My late Tiyo (my father’s brother), had some vivid memories of his father, Paulino Barcos, Sr. who was my Lolo (grandfather). He once mentioned that Paulino and his older brother named Edmondo or Mondo had a disagreement and Paulino decided that the family home in Leyte was too small for the two of them. He left and traveled down south to Surigao where he tried to raise a family; Mondo and Leyte were almost forgotten as my father, uncle, and my aunts grew up on another island, another region, another culture.
Mondo was a tambalan or spirit medium who held apungs (gathering) – a ritual of bestowing charms to relatives or favored individuals. Most tambalans inherited their status from an older tambalan they were apprenticed to. Blood lines were particularly important in choosing an apprentice to continue the craft. Shamans in pre-colonial Filipino communities were considered very special persons; they were highly-respected in their communities and kingdoms who were considered spiritual leaders and psychopomps, healers, seers, and what not. Only known to my late grandfather or their relations in the vicinity, Mondo’s level of shamanism remained an enchanting mystery to those outside of the family.
Sooner or later, as an adult, my Tatay (father) learned of the then-living mystical kin. Curious about his roots, he visited Lilo-an, Leyte and hoped to receive one birtud or charm (originally virtud in Spanish meaning power or ability) from the shaman. Perhaps, he also wanted to persuade his uncle Mondo to share with him some of the property that Paulino had left, and which he felt he had a hereditary right to as part of his patrimony.
Upon my father’s arrival at the port, he was surprised when he was summoned although he never sent a telegram to inform anyone of his visit days before the dreaded Byernes Santo night of the Semana Santa. (According to Pinoy lore, Byernes Santo is when God abandons His creation and allows the spirits to roam freely and can be lured, captured, harnessed and enslaved by the brave and mighty.) My father had the most eerie feeling once face-to-face with Mondo. His uncle was apathetic toward his nephew and never inquired about his younger brother’s death. Even his abode was plain with insignificant interiors. Ironic for a man who bestowed ‘powers’ to others.
The awaited Friday night proceeded with a huge bonfire. A huge baboy ihalas (wild pig) was slaughtered with entrails blood and bone offered to please the deities (or demons). Relatives from surrounding areas began to show up with a few of them hoping to be awarded a birtud. The tambalan read orasyon from his libreta or the small book of chants while being served rice liquor which intoxicated him heavily. He demanded to be tied tightly around a huge coconut tree fronting the blaze before he started going into a trance. Hysteria and exorcism followed. 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, grant the birtud 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 niSan 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 again for the share of land supposedly allocated to my grandpa. His response was a simple No. No other words were uttered. The awkward reunion ended cold. Disappointed, my Tatay resolved to forget the whole Leyte affair and hurriedly left never to hear from his uncle again. He suspected that the dispute over their inheritance catalyzed my Lolo’s decision to desert Leyte and severe ties with Mondo forever.
Or was it? My grandfather crossed the Surigao Strait from Lilo-an. A body of water or water in Pinoy superstition is a form which moves in the path of least resistance. Human beings have found in water solvency a cleansing power that reaches beyond the physical body. It cleanses our body and 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, his only family, his land, his heritage. 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, being the ‘free’ man he endeavored to be.