First it was the “Carrot Man.” Edwina Bandong and her friends were on their way to Sagada when she noticed a young man carrying a large basket of carrots on his shoulders. She took photographs, uploaded them and caught the attention of many people asking who this “carrot man” was because he was so good-looking.
Jeyrick Sigmaton, 21, now has a one-year contract with GMA; and a designer, Avel Bacudio, has rolled out a line of
T-shirts with him as model, including one that reads Keep Calm and Eat Carrots. (Sigh.)
Now it’s “Badjao Girl,” 12-year-old Rita Gabiola, who caught photographer Topher Quinto Burgos’ eye while she was moving around the streets of Lucban, Quezon, begging. I’m going to focus on Badjao girl for this article.
The photograph was posted on social media with a caption: “Nakita lang namin siyang nanghihingi ng barya. Kapatid nating mga Badjao may angking ganda.” (We saw her begging for loose change. Our Badjao brothers/sisters have innate beauty.”)
The photograph went viral, and Rita has had photoshoots and got a scholarship.
I’m happy Jeyrick and Rita have benefited from their exposure, but I have mixed feelings, too, especially from an anthropological perspective.
Anthropology, as a formal science, emerged in the 19th century, with mainly wealthy European men finding an interest in “primitive” people. I put all that word in quotes because the word is now considered to be ethnocentric or biased.
The biases against the “native” were to grow in the 20th century in the Philippines with American colonialism. The Philippines was a favorite for American anthropologists who roamed the Cordilleras and Mindanao, turning out numerous books about the many “non-Christian pagan” (their term) groups. At its worst, the books depicted the indigenous groups as backward, warlike, violent. More benign but still having a marginalizing effect, the accounts emphasized differences, exoticizing the groups almost like they came from another planet.
In the 1970s, when I was still discovering anthropology, I got a calendar from Nayong Filipino. Each month of the calendar showed a member of a particular indigenous community, called “cultural minorities” at that time, and later, “tribal Filipinos,” both terms now considered politically incorrect.
The portraits were beautiful, capturing Burgos’ “angking ganda.” But the beauty of the portraits did not surprise me because I was already working in the Cordillera where I was surrounded by men and women, adults and children, who always caught my attention. Oh, but if only we had cell phones then with cameras!
There was a toothless Gaddang grandmother who spent most of her days peering from her window, her hair decked with beads. She rarely smiled, but when she did, the world lit up.
In a Kalinga village I once met a woman carrying two babies. I stopped, totally stunned at how she carried herself regally. I would pass by her house often and see her caring for the two infants, sometimes breast-feeding one, then the other.
One day I went up close and asked her if the infants were twins. She laughed, spat out some betel nut she was chewing, and explained that one of the babies was her daughter… and the other, a grandson!
Thinking back now about those days, I realized I was meeting a lot of “beautiful people” in the Cordillera, very different from the “beautiful people” of Manila, a term reserved for the rich and the famous. The “beautiful people” of the mountains had no pretensions when it came to language, clothing, bearing. I will admit that initially, there was exoticism in the way people caught my attention in the Cordillera, but with time, that wore off and I found myself appreciating the beauty that came with strength and dignity.
Living with the “beautiful people” of Cordillera changed my definitions of “beauty,” which I no longer just saw, but felt—and there were times when their beauty evoked feelings of sadness. I would see women making their way on narrow trails with several clay pots of water on their head. Again, regal was the term that came to my mind. And then I would think of how heavy the water must have been and how terrible the effects must be on the spine. One day I saw the Gaddang lola out of her house, and she was all hunched as she moved around, reminding me of the sad fate of so many of the women carrying those heavy pots.
Jeyrick and Rita must get us thinking beyond their looks. Yes, their looks captivate but we have to think, too, of how they live. Rita kept crying as she was interviewed by “Rated K” and one could dismiss that as part of performance; but I felt the tears were spontaneous, especially as she talked about wanting to finish school, become a teacher so her family would not have to beg.
“Rated K” also featured scenes of Rita with her family. Her mother was striking, too. And really, if you look around, many of the Badjaos in our city streets have a certain countenance: They don’t look at you, but into you. There have been times when their movements looked almost like they were choreographed, and I would think of Ligaya Amilbangsa, recently awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for her dedication to the elegant pangalay dance form in the Sulu Archipelago, among the Tausug, Jama Mapun and the Badjao.
What disturbs me in the comments people sometimes make about Jeyrick and Rita is their implicit message: How can “natives” be so good-looking? Much attention is now focused on the makeover attempts to transform them, with makeup and clothing, to fit into the crass Hollywoodish images of beauty. I consider that another form of exoticism, much like a photograph taken by one of the American colonial administrators of a young Igorot man in G-string, and the same man a few years later now in “proper” formal
How I wish the media would talk, too, about the issues around Badjao begging, of how a fiercely proud people now lives on begging, all across the country.
How I wish the media would talk about life in the vegetable farms in the Cordillera. I recently sat in a panel of an anthropology student defending her dissertation research on the bleak and desperate lives of young people in Benguet.
How I wish the media would talk more about the lumad, the indigenous peoples of Mindanao, with their homes and schools burned down, driven into evacuation centers.
If I might return to that Nayong Pilipino calendar: In my early years teaching anthropology, I would show it to my students and ask what came to their mind. One time a student blurted, “They look like Filipinos!”
Yes, they are Filipinos. And yes, they have much to teach us about what beauty is.
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