How do stories reflect and shape culture?
Anthropologist Mabel Cook Cole begins her anthology of Philippine Folk Tales describing a singsong tone in the still of the night where “a single voice…could be heard reciting tales of heroes who knew the magic of the betel-nut, or with stories of spirits and their power over the lives of men.” I read her collection of stories and walked the streets of Manila and Bacolod City listening for that storyteller’s voice, but I never heard a single voice. I heard a symphony.
The Philippines is a nation of over 7,000 islands and between 120 and 175 different languages depending on how they are classified. Colonized by the Spanish in the 16th century who handed their rule over to the Americans in the late 1800’s, it is a land of many stories and voices. I wondered about the multitudes of languages and culture as I walked the streets of Manila encountering those I could only identify as Filipino. I wondered what bond held this nation of diversity together. How could so many voices make up the story of this one nation?
My story gathering began with the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal. A storyteller himself, Rizal led a reform movement advocating for freedom and individual rights through his novels and poems. Although not an advocate of violence, his execution launched a bloody revolution against Spain that ended when the United States took over. He highlights the importance of literacy to freedom. The Spanish would not allow the Filipinos to learn the Spanish language or be educated. That is how they maintained control over the land and kept the people subservient to them. It was through reading, writing, and spreading the ideas of freedom through literature that the people became free. Rizal was of an elite class and never advocated for the Filipino to be educated in Spanish but rather to learn to read and write in their native tongues. He wrote, “While a people preserves its language; it preserves the marks of liberty.” More than one hundred years later, after a century of compulsory education in English, his nation would finally respond to his directive and begin to educate its children in native dialects and the Filipino national language of Tagalog. How does this story reflect and shape culture? Rizal reflects the Filipino indirect, nonviolent culture with his indirect literary approach to revolution. His remembrance also shapes culture as many sources attribute his national hero status to the Americans who would have benefited from lifting a non-violent writer sympathetic to their value system up for the masses to follow.
A story from Bacolod that drew my attention was of the Masskara Festival held the third week of October each year. I assumed the festival was similar to other masked festivals celebrated in Catholic nations like Carnival or Mardi Gras or even the Day of the Dead, but I was wrong. This festival of brilliant masks, street dancing, parades and pageantry was introduced to lift the islander’s spirits after a particularly trying year. Negros Occidental is one of the few islands in the Philippines whose main export is sugar. When the sugar prices plummeted in the 1970’s the island suffered a significant financial crisis and people’s lives became harsh. Then tragedy struck as a ferry collided with a tanker killing hundreds of residents. The festival was incorporated to encourage citizens to put on a good face and steadfastly carry on through difficult times. What a beautiful reflection of the steadfast, enduring people. Small in stature but tall in spirit, these people fought the Japanese in World War II three times longer than the Japanese expected, protecting both Australia and Hawaii from invasion.
My journey through the mountains and the beaches and the city streets of the Philippines did not bring me to the voice of a single storyteller like Mabel Cook encountered. I encountered literally hundreds of stories in my three weeks in the Philippines, individual stories and national stories that endeared me to these beautiful people. I saw hints of both the reflection and shaping of culture in the stories they tell and remember. Colonizers introduced stories to subdue the people. Teachers shared stories like Beowulf while challenging students to avoid corrupt leadership. Artists depicted stories from native tribes struggling to survive. In my final walk through Manila, I still saw Filipinos but also noticed hints of Iloccano and Visayan and Tagalog. Unique foods, dress, rituals, language and stories come from all of the ethnic groups that we call Filipino. Their stories (just like our stories) are invaluable to the global story we are composing today.