A week with the Iraya, Mangyan of Puerto Galera and the Warriors of Light

Iraya Mangyan, Sitio Ambang, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro

As I write this, there are talks of going back to Puerto Galera.

I had to park my thoughts about the subject for months, let alone a year. I had to sift through the memories and reflect on each frame. Indigenous stories are way too delicate to be told by an outsider like me. Sensitive in a way that society chooses to turn a blind eye at them. But a line from a western TV series, Madam Secretary,  resonated with me so much, I had the nerve to write about them, ”the stories we want to hear the least, are the stories we need to hear the most.”

Iraya Mangyan, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro
An Iraya Mangyan young man climbs a coconut tree in Sitio Sipit Saburan, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro

The stereotype

Mangyan, are the people who identify themselves as one of the mountain peoples of the Philippines.1 They have deep wavy hair to curly, short and skinny, with a dark complexion.2 Attributes that resemble their descendants, the Negrito groups, that fully occupied Mindoro, before the arrival of Austronesian-speaking peoples.1

These mountain peoples are composed of eight indigenous groups dwelling on the island. Namely, Iraya, Alangan, Tadyawan, Tau-buid, Bangon, Buhid, Hanunuo and Ratagnon. Each of its own has respective language and customs. But such characteristics belong to the Iraya, the richest cultural tribe among the Mangyans. And are living nomadically in the northern uplands of Mindoro island.6

Migration further in the mountains, became their way of life, when the colonizers came. Then the start of the gap between them and the converted lowlanders.4 They’re perceived as primitive. Their encounters were merely about the “food-for-work” scheme. As if being Mangyan is the inferior race.3

Iraya Mangyan, Sitio Ambang, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro
Iraya Mangyan toddlers watch elementary students of Ambang Mangyan School in Sitio Ambang, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro

Their narrative

The Irayas’ bloodline is of the first known humans of Mindoro. The mountains are their homes. They possess indigenous knowledge and culture. They thrive in swidden farming and nito-weaving. Existing peacefully in the shadows. 

But their nomadic lifestyle is both by choice and by force.

Iraya Mangyan, Sitio Ambang, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro
Kids play a hopscotch like game outside a shack in Sitio Ambang, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro

As an indigenous cultural community, the Irayas can freely practice their tribal culture and tradition. It’s mandated by the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997. Such practices strongly influence their beliefs and actions up to this day.

Like when a family member gets sick or passes away, they’d burn their shack or leave it vacant to get rid of the bad omen. Then they’d move to another place and make another house.5 The mountains are their ancestral domain anyway, but is it really the case? 

Sitio Lapantay, Puerto Galera
The road to Sitio Lapantay, Brgy. Villaflor, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro

Despite having ancestral claims, the Mangyans fall for exploitative deals that would leave them empty-handed. Deals brought upon by lowlanders for land expansion and private companies for farming and mining activities. At times, even government projects, a proposed sanitary landfill in Sito Lapantay, Brgy Villaflor, Puerto Galera,10 and island-wide displacements due to low-intensity conflict (LIC) brought by military operations against alleged leftist groups.8

To avoid the altercations, they revert to living in the shadows of the dark forest.

Iraya Mangyan, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro
An Iraya Mangyan boy uses his new colored pencil by the entrance of a classroom Ambang Mangyan School in Sitio Ambang, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro

Their future

The Irayas may not totally conform to the western lifestyle of the lowlanders, even in this day and age. But they do dream of better lives. Mainly to fill their empty stomachs and for their children to be, at least literate.9

Iraya Mangyan, Sitio Ambang, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro
An Iraya Mangyan girl at the courtyard of Ambang Mangyan School in Sitio Ambang, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro

Formal education was initially imposed on the Iraya Mangyans in the late 1940s, after the Japanese occupation. Yet, most indigenous peoples don’t get past elementary. As they hike up and down the mountains just to reach school, they experience discrimination, plus their irregular source of income put them in a bind. The government, religious missionaries, and non-government organizations then help out.3 Over the years, primary and elementary schools are constructed in their respective communities with a culturally-relevant curriculum.7 The second generation of Irayas now sees the need for their children to go through formal education. For them to have an option to find work with regular wages.3

Iraya Mangyan, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro
An Iraya Mangyan family having dinner with their solar light in Sitio Itaas, Puerto Galera, Oriental, Mindoro

Upon hiking to Sitio Sipit Saburan for the first time on February 5, 2019, the Mangyans’ riveting reality dawned right in front of me. As I entered the first of the many huts, and engaged in one of the countless conversations, I broke down to tears. At that point, I wasn’t sure if I could go on. I took a moment, then I think, someone asked, “ça va, Gene?,” I turned around with a puzzled face not sure what I heard, then was asked, “ok?,” I nodded and onto the next hut, and the next sitios, Lapantay, Ambang, and Itaas. As a volunteer, one can only do such to pass the torch on, figuratively and literally in this case.

On the morning of February 3, 2019, I got a call from Liter of Light, saying we’d leave for Puerto Galera and to meet at the airport Terminal 1 at 1 pm. I grabbed whatever I could and hurried to the airport. The next thing, I’m in one of the three vans bringing French-speaking group to Batangas Port. Then an epic sunset sail to Puerto Galera. T’was the start of my week with the Lightforce plus Liter of Light team and the Iraya Mangyans.

Liter of Light is a  Philippine-based global grassroots organization committed to providing solar power to people with no access to electricity across the globe. Lightforce, a French NGO formed by Salesforce it’s partners and donors. And on February 3-9, 2019, was the first round of ending energy poverty with one bottle of light at a time in Puerto Galera. It’s a task for 20 Lightforce volunteers from France and the USA to fulfill in a week. As for myself, I was just there for the ride, an accidental interpreter, and a documenter.

“Everyone is capable of these things. And though no one thinks of themselves as a warrior of light, we all are.” – Paulo Coelho

The Manual of the Warrior of Light

In December 2019, the island of Mindoro was badly hit by typhoons but no updates about the Iraya Mangyans. I knew I needed to go back to check on them and be their advocate. I got word that the first half of them warriors of light are going back too, here goes round two! 

On the first week of March 2020, I saw old faces, new faces, old routes, new places, but the same task, to pass the torch on. There were old challenges, new challenges, and delays, yet, one thing is certain each light is for the betterment of the Irayas. Then, we’re joined by the founder of Liter of Light himself, Illac Diaz. He walked and hiked with us and shared his vision for the communities. He was the light that he is, Illac in Aztec means the “god of light.”

Liter of Light, My Shelter Foundation
Left to right: Chole, Lightforce volunteer; Illac Diaz, founder of Liter of Light; Gene Rose (me) and Liter of Light Team. Photo by Ariel Laforteza, Liter of Light.

“A warrior knows that his best teachers are the people with whom he shares the battlefield.”  – Paulo Coelho,

The Manual of the Warrior of Light

A week could be both extensive and restricted. Outstretched hikes to the communities mean limited stay and conversations. But making the most out of it is the goal. Grateful to have been introduced to the Iraya Mangyan communities. Even more grateful to have met the warriors of light.

References:

  1. Reid, Lawrence, RE-EVALUATING THE POSITION OF IRAYA AMONG PHILIPPINE LANGUAGES 2017- Issues in Austronesian Historical Linguistics – http://ow.ly/Zizt50yVeiY
  2. Estel, Leo Arthur, Racial Types on Mindoro 1952 – http://www.mangyan.org/catalogue/376
  3. Bawagan, Aleli, Towards a Culturally-Relevant Pedagogy: Importance of Culturally-Sensitive Teaching Materials and Methodology 2010 – http://ow.ly/tsAH50yVeny
  4. Bawagan, Aleli, CUSTOMARY JUSTICE SYSTEM AMONG THE IRAYA MANGYANS OF MINDORO 2009 – http://ow.ly/9Hj750yVepj
  5. Ramschie, Cornelis, The Life and Religious Beliefs of the Iraya Katutubo: Implications for Christian Mission 2008 – http://ow.ly/yfe550yVetf
  6. Cadiz, Arlon, The Ethnoastronomical Beliefs of Mangyan Indigenous People: Case of Iraya Tribe in Occidental Mindoro 2019 – http://ow.ly/f0Jj50yVeT6
  7. Balansag, Snowie, Mortality Effect of Modernization to Ethnolinguistic of Iraya-Mangyan 2020 – http://ijrp.org/paper-detail/960
  8. Baes, Jonas, MANGYAN INTERNAL REFUGEES FROM MINDORO ISLAND AND THE SPACES OF LOW-INTENSITY CONFLICT IN THE PHILIPPINES 2007 – http://ow.ly/Frlf50yVeXi
  9. https://www.bulatlat.com/2013/06/07/all-the-mangyans-want-is-for-their-children-to-learn/
  10. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/694184/puerto-galera-landfill-project-splits-tribe

Published by generosepomelo

Filipina travel agent turn travel writer / blogger / photographer.

2 thoughts on “A week with the Iraya, Mangyan of Puerto Galera and the Warriors of Light

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