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MONDAYS WITH PATMEI | In search of our national cultural heroes

National Heroes Day honors all our Filipino heroes and their contribution to our struggle for freedom. It also commemorates the Cry of Pugad Lawin, which was credited as the pivotal moment when the Philippine revolution against Spain started.

When we talk about heroes in Philippine history we usually only focus on their skill in battle, in leading armies, and in political negotiations as if revolutions only happen in battlefields and negotiating tables. That gives an impression that heroes can only come from the ranks of the military and politicians and being heroic means bravely fighting an enemy.

This is evident in the movies we make based on the lives of our heroes – Sakay, Rizal, Bonifacio, Aguinaldo, Luna, Del Pilar. They are all action movies with lots of physical fighting and arguing and scheming. Violence and destruction and despair.

Where are the stories of our poets, musicians, dancers, weavers, painters, sculptors, writers, chanters, designers, artisans and crafts people? Surely, revolutions require lots of creativity, right? The process of social transformation itself is a creative process.

I reflect on Filipino creativity as we celebrate our national heroes because I was so inspired by the talk given by University of the Philippines (UP) Professor Felipe M. de Leon, Jr. during the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) forum hosted by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) last August 22 at the Holy Cross of Davao College (HCDC).

Professor de Leon, Jr. served as chair of the NCCA in the past and he was also Commissioner for the Arts and at various points chaired its Committee on Intangible Heritage; Committee on Music; Sub-Committee on Cultural Communities and Traditional Arts. He is credited for institutionalizing GAMABA and establishing the Schools of Living Traditions (SLT). He also served as Commissioner for UNESCO Philippines.

Son of National Artist for Music Felipe Padilla de Leon, Professor de Leon, Jr. is also a living treasure himself and a true manlilikha ng bayan and listening to him passionately talk about Filipino creativity and traditional arts refreshed and sustained me. It’s like I have become a born-again Philippine history, culture and arts advocate.

NCCA held the GAMABA forum in Davao City as part of the Kadayawan Festival to raise awareness on the award that recognizes our National Living Treasures, the “creators of the country,” and promote the value of our country’s intangible cultural heritage.

Since it was started in 1993, only 16 Filipinos have been bestowed the honor of being a Manlilikha ng Bayan. Professor de Leon, Jr. considers GAMABA more prestigious than the Order of National Artists (ONA) because the practice of uniquely Filipino traditional art involves the whole community as it is passed on from one generation to the next. It has higher value when it is communal and it promotes our intangible cultural heritage. National Artists, meanwhile, tend to create primarily for their own benefit.

Of the 16 awardees, only one came from the Davao Region — Salinta Monon from Bansalan, Davao del Sur, who was recognized in 1998 for her weaving skills creating the abaca ikat or inabal. Sadly, she died in 2009, a living treasure no more. I believe we have more living treasures waiting to be discovered in Davao so let us all help NCCA look for them.

These living treasures can be in various fields of traditional arts — folk architecture, maritime transport, weaving, carving, performing arts, literature, graphic and plastic arts, ornament, textile or fiber art, pottery, and many more.

What struck me most from the many insights Professor de Leon, Jr. shared was this: “Indigenous Filipinos lead an enchanted life, being intuitively attuned and sensitive to the stirrings of the creative living energy within them and in the amazing diversity of the natural world.” That the most striking quality of Philippine traditional cultures is their great creative diversity and richness.

The source of this creative diversity is its communal character. Communal cultures allow people to be more expressive. The closeness to others allows us to be more trusting and open and more free to express ourselves. “Food is tastier, speech more melodic and things of everyday life more colorful,” the professor shared,

Art is not only created together and shared with others, it is also integrated into everyday life and has multiple functions in the community. Everybody is an artist. Creativity is a shared value and communal trait. Since it is shared, skills and talents are not specialized but integrated. You are not just one thing. You do not just cook, you also sing and dance and weave. You are not just a musician, you are also a carpenter, a barber, and a painter.

The other source of our creative diversity is our belief that it comes from a sacred source. We create from divine inspiration. “We are not the source of creative power but only a medium or channel of the divine or higher forces” is how the professor described it. That is common to Philippine traditional cultures, especially among healers, like the “babaylan” or “mananambal.”

And nature is sacred to Indigenous Filipinos. They have deep reverence for all forms of life. So their creations are rooted in their relationship with nature — the source of materials, motifs, images, forms and techniques.

If Davao City wants to be a Creative City, it only needs to look within its rich indigenous heritage. We only need to go back to our basic values — our sense of community and our belief in a divine power larger than ourselves. It is when we are cut off from these things that we start to lose our way.

We should not pressure our traditional artists to produce according to the demands of industry, tourism, and art collectors. Their art is not for mass production. Let us honor them as “worthy cultural heroes and keepers of our soul” so they will be inspired to continue their work. We have to give them our full support and invest in them in a manner that is “commensurate to their creative genius.” After all, they are not creating commodities nor only creating for art’s sake, but for something higher.

Waging a revolution in the 21st century requires lots of creativity and the wisdom of our indigenous cultures. Our indigenous peoples did not survive this long facing and overcoming the many challenges in every century and in every revolution if their indigenous ways do not work. They are the heroes we need to learn from and their cultural legacy is what needs to live on.


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