20 June 2021

It is the second year of the pandemic and all through this period, I haven’t gone to a hairdresser whilst hating my now difficult-to-manage, long, still-dark tresses. Recently, I dreamt that someone was cutting my hair. The black strands were falling to the floor, curling like big spiders, and I was getting scared--I have always been afraid of creepy crawlies. The fear woke me up.

During my young adulthood, I would often have similar dreams—finger nails being cut, glass breaking, or teeth being pulled out. On waking up, I would immediately click a couple of incisors on my wooden night table—this in order to ward off any foreboding of evil. Ritual done, I would peacefully get back to sleep. Superstition? Or perhaps a reminder that I should be careful?

These subliminal anxieties were, I suppose, implanted in me when I was a young child listening to the tales of my yaya (carer). I remember being told that such dreams were omens that something very unfortunate was about to happen. You should therefore get up and bite into the trunk of a tree, this to ward off evil. Not having trees readily available in big cities where I resided then, I thought that as a compromise, it would be fine to substitute wooden furniture for the trees. It surprised me that when I stopped thinking of these warnings, I also stopped dreaming about them.

I have often asked myself where all these forebodings came from. They have catalysed my interest in folklore—but until recently, I was only familiar with Western classical mythologies. It was of small wonder, then, that when I visited my birthplace in Negros after a long absence, I was intrigued by the two researchers I met: Serafin Plotria, Jr. and Chona Gosiaoco. They claimed that in the course of their work they had heard many local folktales, especially from elderly people. It would be a shame, they said, if these stories were to disappear when the current generation passes. They reminded me that despite a number of stories written up on this country, very few of them come from Negros. Even Visayan folktales are often sourced from the nearby islands of Panay or Cebu.

One reason is probably that Negros settlements were relatively late in coming. Yet, I know that growing up in Negros, I had listened to a number of these local stories about the tamawo (fairies) and the bulalakaw (fiery birds). Perhaps in future, I thought, we Negrenses could add our share to these growing anthologies of Philippine mythology. More, we could contribute our analyses as to the meaning of these myths and folktales. With this in mind, I decided to provide the two researchers with a small fund to continue their research.

This is not just out of academic curiosity nor fealty to any local community, but rather a possible avenue that an ordinary person such as me can use in order to give back to the society that had raised me. I am not part of the political, social, or the economic elite, with a voice that could influence policies. But I thought there should be something, no matter how small, that I could contribute.

These folktales are by their nature simple and straightforward, with little character development. Whilst easy to understand, they are also full of adventure. Readers, no matter the age, simply love stories. What if, I reasoned, we could use these tales as a vehicle to teach our kababayans (countrymen) the joy of reading? These narratives are good as reading primers and can be made available to reach a wider reading public. We Filipinos are known for our pragmatism. We are, however, poor readers.

Many critics assert that JK Rowling’s main achievement as a writer is not the artistry of the Harry Potter books, but that these books encourage children to turn away from their Nintendos, even just for a while, and read! Our country is known as the texting capital of the world; what if Negros could become the reading capital at least of the Philippines? What most of us Filipinos don’t realise is that reading not only stimulates our imagination and widens our worldview, but also develops our critical thinking. We need these attributes if we want to be discerning citizens of our country.

In this connection, I was shocked when I recently read about the devastating test results of 15-year-old Filipinos when compared to others of the same age from 78 other countries. Last conducted in 2018 by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the OECD, Filipinos scored second to last in math, second to last in science, and last in reading! There were a total of 600,000 students who participated, and some of the 79 countries surveyed were even economically poorer than the Philippines. In Southeast Asia, five other countries joined—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam--all of them scored considerably higher than the Philippines! The World Bank followed with an analysis of the PISA findings and recommended that we need to improve the quality of our teachers and our school environment. Where most enlightened countries pour their resources on education, we have chronically underfunded our educational system.

I did wonder whether this meant our country’s future is broken. However, instead of resigning ourselves to a possible downward spiral, we can more positively remind ourselves that, as the saying goes, a thousand-mile journey begins with a single step. Whilst formal education could be left wanting for some time to come—one cause of my disappointment with our government leaders-- it is my hope that stories found in this book could help tease the interest of us avowed texters to get us away from our telephones, even just for a while, and learn to appreciate reading.

For the small minority who do read, there is a relative abundance of popular literature, especially action-oriented comic books. There are also a number of learned academic publications for the scholarly. However, these informative academic publications do not reach a wider reading public. There seems to be a paucity of written, non-academic, non-fiction work targeted at the educated layperson. This book could hopefully provide one such alternative reading vehicle and perhaps bridge this gap.

The commentary section and the information on Philippine history, culture, and religion should be of interest to the so-called sophisticates as they complement the number of anthologies on Philippine mythology available to the reading public. To reiterate, this book is intended to act as a bridge between academic work and popular literature, and it is my sincere hope that SONG OF NEGROS would not only entertain but also stimulate and inform.