Filipino is Just the First Level

Discovering my Waray ancestry — an older ethnic group from which my maternal grandparents originated.

Discovering my Waray ancestry

My parents immigrated to Canada from the Philippines in the late 70’s. They mostly spoke Tagalog to each other when I was growing up, so today I only speak English. “Waray” (wah-rai) was a mystery word I’d heard in my twenties, when I had conversations with my mother’s sisters. All I knew about the Waray was that they were an older ethnic group from which my maternal grandparents originated.

In 2006, my grandmother told me that the Waray were brave and knew how to fight, even the women. I started to imagine them as scantily clad, muscular warriors wielding spears and fighting alongside men in the jungle… like a more primitive version of the Amazons of Themyscira in Wonder Woman.

In 2018, I had the pleasure of attending the Vancouver Talking Stick Festival where one representative said there were around 200 different indigenous nations just in B.C., many of which also had their own dialects. I thought about the dialects originating in the Philippines (also almost 200), though Tagalog is the main one spoken today. And I thought that perhaps my ethnic background wasn’t just Filipino, but something more.

It was time to learn more about the magic word in my memory that was the key to opening the door of exploration. I challenged myself for the month of March 2018 to find out at least one new fact a day about the Waray, and post it with an image on Instagram. I called it the #WarayChallenge.

Google and Wikipedia were great starting sources for photos, basic information, and history, but I had to dig deeper to confirm facts. Most of the information in my posts came from two major sources: “Waray. Peoples of the Philippines” by V.N. Sugbo and C. Zafra, and “The Waray Culture of the Philippines”, found in multiple places online, written by an unknown author. Then I built upon the most interesting facts with recently published articles. I was learning so much that I couldn’t help but share more than one fact in each post.

The Waray originate from the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines, or the modern-day provinces of Leyte, Samar, and Biliran. Waray stereotypes include being musical, happy-go-lucky, laid back, heavy drinkers, and swift to pick fights. I don’t identify with all of these, but as I started learning about the history, the aspects that did resonate with me felt like puzzle pieces falling into place. I’ll elaborate on a few of these next.

Waray Bravery

There is a famous phrase relating to the Waray: “Waray never back down from a fight.”

The Waray were a sea people; pirates who raided coastal villages, formed war parties, and forced people into agricultural slavery. Chiefs, or datus, led villages of 30-100 people, and war was common among them.

After the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan (who was killed by indigenous one month later) and subsequent Spanish explorers in the mid-16th century (Ruy Lopez de Villalobos named the islands “Las Islas Filipinas” in honour of Philip II), Christianity spread over the next few hundred years. Muslim raiders and anti-colonial movements alike attempted to stop the evangelization. At the end of the 19th century, war against the arriving Americans ensued. The Pulahan, a nationalist religious group of some 10-15,000 members, combined forces with other revolutionist groups to continue fighting the Americans well into the mid-20th century.

Once I learned about the history of war and the spread of Christianity in the Philippines, I began to understand the results of the centuries of colonization, and yearned for more knowledge about the Waray’s pre-Christian traditions. If my spiritual beliefs and ways of living were being wiped out — with very little physical or written evidence left for future generations — hell, I’d be fighting and drinking coconut wine too.

My grandparents on both sides have some pretty badass World War II stories, but my maternal grandmother’s is probably the best example of Waray bravery.

Someone had mistakenly pointed out my grandfather as the leader of the guerrilla movement in their area. He was taken around midnight by Japanese soldiers, dressed only in his underwear. My grandmother — who’d given birth to her first daughter just a few months prior — was petrified, but determined to find him the next day.

In her best dress, hair and makeup done, she and her distant cousin — with food and clothing in tow — walked for what must have been miles to the Japanese barracks. She confidently waved away bayonets pointed at their heads. Upon arrival, she demanded to see the commander, and engaged him in conversation, offering him her wristwatch. Only she was let into my grandfather’s cell, where she saw him badly beaten and standing on his toes, his cut wrists tied with rope above his head. She managed to get him down, clothe, and feed him, as well as the other prisoners — even the one who had falsely accused my grandfather. The commander told my grandmother to go home, and promised to release my grandfather. She didn’t want to, but she did.

My grandfather was released on an afternoon, physically weak, but strong enough to walk home to his family.

The extent of my bravery goes as far as calling 9-1-1 in emergency situations. I’ve never been one to start fights, although I can be pretty competitive. My siblings and I fought the most (and continue to do so, ha) with my mother. I could never beat her in a shouting match in my teens, but I’d lock myself in my room and put Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers on full blast.

She forced us to dance and sing karaoke at all of our house parties growing up, but now I have my own machine, and because of our musical training, I’ve always been able to perform or speak in front of crowds. My musicality comes from both of my parents, but the performance bravery is definitely Waray. And in retrospect, all those years fighting with my mother and never feeling like I won helped to keep me humble and emotionally balanced in the toughest of work situations.

Pre-Christian Spiritual Practices

The tribal Waray believed in many deities, or diwata. There were almost 50 gods or goddesses in Waray mythology, for everything from rainbows, greediness, time, flying creatures, and poison, to different worlds. There were also many rituals, since they believed there were spirits in everything around them.

While I’ll always attribute my spirituality to my Catholic upbringing, the strict rules and attitude toward LGBTQ people, among other things, became a turn-off for me as an adult. I started to form my own beliefs, which now include the divine energy of everything, from animal life to plants.

In early April 2018, I attended a satsang (spiritual gathering), during which the intuitive healer told me that I need to listen to the wisdom of trees. I felt strongly that this was how the Waray connected with the divine too.

She also talked about the absence of gender on the soul level. I had learned about the spiritual figures in Waray culture, one of which was the babaylan, a  healer, shaman, or miracle worker. Babaylans were usually female, though some were men and even transvestites, or asog. Though I’ve always identified as female, I know that I have strong masculine traits too, which have helped me in leadership roles, achieving goals, and using restrained emotion to my advantage. I wondered whether the Waray were less gender-centric than we are. Regardless, I don’t think this is a concept that humans today can easily grasp.

Artistic Expression

Despite being an introvert, I deeply value artistic expression, and I LOVE colour. Vancouver’s a very grey city and I wore a school uniform for most of my childhood, so I feel more alive when I see colour on buildings and in fashion. I’ve always known that Filipinos had many artistic traditions, but it seemed as if there was an extra punch of colour and sass when it came to the Waray.

In tribal Filipino society, tattoos were a rite of passage for men. Women had tattoos on certain body parts as well. One of my best friends, a tattoo artist, has started learning about the traditional batok (tattoo) tapping technique. We recently talked about how it’s been our generation – or even people of other ethnicities – who’ve been most interested in these tattoo rituals. My parents and older relatives don’t regard tattoos as an art form at all, but I believe that if they had the opportunity to learn about the history online from enthusiasts — like Project Katutubong Pilipino which creates indigenous photo documentaries — they might be open to this side of Filipino culture that even their parents didn’t have access to.

The kuratsa is a Waray couples dance that’s still performed at weddings and other social events. My grandmother bragged heavily about dancing this in her youth. In the dance, the man chases the woman as she evades him, and vice versa. They’re accompanied by singers clapping, and music played on guitars. In Leyte, the dancers are sometimes tied with a handkerchief, and the tied dancer is free only when the partner drops money on a scarf on the ground. In Eastern Samar, newlyweds dance the kuratsa at least three times, with sponsors dancing in between and casting money bills to them into the air or onto a scarf on the floor.

My grandma, Milagros Varona Labarda. She looks ready to perform. I bet she’s constantly in the middle of dance circles in the afterlife.
Source: Sandra Nomoto

The Sinulog Festival – which originated from dances marking the confrontation between the Christians and Moors – still occurs in Cebu in January. Chronicled performances in the late 1970’s described the sinulog in Samar as very complicated duels, dramatized in dance. Today, it’s one of the most popular, commercialized festivals in the country. Other cities have their own versions as well.

The Sinulog Festival is one of the events I’d love to attend in the Philippines, even if it’s been modernized. I love festivals that shut down the streets with music and dancing. This is P. Del Rosario Street at University of San Carlos Main in January 2012.
Credit: Francisco M. Pajares, Jr.
The Sinulog Festival honours the Santo Nino, or child Jesus, the patron saint of Cebu. Credit: Constantine Agustin
I’d see the Sinulog Festival just for the costumes!
Credit: Constantine Agustin

One industry with a strong history that remains in the Waray provinces is the production of weaved mats, or banigs, traditionally made with tikog plants grown in rice fields or marshes. There are many different techniques, patterns, and colours, the pintados design being the most popular with tourists.

I love ALL the designs. I think I’m going to have to bring an extra luggage with me for all the banigs I’m going to bring back. No wonder Filipinos invented Balikbayan boxes! Credit: Robi Jiy

In my opinion, the Filipino arts aren’t as celebrated as much as they should be in Canada. I’m positive that if my mother had learned the kuratsa, the entire Filipino population in Vancouver would be dancing it.

Why the #WarayChallenge isn’t over

I still call Vancouver home and feel more Canadian than Filipino, but some things have started to make sense that didn’t before. The Philippines still faces a lot of political, social, and economic problems as a result of their history, and I do feel helpless about that.

My family isn’t particularly keen to learn more about their ancestry as I am. I know my paternal grandmother was of the Igorot tribe, but I don’t know the ethnic subgroup. However, when my nieces grow up, they too might have questions about why they are the way they are, and perhaps being Waray (among other things) might answer that for them.

I’d like to visit Leyte and Samar in the summertime to attend festivals and experience the culture first-hand. I’d also like to attempt to write a screenplay about the Waray that takes place in pre-Christian history. Most of the Filipino movies I’ve seen are either cheesy rom-coms from the ‘90s, or documentaries on poverty, which are very incomplete representations of Filipinos.

The word “waray” literally means “nothing”. It turns out, it’s actually everything to me. There’s something much deeper than Filipino blood that runs in me, just as the Waray spirits and their whispered stories still run deep in the land, sea, and people. In times of pain, I call out to my passed grandparents, and my Waray grandmother always comes forward, telling me to be strong and brave.

If you too, have a magic word that was bestowed on you by a wise relative, perhaps you also don’t have to look too far online to hear what your ancestors are telling you.

*Feature image by James Claridades

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