the rinderpest epidemic of 1901 hurt the islands so badly. This was one of Javier Altarejos’s biggest problems at the beginning of the book: finding the money to replace his herd.