We tend to associate aging with degenerative diseases, especially the loss of memory and dementia.
It took a political scientist, Dr. Claire Carlos, to remind me that culturally, we did (emphasis on the past tense) have a more positive view of aging. She had dropped by my office to give me a book she wrote, “Population Ageing in the Philippines,” and was particularly excited to have me read her dedication: “Isang munting ambag sa pagpapalawak ng kaalaman tungkol sa mga nakatatanda…”
Translation: A small contribution toward expanding our knowledge of the “nakatatanda.” She had deliberately chosen that word, which she translated as “those who remember.”
A fellow anthropologist, Dr. Nestor Castro, was with us in the room and her book dedication got us into a lively “oo nga” (in English, an “aha moment”) discussion about tanda, nakatatanda and matanda.
Claire is probably right in suggesting that matanda originally meant those who remember. Contrast that term with “gurang” and “gulang” in Visayan languages, which do translate into “old.” Gulang is also the root of the Tagalog magulang, which means “parents.”
Note, too, how gulang can be used in Tagalog to refer to aging leaves. You would never refer to those leaves as matanda.
Clearly, matanda is a developmental label. In very broad strokes, we divide people into bata (young) and matanda (old). The bata are referred to as not having malay or muwang. Malay is easy to translate into consciousness, while muwang is more difficult to translate but comes close to discernment, or being able to have enough sense to make rational decisions.
As they grow older, the bata are recognized as developing malay and muwang, from “wala” (none) to “kulang pa” (still deficient).
Even teenagers don’t get to be called matanda yet. Instead, there is a shift toward describing their marital status as “dalaga” (unmarried females, the younger ones sometimes referred to as dalagita) and binata (unmarried boys), labels which they will retain even into midlife and old age with the addition of matanda. We tend to translate “matandang dalaga” as old maid, but this is probably the influence of English. Note that we don’t call “matandang binata” old bachelors. “Old maid” emphasizes spinsterhood rather than the age.
Matanda refers then to adulthood, which is in turn equated with being able to remember… and more.
Think back in time to see what memory was all about. Memory was about survival. Think food. To survive you had to know what could be eaten, where to find it, how to gather it, how to build traps and fishing nets and farming tools, when and where to hunt, to harvest, how to cook, how to preserve.
Memory was practical. It was about lifeways: food, shelter, clothing, healing and curing. It certainly wasn’t about birthdays and anniversaries; no, there were far more important things to remember to bring people together, and for a shared identity. Memory was about culture, and culture was an important part of survival. So important were these memories that among some of our ethnic groups, girls were picked out at an early age to learn their group’s songs, dances, folk tales. The ritual was called “binukot,” and they were kept sequestered in their homes until the time they were ready to transmit what they had learned.
All of this happened at a time when many groups did not have written systems, so those who could remember must have been given high status. Our anthropologists and ethnomusicologists continue to marvel when they try to record epics, with women and men taking days to chant these, all from memory.
Keepers of knowledge
All said, the matanda, those who remember, were respected, not as keepers of bits and pieces of memories, but as keepers of knowledge. Chronological age probably did matter, with the assumption that the older one got, the more experiences one had in contributing to knowledge that could be shared. No doubt, there was esoteric knowledge, too, around spiritual matters, to be kept secret within a group, but it was still passed on to a select group.
Life expectancy was shorter, of course, so matanda did not refer to those we call today “senior citizens.” The life cycle was much more compacted. People became parents shortly after puberty (which was a bit later than what we have today), so it was common to become a grandparent by the age of 40.
We return to this important root word tanda. To be actually called “Tanda” was a sign of status. Perhaps the most well known was Tandang Sora—Melchora Aquino, who was truly old, chronologically, when she provided shelter and medicine to the revolutionary Katipunan.
To remember and remind
The word tanda is also still used today to mean a sign, a marker, a reminder. Extended to people, the matanda were there not to randomly evoke memories but to recall certain knowledge in order to counsel the bata, the less wise. Most certainly, the recalled memories would be embellished to emphasize certain social values, impart moral lessons.
We know that even today, injustices of the past are constantly evoked by the matanda, against another kinship group, another community, another ethnic group. In the same vein, social ties are built through memories of genealogies: who is related to whom, not necessarily by blood but through the instances where they extended assistance.
This way, outsiders could become insiders, with shared privileges, protection and security. The value of reciprocity, and of utang na loob, depended so much on memories, on the matanda.
Times change. We live much longer, societies are more complex. There’s so much more information, and misinformation, going around and we need to develop our malay and muwang, selecting what is important.
We are in the position to choose to forgive, to set aside senseless anger and feelings of enmity. But we also must decide what future generations must remember about injustices, against us, as a people. I remember, and band together with, other matanda, to urge the young to remember, not to seek vengeance, but to break old molds around morality, ensuring that past injustices are not repeated, and that we will enhance our survival as a nation.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.