A taste of Philippine women’s history

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By Ayn Rand I. Parel

CONTEMPORARY literature may have nothing to do with Tandang Sora as a maternal icon in Philippine history, but with creative mythology on its hood, the beloved “Tanda” becomes more than just an old woman tending wounded men in her hut.
With Tandang Sora as protagonist for this fable, a new paradigm is opened in light of the Fililpina’s disposition as sugar and salt become condiments of bitter twists in Philippine herstory in Sugar and Salt (Anvil Publishing, 2006), written by acclaimed Filipino-American writer Ninotchka Rosca, with illustrations by Christina Quisumbing Ranillo.
An award-winning novelist and notable feminist, Rosca became known for propagating women’s rights through her writing, which includes the novels State of War, Twice Blessed, and The Monsoon Collection. Rosca is also the founder and first national chair of Gabriela, a women’s rights organization in the country. Ranillo is likewise an artist in her own terms, who has also done cover artworks for 'Am Here': Contemporary Filipino Writing in English in New York.
Written in an almost prose poetry form, Sugar and Salt, a modern fable of Melchora Aquino, narrates the highlights of the history of Filipino women in rich metaphor, from the pre-colonial times to the genesis of the colonial period.
The narrative starts off with Tandang Sora giving away nine gifts to her relatives in the face of her death. These gifts, which also serve as the sections of the story, are symbols of knowledge about Filipino women of old, with each object, like the mirror and porcelain jars, affecting the course of events that would later shape the Filipino woman’s fate.
The oppression begins with the arrival of the “strangers from the edge of the world,” who preached to the “indios” that the care of their souls and bodies would depend on the structure of a “church in the volcano’s shadow” and a “watchtower on a crag overlooking the seashore,” thus signifying the spread of Catholicism.
Episodes of abuse follow as these strangers acquire Filipina wives. They give mirrors to these Filipinas, which become objects of new learning. But as time makes them wiser, the women become more conscious of the underlying oppression of the foreigners: “…he raised his cupped hand to her face so that her eyes fell on the mirror. She looked. And accepted.”
The last gift redeems the woman in the form of an insect hopping from Tandang Sora’s death chair as her great granddaughter understands that wisdom is “of the soil and must be left behind, and that the soul could only soar in innocence.”
There is only so much to comprehend in a mythological history written in a 64-page book, and though context may give the interpretation away, readers will find some of the images difficult to decipher without research. For example, the lines, “The volcano belched and shifted its feet under the earth. The church stones lost their grip on one another and fell to the ground,” is a dead giveaway to the eruption of Mount Mayon that resulted in the burial of Cagsawa town. But the non-historically inclined reader may be lost and confused.
The illustrations are literal and devious, adding to the magical aspect of the tale. The language speaks on its own with rhythmic fluidity, and its voice consistently narrates with an apparent touch of feminism.
Creating mythology out of history may be a new touch of Rosca’s, whose works usually dwell on the contemporary issues on human rights, specifically women’s welfare. This seemingly new approach might be easily dismissed as a nostalgic attempt to return to a lost ancestral Eden, but her focus reflects a more complex project of negotiation between past and present, between physical and psychic relocation.
Rosca reconstructs the Philippines as a means of reaching back through the barriers and dislocations caused by colonial history and migration, and thus aim at a recovery of the Filipina as one who is conscious of her existence and identity.

Montage Vol. 11 • September 2008