Folklore studies used to be very strong in the Philippines, dating back to the 19th century when it was part of a nationalist agenda. Jose Rizal and Isabelo de los Reyes are probably the best known from that era, for their compilations of folklore which were used in the attempt to foster a sense of national identity.
When the Americans occupied the Philippines, Dean Fansler and others collected folk stories, proverbs and riddles, usually through students from different parts of the country. This type of research continued after the Philippines regained independence in 1946, and we remain indebted to E. Arsenio Manuel, Juan Francisco and Damiana Eugenio for their collections. Jesuit Francisco Demetrio not only collected the stories but also proposed psychological and sociological explanations for many of them.
Sadly, interest in folklore has declined through the years. Folklore is seen as provincial and rural, but many people forget that it remains alive in many forms, including urban myths (for example, the snake in a certain mall’s dressing room or the “white lady” of Balete Drive and a similar one near the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio).
I have been trying to encourage my students in anthropology, history and Philippine studies to return to folklore studies, in part because this is an important part of our heritage. At the same time, I feel that by looking at the stories that continue to circulate, we get insights into society and social change.
A good example of what can be done concerning folklore studies came up unexpectedly when I heard two versions of the same folk legend, set in contemporary times, in two of my classes. The first time was in a research methods class where one graduate student, historian Juvanni Caballero of Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, narrated a story that went around in Cagayan de Oro after the onslaught of Tropical Storm “Sendong” in 2011, which killed some 900 people.
The story was that after Sendong, there were sightings of a boat floating down rivers and picking up passengers. At the helm of the boat was a woman, identified as Maria Cacao, and the warning that went around was to turn down invitations to board the boat because she was in fact collecting souls for the next world.
After Juvanni told his story, one of his classmates, fine arts professor Jose Santos Ardivilla, chimed in, saying that the Maria Cacao legend probably originated in Cebu, his home province. It turns out Maria Cacao is one of three mountain goddesses in the Philippines, the other two being Maria Makiling in Laguna and Maria Sinukuan, who is associated with Mt. Arayat. Maria Cacao is associated with Mt. Lantoy in Argao, Cebu.
About two weeks after that research methods class, I happened to discuss, in another class, how disasters can lead to all kinds of preternatural or surreal sightings. One student then talked about how, after Typhoon “Yolanda” hit Samar and Leyte, there were also stories of a boat that went around with a woman at the helm, inviting people to come on board. As in the Cagayan de Oro story, if you did go on board you in effect made the transition to the next life.
I asked if the woman in the boat had a name, and the student said no. Thus, despite the similarities in the two stories, we see how a legend evolves. In fact, as I began to ask around, including checking back with the research methods class, it seems the original Maria Cacao was not quite a soul harvester.
The prototype Maria Cacao is described as someone with Spanish mestizo (mixed-blood) features who, together with her husband Mangao, owned a cacao plantation. Whenever heavy rains occurred, accompanied by flooding and the collapse of a bridge, the story was that Maria Cacao and her husband made their way down the river with their cacao.
The legend, it seems, has evolved into accounts that if you borrowed money from Maria Cacao and didn’t pay back, that would lead to dire consequences, as seen in the stories from people who say they have seen the boat with Maria Cacao.
It seems that the spate of supertyphoons has provided a new context for Maria Cacao’s ire, with a new function of inviting people on a one-way trip to the next world.
Disasters and other stressful events tend to lead to various forms of mass “nervousness,” even hysteria. Remember that after Typhoon Yolanda there were all kinds of reports of gangs going around looting and raping. Doubtless there was looting, but the stories of rape appear to have been greatly exaggerated, really another form of a Maria Cacao sighting mixed with despair and, to some extent, finding a scapegoat, with the looters and rapists described as being outsiders.
The modernized versions of Maria Cacao do tell us something about class and race. Maria Cacao spells danger and destruction, which is linked with her being a mestizo hacendera. There are parallels here with the stories of the engkanto, human-like creatures who inhabit a world parallel to our own—it can be a vacant lot filled with cogon or talahib, for example. Within that world there is the engkanto (literally, an enchanter), described as having Caucasian features. From time to time, their males come out to our world and court our women, who then become lethargic, waiting all day for their invisible suitors. A local healer is needed to break the spell cast by the engkanto. The morale of the story is simple: Do not long for what is beyond your station. Be content with local suitors though they be not quite as dazzling as the mestizo.
What about Maria Cacao being a woman? That needs more analysis. Her two “sisters” on Makiling and Arayat are not, as far as I know, associated with death and destruction.
In the past, aswang sightings would increase in cities whenever elections approached. I’ve only heard of one such report so far for 2016. Maybe it’s because of El Niño’s heat, which drives away even the aswang. Come to think of it, I’ve been getting more stories about people collapsing from the heat, or even having strokes (not heat stroke, but strokes). I doubt if Maria Cacao will suddenly appear, given that she is associated with rains and typhoons.
Who knows, though? My students and I would appreciate your stories about Maria Cacao.
* * *
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.