In painting, pentimento means “the presence or emergence of earlier images, forms, or strokes that have been changed and painted over” — Wikipedia.
Pentimento. Replied former Culion Vice Mayor Ermin Palao when I asked him to describe Culion, in one word.
Last week, I had the chance to explore the Calamianes Islands, except for Linapacan. Among these beautiful islands famed for their spectacular beaches, “I left my heart in Culion,” to borrow partly the title of a teleserye shown on national television recently.
Culion has an interesting story to tell. But nothing could be more interesting than the unheard stories of its people’s resilience, survival, and success.
It was May 27, 1906, when the first batch, consisting of 370 leprous patients, was brought to the island. I read their names listed on the memory wall of the Culion Museum and Archives, one by one. But Sir John, the museum administrator, told me that some of the patients might have changed their names to cut ties with their families. They had to be incognito, so to speak. I learned that some evil politicians a long time ago used it as a tactic to report that their opponents had contracted the disease so that they would be brought to the leper camp. A sort of revenge, or something.
From hundreds of patients in the leprosarium, the number grew to thousands in years, making it the largest leper camp in the world.
The leprosarium also housed patients from Guam, Saipan, and other islands. So I asked Sir John, “Why Culion? Of all the islands in the Philippines or the world, why did they choose Culion to be the dumping ground for lepers?” He answered that the American government then wanted an island that was isolated and had a good source of water supply, and Culion met that, among other criteria.
In the 1980s, the cure for “ketong” also known as Hansen Disease, named after Dr. Gerhard Hansen, who discovered the microorganism that caused the disease, had been found at last! And in 2006, a century later, the World Health Organization declared Culion leprosy-free.
The discovery of the cure for the disease is indeed a breakthrough for medicine and research, but it hasn’t changed much, or if anything, the stigma associated with the disease.
“What was the most painful experience of being a leper descendant?” I asked Ptr. Hermie, a volunteer tour guide in the museum. “When I was in college, I didn’t disclose that I came from Culion. I would say that I came from Coron or other places, but not Culion. If my classmates would know that I’m from Culion, they would check if I have complete ears or fingers. And of course, they would laugh.”
Ptr. Hermie is a third-generation leper descendant. His grandmothers, both from paternal and maternal sides, were leprosy survivors. His parents though were not infected by the disease because they had already been born before their mothers caught leprosy. But just the same, his family was always a “suspected” carrier of the disease.
“When I was a kid, I’d undergone regular medical check-ups. Every inch of my body was being examined, checking if I had discolored skin or lesions on some parts of my body. But growing up, I didn’t realize that I was different from other people. I was living normally in an abnormal condition,” he said.
Today, unfortunately, some people still look at the island from the lenses of its scarred past.
Yesterday, I met a Manila-based friend. I was telling her about my adventures in Culion. Jokingly, she asked, “Wala ka namang ketong?” That was harsh! But that was nothing compared to the stigma that the survivors have to brave every day. I can just imagine the kind of life the survivors, especially those with physical deformities, have to endure every single day, maybe until their deaths. For me, “Culion is a beautiful and peaceful island. I didn’t know that other people have a different view of it,” Ptr. Hermie remarked.
Indeed, Culion has countless interesting stories to tell. Its health museum and archives are mute witnesses to the extraordinary lives of people who battled leprosy years ago. The Culion Museum and Archives have even entered the UNESCO’s Memory of the World (MOW) Asia Pacific Register on May 30, 2018, recognizing its extreme collection of rare volumes of journals, textbooks, and other materials on leprosy. The inscription on its wall said that the award also honors the important role of the colony as one of the first successful models of leprosy treatment in Asia.
On a scientific note, much has been written about Culion. But a few perhaps have been said about the fascinating stories of its people — about the pain of segregation, separation, death, and love.
UNESCO’s declaration and Ptr. Hermie’s testimony urged us to see Culion from a different view. That it had already won its battle against the disease decades ago. It had shown its defiance to the disease that the world once feared and dreaded.
“We don’t deny our dark past. We didn’t have a choice. But we are blessed because we were admired because of our strength and resiliency,” Ptr. Hermie added.
Culion is now a thriving municipality, gearing up to be the next eco-historical tourist destination in Palawan, Hon. Municipal Mayor Ma. Virginia de Vera stated.
Let’s help repaint Culion with the many beautiful hues. Take that historical walk once in your life, and see it for yourself that, “Culion is a beautiful story of the past… present, and, of the future,” a fitting tagline for the island once baptized as “The Island of the Living Dead” and ” The Island of No Return.”
Ptr. Hermie invited me to meet and listen to the narratives of the survivors. He said that leprosy victims need people who will listen to their stories, and who will let them feel that theirs are as beautiful and as interesting as others. They need it as part of their “healing,” he said. But because of time and weather constraints, I wasn’t able to make it. I have unfinished business in Culion; you might want to finish it.
I would like to thank Tanggol Kalikasan-Western Philippines University-Institute of Environmental Governance for this trip. Likewise to Culion Municipal Tourism Officer, Mr. Jubele Cabatingan, the Culion Museum and Archives staff, especially, to Ptr. Hermie Villanueva, and to former municipal vice mayor Ermin Palao, for accommodating us to their beautiful island.