Negros is an island of injustice. It’s one place, but it tells the story of a nation. Nelson Turgo examines how a collection of short stories can make this narrative a physical reality.
Among contemporary Filipino writers, Rosario Cruz Lucero has the most acute sense of place, which manifests in her use of biography, geography and ethnography. The power to spatialize the phantasmagoric realities of the Philippines in all its disturbing glory is most evident in her new book La India or Island of the Disappeared.
Published by the University of the Philippines (U.P.) Press, the collection of short stories revisits her native Negros—a Negros peopled by a disparate array of characters, spanning 400 years of the island’s history. Her characters occupy a nebula of larger-than-life historicized stories replete with oppression, tactical collaboration, recalcitrant resistance, opportunism, and enduring hope.
In reading Lucero, one must examine how social spatialization—the imagining and the production of physical space—matters in the creation of everyday life and the national imaginary.
In the story “Povedano the Mapmaker,” she writes of the 16th century Spanish mapmaker who first drew the island: “Diego Lope Povedano, the mapmaker, was shedding copious tears, which were making the outlines of Negros island run into the sea and join with the Batanes islands at the topmost tip of the archipelago (p. 2).” This spatial inauguration—the cartographic imagining of her island—foreshadows the social and geographical mapping of Negros in the series of events depicted in the collection.
In the story “The Courtship of Estrella”, Gregorio, one of the would-be suitors of Estrella, the only hacienda-owning native in Negros in the story, experienced a reversal of colonial hierarchies as a kind of geographic disorientation. Estrella was on the balcony looking down on Gregorio and his Spanish comrades, while they were in the dirty courtyard, exposed to the elements. Lucero describes the scene from Gregorio’s purview:
It was a moment of sudden clarity for him. The reversal of order in this hacienda – the Spaniards squatting on the ground while the indios towered over them, and the switching of master’s and servant’s doors – all of a sudden it seemed to cure him of his chronic sense of disorientation. Here it didn’t matter what was up or down, front or back, left, right or center […] (p. 66).
In her stories, Lucero probes into her own reservoir of personal experiences. Her appreciation of the island’s history and landscape and her acute ear for the humorous and scandalous among the Negros elite and common tawos allow us to grasp what is left unsaid and will never be said about the island’s history. Her fiction constitutes a radical re-imagining of Philippine history where myths of a bygone era and the cyclical massacres of the oppressed continue to haunt the landscape of her province. More importantly, her Negros serves as an analogue for the nation as a whole. The division of the Philippines into territorial fiefdoms of Spanish conquistadores and religious orders mirrors how Negros was subdivided into encomiendas by visiting Spanish marauders. She narrates:
Don Miguel the conquistador took a glance at Povedanos’ map and decided there was ample land to be distributed among not just 10, nor even 11, but 17 encomenderos in fact…. (p. 2).
The partitioning of the island into many geographical domains by different people, all belonging to the conquistador elite, resonates with stories of land disputes across the archipelago. Those who manage the political and economic affairs of the country own the land. It happened in the Negros of the Povedano years and continues to happen in a Philippines with many Ampatuans.
Lucero emphasizes people and their subjugated histories—the stories and the bodies that disappear in an island like Negros. But in evoking the island’s tumultuous history, it is not just the travails of its people and the pluralities of narratives that are highlighted but the island itself. The bodies of the disappeared are inscribed on the contours of the island, written on its body.
Lucero’s fiction forces us to re-imagine and historicize Negros’s towns and cities, its mountains and streets, and the fields where sugarcanes grow, nourished by the sweat and blood of farm workers. In this passage, she examines the relationship between historical narratives and the evolution of the city:
In 1992, when most of the forests on the island have disappeared, the boulder is removed to make way for the diversionary road and bridge that will decongest downtown traffic. The board of local officials, agreeing on the importance of local history, resolves that the road will be named Calle Hormigas, after the first graffito ever found on the island. All other side streets to branch out of this main road will be named after insects.
There is some discussion over the inclusion of reprehensible insects like mosquitoes, bees, wasps, and cockroaches.
“But all insects are reprehensible, including ants,” one remarks.
“Butterflies are pleasant enough,” another retorts.
“What about scorpions?” someone asks earnestly.
Finally the board resolves to table the matter because there are other items on the agenda and time is short.
When the diversionary road is completed and the ribbon cut, it is named Dna. Dicang Ave., after the mayor’s great grandmother, who has come down in history as the ruling hand of the island’s richest, hence, most powerful, clan. All other side streets hence would be named after each member of her clan, including her great grandson, the governor.
By Dante Carlos
Lucero grew up in the grandeur (and poverty) of a Negros long gone—a Negros of school classmates vacationing in Spain while she made the most of the summer at home with her accountant father who worked on the spread sheets of hacienda owners (her father was the accountant of some of Negros’s leading land-owning families). As fiction is and will always be also about the writer, Lucero writes about the lives of the people she knew well or, maybe, heard about from her numerous travels in the island. When other stories are now available for hearing, fighting back against the dominant discursive narration of those in power has a chance of winning.
Unlike any other writer or Philippine academic, Lucero does not just poke into the dusty archives of remoteconventos or pry into the lumang bauls of land-owning families. She travels and visits the most unlikely places in Negros to hear new stories and learn new chismis from the people she meets while eating in a roadside cafeteria or visiting a far-flung mountain colony of an indigenous community.
Lucero does ethnography. She spends days and weeks observing people’s lives. She talks to them and asks questions. It is no wonder that her stories capture the cinematic grandeur of a town plaza (and its grotesque colonial use), or the fantastic allure of women saints in a church famous for the absence of macho saints. In every church, she seeks out the most incongruous details and spins tales so marvelous and yet so convincing that you would have thought she was there when colonial friars first ordered the churches built. With a wealth of experience and knowledge that mere archival research cannot provide, Lucero documents the rich texture of life in Negros. We see its streets, its mountains, and the grand reception rooms of its colonial-era mansions. She makes us understand how Negros was made.
Negros is Lucero’s metonym for the Philippines. Its history is our history. She might just be talking about Negros but she writes most lucidly, disturbingly, charmingly, and lovingly of our past, of those who never made it to the pages of Philippine history books. There are stories to be told and we should all have the courage to uncover them. As Lucero explains, “this was the kind of thing that was happening all the time at that period in this nation’s history but is not the important stuff of which history books are made.