My late father’s brother, had some vivid memories of my Lolo (grandfather), Paulino Barcos, Sr. He once mentioned that Paulino and Mondo, his older brother, had a strife. Paulino left and traveled south where he tried to raise a family; Mondo and Leyte were almost forgotten as my father and uncle grew up on another island.
Mondo was a tambalan or spirit medium who held apungs (gathering), a ritual of bestowing charms to favored individuals. Most tambalans inherited their status from an older tambalan they were apprenticed to. Bloodlines were particularly important in choosing an apprentice to continue the craft. Shamans in pre-colonial Filipino communities were considered very special persons, highly-respected in their communities and kingdoms who were considered spiritual leaders, psychopomps, healers, seers.
Sooner or later, as an adult, my father learned of the then-living mystical kin. Curious, he visited Leyte and hoped to receive one birtud or charm (virtud in Spanish meaning power). He also wanted to persuade his uncle to share with him the property that Paulino had left, of which he felt he had the patrimonial hereditary right.
Upon my father’s arrival, he was surprised when he was summoned although not sending a telegram to inform anyone of his visit days before the dreaded Byernes Santo night of the Semana Santa. (According to legend, Byernes Santo is when God allows the spirits to roam freely and can be lured, captured, harnessed and enslaved by the brave and mighty.) My father felt ghoulish once face-to-face with Mondo. His uncle was apathetic and never inquired about his younger brother’s death.
The awaited Friday night proceeded with a huge bonfire. A native pig was slaughtered with entrails blood and bone offered to please the deities. Relatives from surrounding areas began to show up hoping for a birtud. The tambalan read orasyon from his small book of chants while being served rice liquor which intoxicated him heavily. Hysteria and exorcism followed as he was tied tightly around a huge coconut tree fronting the blaze. Different voices battled for possession of his body until he fell ‘dead’ calm.
Mondo, by that point loosened from the ropes, would grab something from the air and embed it unto the body of the kin requesting it. Each person was granted only one birtud. No more no less.
My Tatay had this crazy idea of asking for the birtud ni San David which is believed to lure any woman one fancies. He stood in line but Mondo’s (or the demons’) response was to consult a higher ‘spirit’ first. ‘Ridiculous!’, my father snorted. ‘Pending for Approval’. Later that night he received the answer… Access Denied!
The next day as soon as Mondo sobered up, my father asked him for the share of land. His response was a simple No. The awkward reunion ended cold.
Disappointed, my Tatay resolved to forget the whole Leyte affair, never to hear from his uncle again. The dispute over their inheritance may have catalyzed my Lolo’s decision to desert Leyte and severe ties with Mondo forever.
Or was it? My grandfather crossed the Surigao Strait. A body of water in Pinoy superstition is a cleansing power that reaches beyond the physical body. It cleanses our spirit. I wondered if my Lolo crossed those deep waters as a symbol of deliberately crossing off the whole divination business. In a way, he turned his back on his roots, family, and heritage. He migrated – away from the chains of spiritism and broken free from the enslaving tradition of serving entities. Changing his name from Barcos to Balcos would conceal his affinity to occultism as he integrated into a ‘new’ society. He would assume a new identity and start afresh in a new land.
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