Alegre, Edilberto. 2020. Biyaheng Pinoy: A travelogue in Mindanao. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press. 438 pages.
(This article was first read in the Ateneo de Manila University Press ‘Journeying South: Conversations on Biyaheng Pinoy: A Mindanao Travelogue’ event.)
At first glance, it can be assumed that the remarkable book by Edilberto Alegre Biyaheng Pinoy: A travelogue in Mindanao (2020) in conversation with Kerima Polotan Tuvera’s Adventures in a forgotten land (1977) – another equally compelling work that recounts the writer’s personal and political “adventures” in the Philippines and beyond. In Tuvera’s book title essay, she recounts her time in Cagayan de Oro and Dipolog, which she describes as places where the “virus of revolution” had not yet reached. While Polotan Tuvera was born in Jolo, Sulu, she has spent most of her life in Pangasinan, Tarlac, Laguna, and Metro Manila, which may possibly be the reason why she imagines Mindanaw and Sulu from the perspective of ” forgotten countries ”beyond the National Capital Region and its adjacent provinces.
In Edilberto Alegre’s work, Mindanaw and Sulu are not imagined as “forgotten countries” but as “missing parts” of how we circumvent and shape the image of nation. Alegre uses the verb “to travel” and not “adventure” to describe his businesses. While the second is about engaging in exciting experiences and activities, the first refers to moving from one place to another, often to a distant location. Movement here involves an act of process, which is active rather than passive; it is about change in terms of space, time and character. Traveling makes you explore different realms of space, gain minimal information, and realize the imbalance and inequality embedded in the complex interplay of power. In the words of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in his remarkable book Sad tropics (1955), “the first thing we see when traveling the world is our own dirt, thrown in the face of humanity.” It is in this context that I place the Edilberto Alegre Pagbiyahe or travel.
Alegre happily asserts that travel is “the opportunity for language stays in the urgency of fullness, meanings, totality, insignificance” (91). Traveling is a process of loading discourses and meanings across languages and cultures and writing about them is a form of unloading. The two processes of travel and writing then create a journey of enlightenment that leads to our understanding of our “national cultures”. Culture is plural here as “cultures” to avoid essentialism and highlight the diversity of life worlds among the different ethnolinguistic groups in the Philippines. Alegre refers to cultures that do not always adhere to the calendar and homogeneous time of progress and civilization. Cultures that are not emerging but are still there exist and evolve from the pre-colonial period to the contemporary period. The cultures that are embedded in the different cultural data – language, food, markets, monuments and even performances – that can be extracted from Mindanaw and Sulu.
The knot of the book Biyaheng Pinoy: A travelogue in Mindanao lies in the fact that it inaugurates a lesson and a valuable means of cultural theorization in Philippine studies: always rely on concrete data. What constitutes hard data in the field are the words and syllables spoken, the food consumed, the scene or places observed and an observed performance. Alegre believes that a researcher can sometimes be wrong with a theory, especially those borrowed from the West, but never with hard data that can be gathered in the field. Think, for example, of “food” as a cultural datum. It includes various areas and stages such as the production of the ingredients to be cooked, the preparation for cooking and the consumption itself. The production of ingredients can involve farming and performance while going and observing in the market can be seen as part of the immersion in cultural data, and finally the eating part itself can also be considered as a cultural event.
In the essay “Knowing Kagi”, Alegre illustrates the differences and similarities in the preparation, cooking, and consumption of food among various ethnolinguistic groups in the Philippines. Although some foods are technically similar to each other, their taste and preparation still differ. Iranun-Maguindanaon has a kitchen called tininda saigor vegetables boiled in water with a distinct mild flavor. For Tagalog, they call it bulanlang and for Cebuano, it is law-oy but a little sweeter in taste. Alegre also highlights the presence of syncretization in the way we adjust the taste of foreign cuisine to suit one’s palate. In this aspect, add patis (fish sauce), toyo, sugar, a sin, and even gata in a kitchen imported from foreigners demonstrates indigenization – the process of decolonization of the Other.
In all this it is instructive to distinguish Edilberto Alegre Biyaheng Pinoy: A travelogue in Mindanao as a book that departs from travelogues previously published in Philippine Letters by linking the discursive and the popular. Alegre frames and reframes, structures and re-structures, constitutes and reconstructs different ways and ways of seeing and reading data that reflect Filipino cultures. The book offers easy-to-read theoretical discussions, a feat that many academics fail to do. It also tries to accommodate the range of Filipino studies, academics, teachers, students, readers, and even ethnolinguistic groups such as Bentangan’s Kirinteken Manobo. In the book, North Cotabato’s Kirinteken Manobo and Sulu’s Sama Dilaut are imagined embodying their own cultures and situated at a critical time beyond superficial assimilation and a mere fraction of the famous “Nation”.
Ultimately, Edilberto Alegre’s Biyaheng Pinoy: A travelogue in Mindanao, edited by renowned poet and anthologist Ricardo de Ungria and with preface by Mindanaw and research scholar Sulu Bro. Karl M. Gaspar, is a valentine from the island region who continues to strive for socio-economic justice, peace and equality that have long been denied even by the first President of Mindanawon of the Philippines.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Jay Jomar F. Quintos is Associate Professor of Philippine Studies and Literature at the University of the Philippines.)