the tagbanua tribe of coron island
We pulled away from the port and, as if by divine providence, the sky cleared. If not, we would not have risked the visit to the northern part of Coron Island while the clouds beat the crap out of the ocean. But he was too eager to take us there, Russel, for the reason that he shared their past. He might have tried to hide it, but I can see his neck craning out into the horizon even before we made the final turn to shore or the lack of it.
It has been a famous story to tell, the one of the Tagbanua (Tagbanwa) tribe living in Coron Island. The most persistent of all is their almost-xenophobic attitude toward visitors. A secluded town built since time immemorial, the people of Tagbanua have learned to fish and pick and sow and reap and knead anything in their surroundings that would help them survive. The price of self-sufficience came down to many ancestral claims and tribal wars. And for a time, they have lost what is theirs to tourists wanting to see and explore their patch of land.
A pair of eyes peeping from a stilt house followed us until we reached a half-built stone breakwater. Two pairs of strong hands, very similar to Russel’s, reeled us in. It was curious how we did not have a place to dock. It was, perhaps, an omen waiting to be read. We took calculated steps from one boat to another to get to the walkway. And the men who helped us gave a slight nod and talked to our guide in their native language. I wasn’t sure if they were amused by our presence. We carefully proceeded, making sure we say “Magandang umaga po” to everyone we meet. We knew we don’t belong there and we tried hard not to intrude.
“It’s good that you and the leaders here are trying to improve your infrastructure!” I said.
“It’s not an improvement. This is the first time we’ll ever have a dock,” said Russel.
The village is far out from the place we arrived. We moved through the mountains, constantly wading in small rivulets, before we got to a clearing. There were some serious shortage of people when we arrived in the heart of the town. It was the morning, after all, and the folks might still be in bed. Or they can be behind the trees, waiting for the perfect time to lounge at us. Russel was greeted by a family member- I forget if it was his sister or cousin. It had been eight months since he saw his wife and two children. He brushed this off as he explained the “structures” as we pass them. Like the state of the many Philippine provinces we’ve been to, most of the structures are barely held up by a cement foundation and mostly made up of nipa and cogon. With no pavements to lead us, we were looking for places big enough to hold a few people for us to know they are public gathering grounds. Like their Catholic church that looked like my 3-year old niece’s drawing… Inside were battered pews missing a few arm rests with no kneelers. St. Peter’s face was smudged with grime. The school’s vibrant paint had been washed out by incessant rains during the monsoon. As the southwesterly wind leaves, it takes with it chips of tin roof and layers of nipa. I do not remember seeing any chairs…
“Wala pong high school dito. Hanggang Grade 5 lang. Kung gusto ng bata mag-aral, pupunta pa sa bayan. Wala rin kaming ospital, meron lang manghihilot. Paminsan-minsan may dumadalaw na doctor” said Russel. (There’s no high school in the island; the school only runs until Grade 5. If a child wants to study, s/he has to go to town. Nor do we have a hospital; we only have a traditional healer and an occasional visit from a real doctor.)
We started moving forward when a lady with a big smile came up the path. She and Russel started talking about us and why we were there. The woman looked at us half-smiling. She was fiddling the tip of her bible while sizing us up as she met our eyes a couple of times, but her gaze was drawn to the church. There was a mass and a town meeting after and she seemed to be in a hurry. We saw her pat our guide’s back and walk away. It was Russel’s mother.
We continued to walk until the first- and perhaps the only, two-story house emerged. We entered quietly and cautiously by the left side where some sort of a porch held the eldest of the tribal community council, Salong Aguilar (brother of the Tagbanua tribal leader, Rodolfo Aguilar), his wife, Salome, and some of their family members.
The elder has a cataract and is hard of hearing. He would lean forward and twist his neck to find where the sound is coming from. At last, he found Russel’s voice. Our guide told him that we were there to try to grasp, even just a little, who the Tagbanua people are. He seemed pleased. They were the stewards of Coron Island long before anyone could remember it. People live a very simple life, growing and fishing what they eat. It wasn’t always good, but everyone got by with hard work. Women weave mats and baskets to be sold in town and men, during the months of November till June, harvest bird nests to sell for a hefty price. On ordinary days, they till the soil, pick fruits, and fish. Manang Salome enjoyed making mats and necklaces for the family.
The couple met eons ago and Mang Salong decided she’ll be his bride. Manang Salome agreed immediately. And just to make sure there’s no turning back, Mang Salong has his name tattooed on her shoulders. There is no question that he did the same for her. While the couple reminisced their once young love, a woman stood up and appeared to walk out of the porch, throwing suspicious glances at us as she turned the bend and disappeared to the road leading to the church. I asked Manong Salong why the Tagbanuans started closing their village off to visitors. In some way, the answer was simple… Tourists took notice of Coron, much to the government’s delight, and the things that the Tagbanuan people held dear was trampled on and abused. A long standing ancestral domain battle also began and have claimed lives from different tribal groups. It was 1994 when the tribe won the certificate of ancestral domain claim that protects 22,000 hectares of land and sea. Only a couple of Tagbanuan-owned sights are open to the public. The rest are closed and will remain that way, until the Tagbanuans say so.
“Saan na po yung mga anak niyo?” asked one of us, must be Lauren. (Where are your children?)
“Wala na yung iba. Namatay nung sanggol pa lang,” replied Manang Salome. (The others are gone. They died when they were still babies.)
“Bakit po?” I asked. (Why?)
“Malaria,” said Manang Salome.
The elders lamented that the nearest hospital is an hour boat-ride away and the funds that should help the tribe do not find itself to the hands of the people. Even the funds that are meant for education are being inexplicably disposed. Recent events such as these created a new route for travelers doing the Coron Island Tour. The conflicting tribes have divided the sights into two so that there is no chance for either to encounter each other. Deep inside, I thought this must be the reason why so many people we’ve met were so suspicious…
Russel looked at us intently and signaled that the interview was over. We thanked our hosts, including their grand children amusing us while the elders gave a picture of the life in the island. Russel was excited to bring us to the baranggay officials but when we got there, the woman who left the Aguilar’s house was sitting with them leaders. In their language, they refused to be interviewed, telling Russel that we should have asked for a permit first from the baranggay hall before talking to people and that we should leave immediately. We didn’t argue.
Happy because we heard what we came there to hear, we traced back the dirt road to the rivulets to the half-built breakwater to the open sea. There was a little fear, but there was disappointment in Russel’s eyes. As we leave the Tagbanua domain, we realized he was not able to see his family and say goodbye…