Chronicling the peripheries: Personal dispatch from Bikol

MY last good memory of this 2022 election was the photo of Leni Gerona Robredo, standing in line to vote. To non-Bikolanos, the public school where her precinct was located looked similar to the other voting places—nondescript, low-roofed buildings, unused for some two years because of the pandemic. But journalists both local and foreign noted how she became once more this ordinary citizen, dressed in a blue, simple blouse, demanding no privilege at all. She waited as the rest waited in an electoral process that highlighted once more the inadequacies of the organization running the political exercise.

To people outside Camarines Sur, the name of the barangay, Carangcang, did not matter at all. But those who know this place can say it is located in Magarao, a town so near the city of Naga that boundaries between the urban and the rural hardly matter. But Carangcang has maintained an isolation because of the small roads that connect it to the town and some parts of the city. Outside of its name, which amuses no end the Bikolano for its funny sound, the place has women entrepreneurs who supply the city and other areas with native delicacies.

There is also a back-story in Leni residing in that place long after living in Naga City: there was a talk that she wanted to run for a provincial position, as a governor, it was rumored. But destiny had something greater for her. Thus, she was back in the barangay to exercise her right as a citizen, as she was also running for the highest post in the land. She was back in this small town, a peripheral land to the bigger and mightier districts and towns around it.

And yet, Magarao hides its expanse. It spreads to the west and reaches a tributary of the Bikol River, where the water is deeper. Out there, the epic, Ibalon, comes alive with Ponong, where the three-necked monster resides. Are these the other smaller bodies of water flowing from the main one and traveling back to the land?

Magarao is also known for healers noted for folk chiropractic traditions, or hilot, which uses coconut oil in abundance in the area. This is also the town of the famed poet, Luis Cabalquinto, New York-based now but still engaged in many local cultural projects.

“Beauty unreserved holds down a country’s suffering,” Cabalquinto writes of his Magarao in Depths of Fields. It is a line about the power of departure and the equal strength of arrival even in memories.

Leni Robredo, it appears, knows this is her heart. She leaves the place, the comfort of her home, if she could, as in Campbell’s journey of a hero, gather the boons that she would in turn share with those she left at the margin.

She understood the peripheries because she comes from a region the development of which has been stalled because of geography and politics. In the ’70s, Naga and the huge part of the Bikol region was a known opposition. The older Marcos punished the land by stopping or controlling the aids that were supposed to be funneled to the region, its provinces, cities and towns.

“Surumpay an tubo” was an expression that literally meant “the pipes are connected.” The pipes stood for the conduits where development capital could pass but as the local and regional leaders then were against the administration, the pipe continued only to those cities or towns where the bosses kowtowed to the national leadership.

It was no surprise then that Leni Robredo was relentless in her use of the word “laylayan.” Some admirers were saying she should stop the usage of the said concept but she would not. She was keen about the truth: only when the peripheries have been lifted up and the marginalized linked to the powerful central source can real development take place.

I believed her. Like many others, I was for her not as a leader but as this purveyor of thought bringing radical changes. There was hope in a government that would emphasize helping the farmers and the workers. I truly believed in the minimum wages being increased and contractualization addressed. Or, we could at least work on the removal of the “end-of-contract” phenomenon. Or Endo. I did not care if cultural work took second place to this most basic need.

But fate can play tricks upon us. If the science of politics can be seen as a game, then can we aspire to a miracle when events do not turn out in our favor? Can the supernatural be categorized as strategy?

That night of May 9, 2022, in Naga City, there was a call to gather at the Plaza Quince Martires, the monument to the 15 Martyrs of the Philippine Revolution in the 19th century. Two icons that are only taken out of their Shrine by the river were brought to the said place. The Bikolanos and Bikolanas prayed, and then sang the hymns to Ina, as the Virgin of Peñafrancia is addressed endearingly but with piety.

Dispersed at midnight, the people of this old city prepared for a Mass in the Metropolitan Cathedral the next day. The streets were once more filled with young men and women in pink.

Online, there were splendid photos of the sky at dusk the day before the election. The haze of the horizon had by then produced the gentlest of pink, the clouds were old roses. The grays were on the lower part of the sky, down where the mountain ranges began. People were divining the universe, anything at all to bring change.

The nights when the results were coming in unrealistically fast were sleepless nights for everyone. On one night, at two in the morning, I stepped out of the apartment where I live and stayed in the coolness of the morning air, gazing at the heavens and wondering if they could foretell messages for people dreaming of a good life and hoping against hope.

As a student of social sciences, I had not stopped being rational. I knew politics was an art and a science. Logic demands that we stand ready to analyze elections, disinformation and power struggle. Academic engagement encourages us to expect corruption as an element of governance. But in the afternoon of that day in Carangcang, Leni was documented as having gone to another shrine—that of the Amang Hinulid in the town of Calabanga.

Amang Hinulid, literally, the “Father Laid to Rest/Sleep” is the icon of the Interred Christ. For those who believe in the efficacy of extrasomatic powers, the Christ who never dies is rightfully the most important icon for healers and shamans. And leaders.

What foreboding did the visit to that Shrine bring to this democratic act of choosing our leaders? Is the notion of “rebounding violence” by Maurice Bloch operative here? Is that visit, which is religious, implies the political outcomes of religion, which involves violence and conquest? Violence here does not mean killing but rather the strong transformation—the ritual death or disappearance—of the person into a different, and powerful persona.

Has Leni Gerona Robredo now become the true leader of the opposition? The assent of those who follow her will guide us through these six years that loom large, dark and seemingly endless, even as we speak.       

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Image credits: Jimbo Albano

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