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The Cuyunon People (Kuyunon Tribe) of the Philippines: History, Culture, Customs and Tradition [Philippine Indigenous People | Ethnic Group]

Cuyunon,” also “Cuyunin,” “Cuyuno,” and “Taga-Cuyo,” refers to the people and culture of the occupants of Busuanga Island, Agutaya, and Cuyo, an archipelago of some 35 islets in the middle of the Sulu Sea, east of Palawan and southwest of Panay. Comprising Busuanga Island are the towns of Busuanga in the west and Coron in the east, the latter being inclusive of an island of the same name and about 50 other islets. Cuyo Island includes Magsaysay and Cuyo towns. It is located 281.2 kilometers northeast of Puerto Princesa City. The term “cuyo” refers to a species of seashells.

In 1990, a population of 15,175 was spread over the 50-square kilometer Cuyo Island, which is defined by a rocky terrain with numerous hills. Three of these hills are the Aguado in Igabas, Kayamamis in Lucbuan, and Bonbon in Rizal. In 2010, the total population of Cuyo Island was 21,847; that of the whole Cuyo archipelago, 46,000. The Cuyunon language is accentuated by the peppet sound—the stress combined with the terminal glottal stop—and contains monosyllabic word forms like kut (touch something), sut (go into), but (suffocate), el (get), buk (hair), and bag (loincloth). There is neither a Cuyunon grammar nor dictionary, although a few prayer books have been written in the language.

History of the Cuyunon People

During the Pleistocene Age, Palawan was linked to Borneo by land bridges; this might explain why the flora and fauna of Palawan are similar to Borneo. Archaeological findings indicate that the late Neolithic and early Metal Age saw the influx of the early inhabitants of Palawan, mainly from Indo-China, South China, Malaya, and Thailand. The burial jars, ceramics, and the remains of the dead found in Palawan caves seem to indicate that these early settlers had well-developed belief systems and life ways. Remnants of a fishing community were excavated in 2010 in Sibaltan in the municipality of El Nido, with evidence indicating that a trading culture was already alive some 500-1000 CE, and a fishing culture already existed some 14,000 years ago.

A part-Spanish Visayan woman in Cuyo Island
A part-Spanish Visayan woman in Cuyo Island, circa 1920 (Dean C. Worcester, The Field Museum, Image No. CSA25282)

The Chinese were the early traders and settlers on the islands, which were known to have an abundance of cuyo (shells). The Chinese also visited Palawan Island, which they called “Pa-lao-yu.” Chinese chronicles already mentioned the islands as early as 1209 to 1214; sometime during this period, the customs collector of Chinchow, Amoy district, published a description of islands that matches Palawan, Busuanga, and the Calamianes. From the Chinese, local inhabitants learned how to trade and barter. A Malay from Madia-as also known as Panay named Matu-od arrived with his group on sakayan (big boats) at Tabunan, Suba. Matu-od and his contingent embraced the Hindu religion, which was the practice of the early Chinese settlers.

Old port of Cuyo
Old port of Cuyo (Jose M. Yapparcon)

The next wave of foreigners, described as “Mohammedan,” arrived at Tarebang, Pawa. They were led by Datu Magbanua, who eventually ruled the islands. Under Magbanua’s reign, three Chinese mandarins named Pa, Li, and An settled in Malapadlapad, in a barrio now known as Rizal. The Chinese mandarins taught the local inhabitants new methods of metalsmithing, pottery, and handicraft making. They introduced gold mining and later discovered gold deposits in Mount Aguado. The leadership of Datu Magbanua became powerful when he sent officers to become rulers in the neighboring islands: Macanas in Calamian, Cabailo in Agutaya, and Cabongon in Taytay. Magbanua’s domain rose to such prominence that even the chief of Irong-Irong (Iloilo) recognized him and paid him an official visit. In exchange, Datu Magbanua gave the chief of Irong-Irong a present of red rice, locally known as cotchiam.

By the 16th century, evidence that the Muslim traders from the surrounding areas had established close ties with the inhabitants of the islands was the Muslim villages standing on the shores of Palawan Island. As trade relations expanded, facets of Muslim cultural and political life were imbibed by the local inhabitants. Soon after, and due to their political superiority, the Muslims of Borneo and Mindanao exercised authority over the inhabitants of Palawan. Hence, the people of Cuyo gave tribute to the Muslims of Borneo, a custom that persisted until 1588. During this time, the Muslims were also collecting tribute from the Calamianes and were preparing to attack the island of Busuanga.

Palawan’s first contact with Spain was when the remnants of Magellan’s expedition arrived in 1521 at the main island, which they called Pulaoan. They also explored the islands of Busuanga and Cuyo. Spanish chroniclers noted that the inhabitants of Cuyo Island had Chinese blood, which explained their industriousness and shrewdness in trade. The islands were abundant in rice, pearls, fish, exotic fruits, forest products, and wildlife.

The earliest attempt to assert Spanish authority over the islands came in 1570 when Martin de Goiti arrived at Cuyo Island and collected tribute worth 200 taels of gold. In 1582, Cuyo, with a population of 800, was placed under the encomendero of Panay and under the political jurisdiction of Arevalo. However, the Calamianes and Paragua—the Spanish name for Palawan island—were placed under the jurisdiction of the alcalde mayor of Mindoro.

In 1588, Datu Sumaclob of Cuyo joined a rebellion against the Spaniards. Datu Magat Salamat of Tondo, accompanied by two datus, was tasked by those in Manila to go to Calamianes, from where he would solicit the help of the king of Borneo. From Calamianes, Magat crossed to Cuyo, where its chief, Sumaclob, committed 2,000 of his men to the uprising. However, the Spanish encomendero of these islands had gotten wind of the plot while Magat was still in Calamianes. In Cuyo, the Spaniards arrested Magat and his two companions as well as Datu Sumaclob. Magat was executed, the two others exiled, and nothing was heard of Datu Sumaclob.

In 1591, Cuyo and Calamianes became separate encomiendas. Spanish governance of the islands during this period was limited to the collection of tribute, a fact deplored by the Spanish friars, who pointed out that the people of Calamianes also paid tribute to the government in Borneo.

At the onset of the 17th century, the Spanish missionaries began to sow Catholicism in the islands. By 1622, a group of Recollects under the leadership of Father Juan de Santo Tomas were assigned to Cuyo. According to the reports of the Spanish priests, the Cuyunon accepted them warmly, except for the native priests and priestesses who considered the foreign priests as threats to their privileged positions.

Entrance to Cuyo Fort
Entrance to Cuyo Fort (National Historical Commission of the Philippines)

The friars immediately implemented the policy of reduccion, gathering the inhabitants in one settlement, whose nucleus was the church. After several months of assiduous evangelization, the Recollects baptized around a thousand natives. They then implemented the same policies in the island of Agutaya. In 1623, they tried to establish relations with the inhabitants of Paragua but found them resistant to Catholicism, as Muslim influence in the island was dominant. To offset this, the Spanish government sent two companies fortified with artillery to guard the newly founded town and newly built fort in Paragua. So successful were the Recollects that by 1850, there were already 2,000 Catholic families in Cuyo alone. By 1659, however, and due to lack of funds, the friars were forced to abandon the islands, with the exception of Cuyo and Agutaya. The vacuum left by the friars was immediately exploited by the Chinese pirate Cheng Cheng Kung, who demanded that the islands be placed under his rule. To counteract the Chinese presence, the local leaders of the islands requested the national colonial government to facilitate the return of Spanish missionaries, preferably the Recollects. By 1715, Spanish rule was established once more, as proved by the increase of “Christian souls” to 18,600. Aside from evangelization, the friars also undertook administrative work in the islands, particularly training the indios (native Christians) to become local leaders.

Altar of the San Agustin Church in Cuyo Fort
Altar of the San Agustin Church in Cuyo Fort (Betty Lalana and Lino Arboleda, Ortigas Foundation Library Collection)

Meanwhile, the growing Spanish influence over the islands was challenged by the Muslims who asserted their presence through continuous attacks on these territories which they perceived as their own. Because Palawan was located between Christianized Luzon and Islamized Mindanao, the Palawan island group became the battleground of the struggle between the cross and the crescent.

In 1602, a group of Muslim ships from Borneo raided Cuyo and its neighboring islands, capturing over 700 people. Within the same year, the Calamianes were also attacked. In 1603, the Maguindanaon took more people captive and collected tribute from the localities. In 1632, Father Juan de San Jose of Cuyo was captured and released only after two years, in exchange for a 2,000-peso ransom. Again, in the summer of 1636, a Muslim captain named Tagal under Sultan Kudarat looted the churches in Cuyo and Calamianes. In Cuyo, on 20 June 1636, Tagal’s forces captured the natives who were unable to flee, burned the town, and killed three friars. More Spanish priests were killed in subsequent attacks by different groups of Muslims. By 1646, the Muslim leaders of Jolo, Guimbahanon, and Borneo conspired to launch joint attacks against the vulnerable Spanish-dominated islands.

To protect themselves, the Recollect missionaries and the Christianized natives built fortifications and garrisons. In 1638, Father Juan de San Severo led the building of fortresses which protected the churches in Cuyo, Agutaya, and Culion. To stop the Muslim attacks, the Spaniards applied dilatory tactics and diplomatic double-dealing, negotiating with Borneo while revitalizing and building their own military capabilities. The diplomatic efforts resulted in the acquisition of the whole island of Paragua, which was given to Spain by Borneo in 1705.

As a matter of policy, more fortresses were built in the Christian-dominated towns of the islands, a timely decision indeed as the Muslims renewed their attacks during the 1720s. The Muslims attacked Cuyo in 1722, but were unable to overrun the fortress and defeat the combative natives. By the 1730s, the Muslims stepped up their harassment and attacks on the fortresses in Culion, Paragua, Calatan, Malampaya, Dumaran, Linapacan, Taytay, and other bastions of Spanish rule. At this time, Cuyo’s ability to protect itself became evident, as the Cuyunon foiled another Muslim attempt to invade the island by a fierce counterattack, which defeated the Muslims and gained arms for the natives.

During the 18th and the 19th centuries, Palawan was a microcosm of the fragmented society that was the whole archipelago. The natives of the province were divided: Some, like the Molbog and Jama Mapun, were under the jurisdiction of the Muslim sultanate of southern Philippines; many, like the Calamianon, Agutaynon, Cagayanon, and Cuyunon, became Christianized and fell under the Spanish government; while the rest, like the Batak, Tagbanwa, and Palawan, continued their precolonial existence, practicing their ancient native religion.

In the early years of the 19th century, the resurgence of pre-Hispanic native religion among the Cuyunon despite 200 years of Catholic indoctrination greatly bothered Cuyo’s parish priest, Father Pedro Gilbert de Santa Eulalia. The priest noted the still widespread worship of the souls of ancestors and the prevalence of rituals of the babaylan (priest or shaman) or babaylana (priestess). This was cause for worry since the Cuyunon were considered as among the most Christianized in the islands.

Another phenomenon that upset the Spanish authorities was the fact that 2/3 of the Cuyunon still celebrated the feast honoring the Diwata ng Kagubatan or Virgen del Monte (Enchantress of the Mountain), periodically held atop Mount Caimana in Cuyo. The situation led the Spanish authorities to intensify their evangelization and governance efforts. Spain’s attempt to achieve national control over the archipelago resulted in the organization of politico-military provinces in designated territories. During the 1840s, Cuyo became the capital of the politico-military government of the Calamianes, which also administered Agutaya, Culion, Busuanga, Linapacan, and Coron. Puerto Princesa became the capital of the politico-military government of Paragua in 1872. Soon the Muslims stopped their attacks. On 19 November 1886, the chieftains from Sulu and Jolo signed a treaty with Don Joaquin Ybañez of the Spanish armada, recognizing Spanish authority over the entire Paragua.

In the 19th century, the Spanish government used Culion as a leper colony and as a penal colony for both political and criminal offenders. As resistance against Spanish colonialism grew during the second half of the 19th century in Luzon and the Visayas, the territories of the present Palawan province became useful as a dumping ground for “subversives” or oppositionists caught by the government. During the late 1890s, 50 native soldiers of the Spanish guardia civil (constable) defied colonial authority and released some 235 deportees or political prisoners. However, the Spanish government suppressed the insurgency and eliminated its leaders.

When the Philippines was ceded to the United States by virtue of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the new colonizers set up a military government in Palawan. Luis Rodriguez was the last Spanish governor of Palawan whose office was in Cuyo until 1899. The Spanish province was subdivided into three districts by the end of Spanish rule, namely, Calamianes, Paragua, and Balabac. In May 1901, Lieutenant Day of the Department of Mindanao and Jolo sent an American ship to Cuyo. The Americans occupied and asserted their authority over Puerto Princesa on 29 May 1901. The first governor was Major John Brown, with Clemente Fernandez as the first town head under American rule.

When the Spanish authorities left after the defeat of Spanish colonial rule, the government of Emilio Aguinaldo designated Hermogenes Constantino as commissioner for Palawan. But Constantino and his men, supposedly revolutionaries from Luzon, abused their authority, exploited the people, and used their positions for personal benefit. Upon the order of Baldomero Aguinaldo, Rufo Sandoval replaced the corrupt Constantino as the head of Calamianes and Paragua. Sandoval was warmly received in the islands, except in Cuyo, which became the bastion of American colonialism. The foremost pro-Americans in Cuyo were its local head Clemente Fernandez along with propertied and prominent personalities like Ricardo Fernandez, Jose Manuel Fernandez, Jose Manuel Rey, Alfonso Clemente Encarnacion, and Abdon Diego. These men decided to welcome American control over Cuyo even before the Americans arrived.

To secure the revolutionary government, Sandoval assigned Fabian B. de Leon and Pedro Concepcion as representatives of the newly installed republic in Cuyo. Meanwhile, Sandoval had to track down the stubborn Americanistas of the island. To control the island, travel to Panay was likewise restricted. However, de Leon and Concepcion were eventually outmaneuvered by the local elite who scorned being ruled by the Tagalog leaders. The two were finally banished from Cuyo and failed to regain control of the Cuyunon.

During the period of the Philippine-American War, the Cuyunon acquired the reputation of being the “most pronounced Americanistas in the archipelago.” The United States established civilian rule in the province of Paragua on 23 June 1902, with Cuyo as its capital. The new colonial government under the leadership of a pro-American army reported that the Filipino revolutionaries were effectively neutralized. The Cuyunon gladly accepted the education offered by the new colonizers. According to official US reports, even the elderly Cuyunon scholars spoke and sang songs in English.

Captain John Elmick was appointed as Paragua’s governor in 1903. Then the Philippine Commission changed Paragua’s name to Palawan through Act No. 1363, which also ruled the transfer of the provincial capital from Cuyo to Puerto Princesa. The following year, a fire destroyed Cuyo town. Depressing economic conditions in Cuyo by the end of the 19th century necessitated immigrations to the other islands like Panay, to trade fish and harvest rice; Mindoro, to cut sugarcane; and Manila, to engage in commerce. Palawan drew swidden farmers in the 1910s and 1920s and larger scale homesteaders in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Cuyo islands played a significant role during World War II because the territory was not occupied by Japanese imperial forces. Governor Iñigo Peña, with the support of Iwahig’s Pedro Paje and Puerto Princesa’s Jose de los Reyes, stopped the Japanese invasion of Cuyo. Thus, the territory became the refuge of guerillas and Cuyunon who had out-migrated earlier to seek better opportunities. Being free from Japanese control, Cuyo was used as a transit point to Panay, where the higher command of the Palawan guerillas was stationed. Supplies like guns, ammunitions, and medicines passed through Cuyo from Panay. Thus, one of its islands became the sanctuary and passage of General Douglas MacArthur and his men in their escape route to Mindanao after the fall of Bataan.

America’s Task Force 38 launched air attacks against Japanese ships in Manila Bay on 21-24 September 1944, sinking 15 ships. The air raids forced the surviving Japanese seacrafts to retreat to a safe mooring place at Coron Bay and around Busuanga Island, about 170 nautical miles southwest of Manila. But on 24 September 1944, some 24 Japanese supply ships were attacked by US naval air strikes and dive-bombers. The raid lasted only about 15 minutes but caused the massive burning and sinking of ships in the beautiful waters and beaches. Fifty years later, this carnage of cargo ships would define tourism development in the islands, when shipwreck diving became a unique tourist activity in the area.

The first mayor of Cuyo during the reconstruction after World War II was Emilia Ponce de Leon. Overpopulation and the encouraging accounts of out-migrants who returned to Cuyo during wartime induced an upsurge of out-migration to the Palawan mainland and to other islands in the immediate postwar years.

Cuyunon settlers contributed to the conversion of primary forests in Palawan mainland. Moreover, much of the so-called public lands cleared for homestead by Cuyunon migrants were the ancestral domain of the Tagbanwa, the Palawan, and other indigenous groups. These lands were later privatized.

The economic and political developments that affected the islands from the 1960s to 2000s were commercial resource extraction in fisheries, tourism, human rights advocacy, and environmental conservation initiatives, mainly by civil society and peoples’ organizations. The abundant seas and the natural beauty of the islands became the attraction for investments. The scenic islands with long stretches of white sand beaches and beautiful topography became the favorite private hideaways of the elite, notably the Sorianos who owned the Andres Soriano Corporation (Anscor). In 1993, Anscor’s Seven Seas Resorts and Leisure Corporation built the Amanpulo island resort in partnership with Amanresorts of Singapore. The highly exclusive resort caters to the international jet-setting crowd. Another important tourism activity is scuba diving in the Japanese shipwrecks. A major attraction are the shipwrecks in Busuanga, which are promoted as among the exceptional dive sites in Asia. This gained momentum also in the early 1990s. However, the 9/11 attack in New York and the hostage taking at Dos Palmas Resort in 2001 caused a sharp decline in tourism. The industry was able to recover, despite the implementation of the Tourism Act of 2009 or Republic Act (RA) 9593.

The Cuyunon Way of Life

In the 16th century, Spaniards came upon a flourishing trade economy on the Calamianes islands. Objects of trade with outlying regions such as China and Borneo were large pearls, oyster shells, sea turtle shells, deerskin, and carabao horns. A Spanish chronicler called the island of Cuyo “the garden of nature.” Its inhabitants lived in relative affluence, particularly those of noble rank. Red rice was produced in abundance; a sizeable number of domesticated animals such as goats, fowl, and hogs were raised; the sea yielded much fish and pearls. There were forests of hard wood, such as ebony, cypress, and cedar; and there was a large variety of fruit trees. In these woods lived wild boar and innumerable species of birds and fowl. Until the Spaniards arrived, traders from Borneo, Siam, and Cambodia came to purchase bruscays, also known as sigay (small seashells), which were used as currency in their region.

Objects of wonder were the anteater, the flying lemur, and some of the most magnificent birds particular only to the region. Descriptions of these unnamed birds point to the dipdipon (blue-mantled fairy bluebird), the talusi (hornbill), and the peacock-pheasant. The tabon (scrubfowl) was mentiond, too, for its peculiar way of hatching its eggs. The people of the Visayas and Mindanao were familiar with the hamak (tarsier), which was not unique to Bohol.

On the island of Busuanga, then called “Calamian the Great,” were roiling rivers teeming with fish and woods abounding with beeswax of the best quality. The people gathered the wax by simply smoking out the bees from their honeycombs. In these woods, too, were deer, wild boar, monkeys, and birds. The expanse of shallow water all along the island’s coastline was the habitat of the balate or balatan, also known as trepang (sea cucumber), for which Chinese traders were willing to pay a high price.

The most profitable products for the inhabitans of Cuyo and Busuanga were the salangana (birds’ nests), which were built by the balinsasayaw birds in the crevices of the craggy cliffs of Coron. The people of Busuanga and Cuyo would row to Coron to collect the nests made from the birds’ saliva. Chinese traders placed a premium on these, which were extremely savory and nourishing when cooked in soup, and medicinally useful in the treatment of stomach ailments. The perils of collecting the nests and their seasonal appearance also accounted for their steep price. The 17th-century Cuyunon’s method of nest gathering was either to shimmy down a rope from the mountaintop or climb up from below by stepping on the nodes of a bamboo trunk, which functioned as a very basic ladder. The nest gathering was done three times between the months of December and March, with month-long waiting periods in between while the birds built new nests.

Locals collecting unhusked rice after sundrying and before milling, Cuyo, Palawan
Locals collecting unhusked rice after sundrying and before milling, Cuyo, Palawan (CCP Collections)

Calamian Island, then called “Calamian the Little,” had the same products as the two major islands, only in lesser quantities. Vermin infestation, such as those by moles and rats, did not allow for any kind of crop culture. The people traded in jars, salt, birds’ nest, and beeswax. However, the islets surounding the three major islands were quite impoverished. Here, the natives could pay their encomendero tributes of only salt and grass mats.

Cuyo’s marginal share in the prewar market economy accounted for the relative lack of social differentiation and a generally egalitarian outlook due to scarce land, markets, and investment opportunities during the period. Carpentry, basketry, mat weaving, and coconut-wine collecting have generated small incomes. Copra has been lucrative only for a few big landowners. However, the out-migration of natives, mainly of average social standing, has significantly changed Cuyo’s socioeconomic patterns.

Sibaltan women weaving bags
Sibaltan women weaving bags, 2015 (Arvin Acosta)

Agriculture is the island’s main occupation. Cuyo’s swidden yields have tended to be unsubstantial. The Cuyunon system of planting upland rice and other produce employ long fallow and short fallow methods. The long fallow method is rarely practiced because of the pressure of market forces to be more productive. Short fallow is commonly practiced because it can be completed within nine months. In the short period, farmers burn, plant, weed, and harvest. Other swidden crops include sorghum, yam, taro, sweet potato, arrow root, and ginger. To augment swidden agriculture, the Cuyunon practice agroforestry by planting edible trees such as coconut, banana, mango, cashew, jackfruit, avocado, coffee, tamarind, soursop, pomegranate, papaya, jackfruit, and citrus. The importance of tree crops has increased in recent years as a response to the high demand of the growing population in Puerto Princesa. Because of this development, there are Cuyunon farmers who transformed their swidden farms into permanent orchards. For instance, compared to planting upland rice, avocado trees are more manageable and profitable.

Fishing in Palawan’s seas, the secondary occupation, renders enough marine foods to be marketed in Manila. Offshore fishing requires nets, traps, and hooks and lines; various onshore techniques are employed to gather crab, shrimp, octopus, shell, sea urchin, sea cucumber, seaweed, and jellyfish. The waters surrounding the Cuyo islands are Palawan’s rich fishing grounds, which supply 50% of the 200-million fish catch from the province every year. Despite some illegal fishing activities, the fish supply remains abundant. The Cuyunon get 80% of their protein intake from fish. However, the depletion of fish catch due to illegal fishing methods and large-scale commercial fishing became a problem in the 1990s. These exploitative and destructive methods were supported by Cuyunon policymakers and officials. The Cuyunon’s life became miserable. They had to go out into the high seas for many days just to catch fish enough for a mere two days’ consumption. The decline in fish population was mainly due to the damage on coral reefs incurred by deadly fishing methods such as dynamite and cyanide fishing. The redress of the dire ecological consequences was achieved slowly through long-drawn people’s education and community empowerment.

The isolation of the Cuyo archipelago is largely due to the lack of transportation facilities. For the longest time in the past, only one passenger sea vessel traveled to Cuyo, Iloilo, and Puerto Princesa every week. Alternative means of transport were fishing boats.

The island has minor docks and a small airstrip for light aircraft. Improvements in transportation started when tourism became an active government program starting in the 1980s. Major tourism investment and development began in the 1990s, most prominent of which was the Amanpulo luxury resort at Pamalican island. In the past, Pamalican was merely a village in Manamoc Island, which had a population of 1,801 in 2002. The resort employs about 80% of its personnel from Manamoc. In the 2000s, private planes began to fly directly from Manila.

Cuyunon Political System

In 1521, Magellan’s crew captured a Palawan datu sailing home from Borneo. They seized the weapons on his ship and demanded a ransom of 400 containers of rice, 20 hogs, 20 goats, and 150 chickens. His people complied, and the datu even generously added coconuts, bananas, sugarcanes, and jars of tuba (palm or coconut wine). The Spaniards returned his weapons and additionally, presented him and his family with gifts befitting his station: a richly textured yellow robe, several meters of cloth, a blue cloak, a green robe, and, for good measure, the Spanish flag. This was the earliest depiction of the datu system in the Palawan region.

The earliest known types of weapons that the Cuyunon used were blowpipes with 8-in darts, which could be tipped with hooks, fish bones, or bamboo points on which poisonous herbs had been applied. To one end of the blowpipe was fastened an iron hook, so that when they ran out of arrows, they used the blowpipe as a spear. Other tools of war were the curved dagger, full-length spear, and the karasas (full-body shields). Among the weapons that Magellan’s crew had seized from the Palawan datu were arquebuses.

The Cuyunon political structure had the same indigenous features as those in the whole Visayas region. It was composed of three classes, based on power, right, and privilege: the datu (chief), timawa (freeborn), and uripon (slave). The datu protected and defended his people, and they paid him back with their loyalty and service. His relatives, including the women of his class, were afforded the same privileges. The timawa lived in allegiance to the datu, accompanying him in feasts and wars. Because they owned land and property, the timawa paid their datu some buwis (tribute or tax). Disputes between villagers were resolved by a council of elders, based on evidence, the testimony of witnesses, oral tradition, and the wisdom of age.

There were three kinds of slaves. The tumataban was the most respectable, being obliged to help out at the datu’s house only when an extra hand was needed. The tumarampok lived independently but rendered service to the datu’s house every four days, unless they could exempt themselves by paying a buwis. The ayuey were the most abject of all, being obliged to live in the datu’s house to serve at any time. All three types, however, could be bought or sold, although the tumataban fetched the smallest price. In the 16th century, the seven islets of Agutaya surrounding Cuyo Island had a total population of about a hundred people who were slaves to the datu.

By 1588, the lone encomendero of Cuyo and Calamianes had replaced the datu in position and privilege. The datu was put to use by being compelled to collect the tributes from his people and surrendering them to the encomendero, who sailed from Panay only once a year in February or March to receive them.

Cuyo island and its neighboring islets are presently divided into two municipalities, Cuyo and Magsaysay. The municipality of Cuyo is the area’s commercial and cultural capital. Classified as a fourth-class municipality, with population count of 21,847 by the National Statistics Office (NSO) in 2010, Cuyo consists of 17 barangays with a total land area of 7,789.64 hectares. It includes the barangays of Balading, Bangcal, Cabigsing, Catadman, Lagaoriao, Lungsod, Tenga-tenga, Tocadan, Funda, Caburian, Caponayan, Lubid, Manamoc, Maringian, Pawa, San Carlos, and Suba. The main island is composed of 11 barangays that cover 2,591.83 hectares. The six island barangays have a total land area of 5,197.00 hectares. The municipality is run by at least 68 personnel composed of 12 elected officials and 56 officers and employees.

Cuyo Municipal Hall
Cuyo Municipal Hall, 2013 (Christopher M. Diaz,

The municipality of Magsaysay was created on 1 January 1964 through Republic Act 3426. This fifth-class municipality, including the islets to where it extends, has a total land area of 49.47 square kilometers. It consists of eight mainland barangays and three island barangays: Alcoba, Balaguen, Canipo, Cocoro, Danawan, Emilod, Igabas, Lacaren, Los Angeles, Lucbuan, and Rizal. As of 2010, Magsaysay had a total population of 11,965.

The islands have produced individuals who have distinguished themselves in public service. Former Senator Ramon V. Mitra Jr. (b. 1928–d. 2000) became a political prisoner of the Marcos regime when martial law was declared in 1972. He was released ten years later and continued to speak out critically against the regime. His mother, Purificacion Villarosa, was from Cuyo.

The late 1980s saw the development of environmental preservation and conservation projects initiated by local and international organizations in Palawan province. These programs also emphasize human rights, economic rights, cultural rights, and social justice. In response to the depletion of natural resources due to harmful economic activities, the government enacted laws to protect the terrestrial and marine resources and established Marine Protected Areas (MPA). Aside from nongovernment organizations, business corporations in partnership with international agencies are involved in community development. Island barangays in Cuyo, such as Manamoc, Concepcion, and Algeciras, were the beneficiaries of the Andres Soriano Foundation (ASF), Anscor’s subsidiary, which aims to promote corporate social responsibility. The strategy is to mobilize local residents toward environmental preservation. People’s participation is coordinated by the Barangay Development Council (BDC), which manages community projects such as the construction of potable water systems and school buildings, draws up alternative livelihoods such as vegetable production, and brings in medical missions.

The Community-Based Coastal Resource Management (CB-CRM) Program began in Cuyo and Magsaysay municipalities in the 2000s. It aims to enable the small islands like those in Northeastern Palawan to protect the fragile ecosystems. It gives primary consideration to the survival and the economic rights of local people whose livelihood depends on the sea. The CB-CRM program covers ten island barangays with the aim of establishing resilient MPAs. The same strategy of educating and empowering local communities is implemented in the Quiniluban Group of Islands located in the far north of the Cuyo archipelago.

Cuyunon Social Organization and Customs

Cuyunon society had the same structure, features, and customs as those all over the Visayas or “Pintados,” as the Spaniards then called the islands of eastern and central Philippines.

Marriage practices differed for the three social classes. A man of noble rank conducted his courtship in a most public manner, involving several people. First he chooses a go-between, not necessarily in the datu class like himself but a timawa with persuasive oratorical skills. Acting as the surrogate suitor, the go-between pays a visit to the girl’s house, the suitor’s spear in his hand. He thrusts this into ground at the foot of the ladder and entreats the diwata and humalagar (souls of ancestors) for their approval of this match. He and the girl’s parents negotiate the bride-price. When this is agreed upon, the marriage ceremony can commence. The bride is borne on a slave’s shoulders to the groom’s house, where a grand feast has been prepared. Starting from the foot of the ladder, she will pretend to balk at every step unless she be given a slave and a jewel by the groom’s father. While people, including the bridal couple, are eating and drinking, an elder begins the wedding ceremony, giving a speech about the serious meaning of a marriage. An elderly woman puts the couple’s hands together and lays these on a plate of rice grains. She then throws rice over everyone else, who gives shouts of triumphant joy.

A procession in Cuyo held on the seventh birthday of a boy, and led by him and his family
A procession in Cuyo held on the seventh birthday of a boy, and led by him and his family (Felicidad A. Prudente Photo Collection)

In 1604, a Jesuit missionary in Panay was witness to a wedding between two nobles: the groom, a datu’s son from Cuyo island, and the bride, a datu’s daughter from Oton, Panay. It was a mix of indigenous and Catholic rites, the parish priest having replaced the officiating elder. Afterwards, the Cuyunon datu distributed a very generous dowry not only to each of the bride’s relatives and their slaves but also to the priest.

Among the timawa, marriage was a simple matter of the couple sharing a cup of tuba. Everyone present concludes the ceremony with a shout. There is no feasting because the timawa couple cannot afford it, and they must avoid outdoing the lavishness of the feasts of the datu class. Among the slaves, the couple simply gave their mutual consent to live together.

In the 16th century, it was observed that the Visayans could understand each other’s language, whether spoken or written. Their orthography consisted of 12 vowels and three consonants, which they wrote from right to left. Almost everyone, whether male or female, was literate.

A friendship, when it needed to be renewed between two individuals or representatives of warring factions, was sealed with a blood compact. Each cut his arm with a tip of his dagger, let his blood drip into a coconut shell, mixed a bit of wine into it, and took a sip of the mixture. Magellan’s chronicler, Pigafetta, described the blood compact between a datu of Palawan and the Spanish ships’ officers, including perhaps Pigafetta himself, in 1521. The datu drew blood from his chest with his knife, which he then touched to the tip of his tongue and his forehead; the Spaniards followed suit.

Up till the present, social contact is close and frequent in Cuyo Island. The Cuyunon work in groups when farming, fishing, and even when accomplishing small chores like cleaning house. However, as livelihood activities demand less time than effort, leisure is a main occupation, particularly during the postharvest months from October to December. The folk habitually visit with their neighbors, and the men often have casual drinking sessions after work. Basi (rice wine) and tuba have, since ancient times, been imbibed by the Cuyunon as part of ritual feasts.

There are more formal and organized socials like dances where friendships and courtships are pursued, as well as baptisms, birthdays, and weddings. Churchgoing is central to traditional life, and the Lenten rituals become primary social events. In gratitude for requests granted by the saints, notably by Santa Cecilia, cilia festivities are held and highlighted by the roasting of a pig. During the yearly village fiesta, the komedya is performed for the more affluent in their private residences and for the public in the plaza. Its production expenses are defrayed by minimal admission fees, which may earn a little profit for drinks. Morning mass, cockfights, and games complete the celebrations. Although the fiestas are well attended, the meals prepared are comparatively simple. Cuyunon socials are generally more time-consuming than expensive, but are considered obligations that promote self-esteem and group harmony.

Many Cuyunon have swidden farms in the mainland of Palawan. After harvest time, they go home to the Cuyo archipelago, bringing with them many sacks of palay. Assured of rice and viand from the sea, the Cuyunon have much time for rest and recreation. They spend their free time converging in the community plaza to play games like sipa and volleyball, to chat, to share life experiences, to compose songs, and even to engage in dramatic play. Men court the ladies with serenades. Along the shores of Cuyo, wives and children wait for the male members of the family who bring home the fish catch for daily meals. The Cuyunon live a simple and sustainable life that relies on the bounty of nature. This simplicity is reflected in their favorite dish of broiled fish seasoned with salt and vinegar.

Cuyunon Religious Beliefs and Practices

In 1621, the missionaries of Cuyo observed that the people’s indigenous belief system continued to influence their lives. They believed in Laon, meaning “Time,” who was the First Cause. They offered ritual prayers and meals to a god of agriculture to ensure a bountiful harvest and to a god of war to ensure protection. When they fell ill, they believed that it was caused by a humalagar, the soul of the sick person’s ancestor, who needed to be appeased. They would call in the mangaloc (healer priest or priestess), to summon the humalagar by placing a palm leaf on the sick person’s head.

In 1805, the Recollect Fray Pedro Gilbert de Santa Eulalia described ancestral beliefs and practices of the Cuyunon in greater detail. Devout ancestor worship dictated many of the religious customs of the past. The babaylan or babaylana played a significant role in this tradition. They received tribute in behalf of the souls, which were believed to have departed to Madia-as, a mountain in Panay. They also performed various rituals for different needs and occasions.

Stations of the Cross at Mount Aguado during Holy Week in Cuyo, Palawan,
Stations of the Cross at Mount Aguado during Holy Week in Cuyo, Palawan, 2011 (Anthony Ibarra Banawa Fabella)

Two hundred or more people gathered in a mountain or a place far removed from town to celebrate the buetec. One or two wooden idols were sculpted, arrayed in rich fabric and gold jewelry, and offered food. Holding seven handkerchiefs, the priests danced before these images. The spectators later joined in the dancing. After a celebratory meal, they stripped the images, hid them in the mountain, or left them to the safekeeping of the shamans.

Holy Week passion play at Mount Aguado in Cuyo, Palawan,
Holy Week passion play at Mount Aguado in Cuyo, Palawan, 2011 (Anthony Ibarra Banawa Fabella)

The panasag, a preharvest ritual, was held shortly before the ripening of grain. Relatives visited a farmer’s house, carrying a basket containing seven fistfuls of rice grain. Pinilpil or limbac was then made from the grain which, together with other foods like fish and eggs, was offered to the ancestral spirits. After the priests interpreted several signs to mean that the spirits had already eaten, the seven fistfuls of grain were carefully stored under the granary.

To cure the sick, a priest (or priestess) performed tagablac. He submerged two bamboo pieces in a glass of water. The sinking of these pieces indicated that a deceased relative, usually a parent or spouse, needed food. Then the priest slammed the sick person’s body, which was laid on a table, to separate the body from the intruding spirit. The priest blew on the body while the witnesses gave offerings. He continued chanting while wiping the body with cloth. A similar ritual was the sagda, during which hungry spirits, said to have inhabited the body of the sick, were appeased with a meal of pork, wine, bananas, and other foods. In such attempts to restore health, the priest banished all images and portraits from the house of the sick. Meanwhile, the patulod-sarot was a dramatic ritual to prevent epidemics. A group of people prepared a small boat painted with oars and sails and kept it in a storehouse near the shore. Before the boat was set to sail bearing gifts of food and tobacco for the spirits, the people confronted the spirits with sword and shield in hand. The priest would fall several times, but when the spirits had been overcome, the priest chanted and asked the spirits to spare them from harm. The people sang while the priest swayed. The boat sailed, and all returned to the storehouse to eat or drink.

On the third day after a person’s death, relatives gathered in the dead person’s house to receive his or her spirit in a ceremony called pasaca or paoli. As usual, a priest interceded and offered food to the dead. Another ritual, the an, was a nighttime gathering in a mountain involving six or eight widows and relatives and one or two priests. A small boat was painted with oars and surrounded with clay pots. The priests summoned the spirits of the deceased spouses, and as in the patulod-sarot, the boat was sent off with various foods for the spirits. The ceremony ended by the next morning or afternoon.

Rambac, an evening ritual, ended the mourning period. A clay pot or a bamboo pole contraption, the suboc-suboc, was thrust into the ground. The participants stood in front of the pot or pole as they questioned the priest before them. They formed two lines, and holding each other at the waist, jumped at the signal of the priest, who directed them toward the seashore while they sang to the music of the soloma. Those at the front of the line moved their poles as though blocking the soul and driving it away to another place. A feast followed afterwards.

There were also various methods of timara (fortune-telling). One whispered incantations while quickly lifting a bolo and then releasing it. After this, the question could be asked. If the answer was affirmative, the bolo would move uncontrollably; otherwise it would remain still. A similar procedure was followed with a basket in place of a bolo. An insect could likewise answer a question: If it “sang,” an affirmative answer was indicated. Moreover, if a lizard “sang” when a person left the room or house, this meant that it was safe to go outside; if the lizard made no sounds, it would be safer to stay indoors.

Centuries of evangelization and Hispanization have made the Cuyunon a devoutly Christian group. Today, the feasts of the Catholic liturgical calendar are celebrated, and most Cuyunon attend Sunday mass regularly and fulfill the obligations expected of Catholics. The biggest fiesta, celebrated in honor of the patron San Agustin on 28 August, features the usual novena of mass and prayers, as well as the komedya and other performances.

As in most areas of the Philippine archipelago, however, the Christianization of the Cuyunon does not necessarily imply dissociation from indigenous beliefs that foster what is commonly known as folk Christianity.

Community and Traditional House of the Cuyunon People

The traditional settlements of the region are built along the coast. The bahay kubo (nipa hut) of nipa and bamboo is typically raised above the ground, with the living quarters on the second floor; a three-stone hearth in one side marks off the batalan (kitchen). The traditional cooking pot for rice is a segment of a bamboo tube, which preserves the freshness of rice better than a clay pot. A silong (space underneath the bahay kubo) is for storage or an enclosure for domesticated animals like pigs and chickens; and a kamalig (granary) stands either as an annex or an independent structure for additional storage in the backyard. Presently, the newer and larger houses use contemporary materials, mainly concrete, wood, and galvanized iron, which are sometimes combined with lighter native materials.

Sibaltan cultural dancers in front of the Balay Cuyonon Museum
Sibaltan cultural dancers in front of the Balay Cuyonon Museum, 2014 (Arvin Acosta)

From the sea, Cuyo Island’s first visible landmark is a lighthouse by the pier. Many of the streets leading to and within the town have already been cemented. The town has preserved the Hispanic plaza-iglesia structures: Dominating the town center is the Roman Catholic Parish Church of San Agustin, built in 1683 to function both as a place of worship and a bastion of defense against marauders. Nearby stands a schoolhouse and a monument of Dr Jose Rizal.

Considered as one of the earliest and unique forts in the country, Fort Cuyo’s particular character is that the church, the convent, and the perpetual adoration chapel are all inside the fort. The original complex of stone and mortar was a square with four bastions. The present complex, which occupies one hectare, is a solid rectangular edifice with walls 10 meters high and two meters thick. It has a tall belfry and watchtowers; its canons which face the sea are now fired only during town celebrations. During the British invasion in 1862, a British ship attacked but did not damage the Cuyo fort. Another fort was built seven kilometers away at Lucbuan, east portion of Cuyo island. The structure was not finished.

Video: The beauty of Cuyo Islands, Palawan

The Balay Cuyonon Museum also known as The House of Cuyonon Culture opened in Sibaltan, El Nido, Palawan in December 2012. Constructed by the Sibaltan Heritage Foundation through community bayanihan and the support of concerned individuals and institutions, the museum is a replica of a traditional Cuyunon house made of bamboo and nipa. The museum showcases Cuyunon material culture such as cooking, hunting, and fishing implements that could be found in a Cuyunon bahay kubo at the turn of 20th century.

Video: AMANPULO | Inside the world’s best beach resort

Amanpulo” is a coined term in Sanskrit and Tagalog that means “Island of Peace.” Amanpulo is an exclusive resort in Pamalican Island of the Quiniluban group of islands in the Cuyo archipelago. It was designed and completed by Francisco Mañosa in 1994. He applied the architectural principles of the bahay kubo in building the structures of the resort to ensure that these would blend with the natural environment. The resort is composed of a clubhouse and 40 casitas or guest houses fashioned after the bahay kubo. Some of the casitas are built along the beach, and others are perched on a hill overlooking the sea. Guests arrive by chartered plane on Pamalican, coming directly from Manila.

Cuyunon Traditional Arts

In the early years of Spanish colonization, the Visayan islands and their inhabitants were officially called the province of Pintados, meaning “painted,” because of the tattoos that the people wore on their bodies. The inhabitants of Cuyo and the Calamianes, including Palawan Island, were described as Pintados as well.

The tattooing process begins with the artist outlining the desired design on the pertinent part of the body, making sure that the design is in harmony with the specific features of that part. Following the outline, various iron styluses are used to draw blood from the skin, upon which indelible black soot or ink is applied. Whenever the man has proven himself in battle, he acquires a tattoo, so that the degree with which a body is covered with tattoos is the measure of his valor. Only the face is left untouched. Beauty of execution, however, is the artist’s primary concern. Women’s tattoos, which are ornamental, are restricted to the hands, one of which may be wholly covered and the other, only partly so.

Men and women alike wore their hair long, the women putting it in a bun atop their head, the men either doing the same or wearing it in a queue. For clothing, the men wore the bahag (loincloth), which they wound in a layered style around the waist and crotch. Over this, they might put on a patadyong (barrel skirt), the back hem of which could be pulled up to the front and tucked into the waist so that it reached down to mid-calf. Over the torso, they wore a tight-sleeved vest that opened in front. The women wore loose, ankle-length robes, usually with colors woven into the borders, but only white for mourning. The materials used were medriñaque (abaca), Iloilo cotton, or silk in various colors, depending on the individual’s social status. The men tied a brightly colored scarf with gold borders around their head as a sign of their warrior status. They wore large earrings and bracelets of gold or ivory, whereas the women wore numerous strands of finely wrought gold around their necks and wrists, and a pair of earrings.

Turtle shells, particularly those with markings the color of garnet, were fashioned into pretty objects like boxes, trays, and bric-a-brac not only for local use but also for trade. These were polished until they looked like they had been carved from a precious stone called jasper. The women wove large quantities of cotton cloth, although the textile came from Iloilo. Grass mats were woven in the poorer islets, to be paid as tribute to the encomendero.

The pangko is the traditional boat of the Cuyunon . The sea vessel transported the Cuyunon to Palawan Island, then known as Paragua, during the Spanish colonial era. Until the 1970s, the pangko was still used to trade goods within the Cuyo archipelago, but it slowly disappeared by the end of the 20th century. In the 2010s, there was only one surviving pangko maker in the Cuyo archipelago. The traditional boat making technology was recorded and revived by the Ancient Shores, Changing Tides project funded by the US State Department. In August 2014, the Pangko Museum was built in El Nido municipality to promote cultural tourism.

Indigenous Cuyunon Music, Literary and Performing Arts

Indigenous Cuyunon music still survives in instruments such as the batungtung (bamboo slit drum), palakupakan (sticks with bamboo clappers), subing (mouth harp), and lantoy (nose flute).

The tipanu band, a fife and drum ensemble, and the de kwerdas, a string band, supply background music on important social occasions. They also accompany singers and render dance music like the pinundo-pundo. The tipanu is reserved for the ati-ati, sinulog, and komedya.

Planting with digging sticks called tugda with palakupak or clappers, Baryo Pawa, Cuyo
Planting with digging sticks called tugda with palakupak or clappers, Baryo Pawa, Cuyo, 1976 (Felicidad A. Prudente Photo Collection)

Both ensembles use available instruments and instrumentalists. The tipanu core is basically two drums and four to seven transverse mouth flutes with six fingerholes. One or two tipanu nga maitley (small flutes) and three or four tipanu nga mabael (larger flutes) are played with a redublante (snare drum), bombo (bass drum), and sometimes a pair of platilyo (cymbals). The de kwerdas has two or three byulin or rabel (violins), and occasionally a gitara or sista (guitar), a baho (six-sted bass), a banjo, and a bandurria.

In Cuyunon music, the akompanimento refers to the harmonic accompaniment—principal or primero to the first or highest voice, and segunda to the second.

Fishing and the sea
Fishing and the sea, a common theme in Cuyunon songs (Illustration by Dominic Agsaway)

Cuyunon songs suggest the islanders’ various occupations, from farming to tippling tuba. Fisherfolk and sailors often sing about the sea (Fernandez and Fernandez 1975):

Ako ay mi layang pasiak

Panambantamban mi pamalanak,

Porabil ako mapilak kong nagasolong

Don nganiang dagat.

(I have a fishnet with shells as the weight.

I use it for catching tamban and banak.

Before I throw the net,

I wait for the tide to come in.)

Lyrics are poetic although simple and unsentimental. They convey wisdom, practicality, and fatalismeven in playful children’s songs (Fernandez and Fernandez 1975):

Tarinting paglayog don,

Ay ikaw tateban den.

Pagsot sa liyang-liyang,

Sa batong malinang-linang.

(Tarinting fly away now,

For the high tide will soon come.

Enter the eaves

Among the smooth stones.)

Some songs are infused with humor, which does not preclude profundity (Fernandez and Fernandez 1975):

Nagbilin si Nanay lomismo si Tatay,

Akeng pangasa waen and babai nga boray,

Ang babai nga boray adorno sa balay,

Ang babai nga boray kong mag-arek maloay.

(My father and mother advised me

That I marry a blind girl

A blind girl will serve as an ornament at home,

A blind girl kisses softly.)

Sandaw, the Cuyunon lullaby, using either the pentatonic scale or the western diatonic scale, soothes the child with pleas and promises.

The Cuyunon youth celebrate love with song during the postharvest courting season. The cancion, a popular serenade, is sung with the strumming of a five- or six-stringed guitar in the distinctive puntyal manner. Parting is a familiar concern in Cuyunon love songs. Examples of love songs are “Napopongao Ako,” “Ang Gegma,” “Ploning,” “Daragang Taga Cuyo,” “Konsomision,” “Ako Maski Bayan,” “Tiis Manong Pido,” “Nagpamasiar Ako,” and “Komosta.” Here are the lyrics of the last two (Fernandez and Fernandez 1975):

Nagpamasiar Ako

Nagpamasiar ako sa malapad nga siodad,

Nakapotay ako, panel nga malapad.

Na basako rendaang manga libirtad,

Ang naga norobian, sarang pa mabelag.

(I Went Strolling

I went strolling in a wide city.

I packed up a wide paper.

From it I read that sweethearts

Can still be parted.)


Komosta komosta dawat ang alima

Tanda sa pagbelag ara dipirinsia,

Ogali soltiros ogali daraga

Naga rilasionan sa mayad nga leba.

(How Are You

Let me shake your hand

As a sign of separation without hurt feelings

It’s but natural that we fall in love

And then forget.)

“Ploning” gained national and international prominence in 2008 when it became the inspiration for a film with the same title. It is about a young woman waiting for a lover who promised to return:


Ploning nga labing maleban

Ang gegma mo, Ploning

Nga ing kandaduan

Lisensya ko, Ploning

Kung sarang tugutan

Mapamasyar ako

Sa marayeng lugar.

Ploning, pobre akong masyado

Ara ako sasalan

Nga mga requerdo

Ara ako bulawan

Ara ako dinero. Solamente, Ploning

Demdemen mo ako.

Ploning, pagsarig kanaken

Tedek sa akeng leba

Ang akeng bisara

Tigbas mo sa bato

Kemkemen sa panyo

Indi engued ag kupas

Maski ara ren ang lawas


Ploning, full of goodness

Is your love, Ploning

Lock it in

Pardon, Ploning

If you would allow

I’d like to take a break

In a faraway place.

Ploning, I have nothing

Not even memories

I have no gold

I have no money, Ploning

But please think of me

Ploning, trust me

My love is true

Mark that on stone

Then wrap it with a kerchief

It will never fade

Even if my body is gone.)

There are original song compositions that have become so popular among the people that these are considered as traditional folk songs. One by Jose and Fe Tria-Fernandez that became popular in Cuyo archipelago and Southern Palawan is “Cuyo Balitaw” (2006). This song is integrated in the music curriculum of secondary education in Palawan.

Cuyo Balitaw

Sa kapupuroan maambeng

Kung masanag ngani ang bolan

Mga bata ig ma nga malam

Naga parasiar sa pantalan

Ma nga solteros ig daraga

Naga gitara magkaranta kadai sara

Mi sara maambeng andang leba

Pagkasanag ngani dayong parakon

Sa oma, magkaingin, magsaripsip

Magpaligid kong mainit,

Maluto ron ngani ang paray sa bukid

Dayon sandang parantek


Amos kamo mga tangay

Masaraot saot kita nay

Lipatan tateng kapilay, magpanari anay

Dading loto roang paray, kita magkalipay

Indi tay panombaien, ateng kabedlay.

(Cuyo Balitaw

It’s a happy time on the island

When the moon is shining bright

Young and old alike

Go strolling to the wharf

Young men and women

Play the guitar and sing

Everyone is happy.

When morning comes they go to the fields

To cut trees, clean the fields and burn them

When the day is hot

When the grains ripen on the mountain

They harvest them and make pinipig.

Come my friends let’s dance awhile

Let’s forget our weariness, let’s rest awhile

Now that the rice is ripe let us rejoice!

Let us not mind our efforts.)

Music also marks the occasion of death. Pa Hesus is sung for a person on the brink of dying, repeated over and over as a way of entrusting the soul to God and driving away evil spirits. Bereaved families are entertained with singing games during the pulao (wake). The participants sing “Koirdas di la Bordon” as they pass around a ring; the one who holds the ring at the end of the song is made to sing. Similar rules apply to kotao-kotao except that the game centers on a boy and a girl holding a handkerchief (Fernandez and Fernandez 1975):

Koirdas de la Bordon
“Koirdas de la Bordon” (Illustration by Dominic Agsaway)

Kotao kotao kong aga kotao kotao kong apon,

Mapatay sa gegma baribad sa getem.

Indi maingaranan and pito ka birso

Ang panyong palaran itaplak sa olo.

(Crowing in the morning,

Crowing in the afternoon,

Die of love, but not of hunger.

The seven verses cannot be mentioned,

But the lucky handkerchief must be placed

on one’s head.)

Punebre music is played during the burial procession. Sarabien, a dirge recounting the life of the deceased, is sung to the cries of mourners swaying by the graveside. Kaluluwa is sung during All Saints’ Day on the first of November.

Some song forms treat broader themes. The composo ballad narrates factual events, particularly tragedies. It is often delivered during fiestas with the music of a string band and at times the dancing of boys and girls. The livelier erekay, originally a swidden planting song, is performed in happy gatherings. It favors the topics of love and sex, sung by a man and a woman, and King David, sung by an elder. In parlando-rubando style, it may be accompanied by a four-stringed instrument called yuke. The cancioncan venture into livelihood and nature subjects like layang and pasiak.

String band in Igabas, Cuyo,
String band in Igabas, Cuyo, 1985 (Felicidad A. Prudente Photo Collection)

Native yuletide songs such as “Pinagbalay,” “Pastores,” and “Tambora” are being replaced by modern Christmas carols. Of Cuyo’s festivity music, among the most well-preserved are the songs and chants of the Ati (Fernandez and Fernandez 1975):

Sangka Mi Ati

Sangka mi ati kami tao sa bokid,

Kami mi bolawan, mangitit pa sa oring.

Wa-ay wa-ay toboan kami paray

Sa balay magsobra sa bantolina.

(Only One Aeta

We are people of the mountain,

We are gold, as black as charcoal.

Wa-ay wa-ay may rice grow abundantly,

In my house may it grow and overflow.)

Other religious songs are “Maghimaya ka Hati” and “Santa Barbara Doncella,” for seeking refuge from a storm; “Ave Maria Stella,” for the Blessed Virgin Mary, sung by women during wakes, while planting, or as a protection from illness; gozos, for a saint at the end of a novena or a procession during a fiesta; litania, for the Virgin after a rosary and a novena; and alabado, for the Virgin and the Blessed Sacrament.

A few songs commemorate Palm Sunday. The Lenten pasyon narrates Christ’s life and death. Also sung during Holy Week are “Amante,” “Ameng Diyos,” “Crucifixus,” “Perdon,” “Pange Lingua,” “Stabat Mater,” and “Regina Coeli” for Easter. Notable of the songs offered to the Virgin during the Flores de Mayo are “Dios te Salve, Maria,” “Ang Trese sa Mayo,” and “Daygon ta si Maria at Venid.”

An example of Cuyunon contemporary music that promotes the preservation of the local language is that of Bulyaw Mariguen, a rock band whose members are natives of Cuyo: Christopher “Topz” Perez for vocals, Franz Abid in lead guitar, Leonard “Popoy” dela Torre in bass guitar, Philip Abid for drums, and Dale Abid for rhythm, drums, and sound engineering. They are all fluent Cuyunon speakers who organized the band in 2007 for Cuyunon out-migrants. They are named after a local version of the game of hide-and-seek, which was popular when the Cuyo archipelago still had no electricity. The group chose the name to emphasize the need to preserve their local cultural heritage. They released their eponymous album in 2009 produced by Matinlo Productions. Dubbed as “the first Cuyunon rock album,” the 13 selections in Bulyaw Mariguen (Hide-and-Seek) are all original compositions, with lyrics in Cuyunon. A song from the album is “Sulo,” with lyrics by Topz Perez, translated by Anita dela Torre and Joey Fabello:


Aga ngirit deman ang adlaw kanaken kanimo tangay

Indi ta y sayangen, indi balewalaen ang mga oras

nga dan

Ang importansya, ang kabui tawan ta matinlonglogar

Indi ta y isipen ang kakorian ig kabegatang agabotkanaten.


Tengued ang adlaw dyan para na pirming magangirit kanimo

Ang bolan ig biton sa gabi mamang maga tawkanaten.


Sulo… ikaw akeng sulo

Sulo, ikaw akeng sulo. Sulo!

Aga ngirit reman ang adlaw kanimo kanakenkanaten

Indi ta y sayangen atobangen ta na mi keseg atengleba

Isipen ta na maski makori kaya ta y atobangen

Lipatan ta ateng kabedlay ig konsomisyon sa tanan

[Repeat refrain and chorus.]

Tindeg tangay indi ag paroya roya

Dorong puede y boaten, baskeg imong leba

Kung mag oran man indi kaw ag sinti

Ang adlaw biton ig bolan pirming dyan maga sanag

Bangon kung kadagpa kaw


The sun is smiling again at me, at you, my friend,

Let us not waste or ignore such times;

The importance, the life, let us put them to good use;

Let us not think of the hardships and the burdens

that come to us.


Because the sun is there to always smile at you

The moon and the stars at night will give us the light.


Light, you are my light

Light, you are my light. Light!

The sun is smiling again at me, at you, at us all,

Let us not waste it, let us face it with courage

in our souls.

Let us think that even if it’s hard, we can face it;

Let us forget all our problems and worries.

[Repeat refrain and chorus.]

Stand up, my friend, do not lose hope.

There are many things that you could do, have faith;

If it rains, do not worry

Because the sun, the stars, and the moon will always

be there to give us light.

Stand up if you fall.)

Cuyunon dances have evolved from native and Spanish influences. Among these are the pastores, the Christmas dance of the shepherds; the chotis, from the German schothische; lanceros de Cuyo, the local version of the French quadrille; birginia and virgoere, the virginia reel or square dance; paraguanen, a romantic comic duet; and la jota paragua, a Castillan-type jota using bamboo castanets and the manton.

The island is known for the mazurka de Cuyo,a social dance with characteristic mazurka steps. Another popular dance is the pinundo-pundo, a stylish wedding dance marked by sudden pauses; its first two parts, featuring solo dances of the boy and the girl, are followed by the suring, a love play between the couple.

Children dancing suring in Cuyo
Children dancing suring in Cuyo, 1985 (Felicidad A. Prudente Photo Collection)

Children dancing suring in Cuyo
Children dancing suring in Cuyo, 1985 (Felicidad A. Prudente Photo Collection)

Forms found in other regions, like the kuratsa, pandango,and habanera have also been adapted by the Cuyunon. “Sayaw sa Cuyo” is performed on 28 September, feast day of Saint Augustine. The lively dance is performed by young girls wearing the Maria Clara costume. They gracefully wave hats as they execute steps from European dances like waltz, redoba, and mazurka.

Video: SOLTEROS - A Cuyonon Song

The Cuyunon have developed the art of merging song, dance, and drama. Cuyo’s sayaw (dance) is a colorful enactment of a story heightened by the music of a string band. It is presented by five pairs of youth arranged in two lines, fully costumed and made up, and bearing props like flowers, crowns, and even knives. After an introductory dance, the leading couple proceeds to relate the tale, sometimes using verse. The topic may be anything, from everyday occurences to special events like winning the sweepstakes. This story is then interpreted in dance and ended with a finale.

Tambora is a depiction of the nativity, traditionally performed by Christmas carolers in Cuyunon or Spanish.

Yearly on 28 August, Cuyo Island celebrates San Agustin’s feast. On the eve of the fiesta, a cultural presentation featuring the traditional performing arts and sometimes a separate show of modern songs and dances may be presented. The feast day begins with a morning Mass, sometimes a High Mass officiated by the bishop, followed by the ati-ati, a legacy of the Aklanon. Folk from the nearby islands board barotos (boats) to view the parade which recreates the confrontation of San Agustin and the native “savages.” Participants portray the Aeta by darkening their bodies with soot and painting their faces with anyel (indigo). They don foot-high headgear of coconut ginit fiber adorned with chicken feathers, and decorate their costumes with coconut leaves. The men, clad in loincloths, carry spears, bows and arrows, or bolo. The women, wearing patadyong and beaded necklaces, carry baskets with a trumpline. The costumes may be modified to distinguish the groups representing the various tribes.

The participants form two lines, one of men and the other of women. The director signals the start of the singing by striking his cane on the ground. This is followed by a spontaneous dance characterized by sways, hops, jumps, and the jerking of weapons accompanied by chanting; the director also signals the end of the dance. The teniente (barrio head) and his family may recite a series of verses. The director is then approached by the last to recite, customarily the teniente’s youngest child.

As the floats of San Agustin and other saints enter the church at the end of the procession, the participants kneel, prostrate themselves, or sing while performing skipping steps before the images. The merrymaking intensifies when the alcayo (dancing clown) chases the ladies, stopping only when coins are thrown to him on the ground. The alcayo collects the coins with his mouth.

Meanwhile, the panapatan performance are staged in front of various houses for a fee. These are mostly excerpts from the komedya and ati-ati known as komedya sa kalye and ati-ati sa bukid, the performers of which use simpler clothing than in the more elaborate full-length performances. Ati-ati sa bukid is sung and danced to celebrate a fruitful harvest. Today, it is usually danced by young boys wearing masks or indigo-painted faces.

Another pantomime, inocentes, recreates the descent of the “savages” from the hills to pay tribute to San Agustin. Wearing coconut fiber masks and red striped shirts, the participants frolic and fence with sticks.

Komedya or moro-moro performances are larger—with some 50 actors—and more refined than the ati-ati. The clash between the Muslims and the Christians is further dramatized by background music. Commonly used tunes are the paso doble, marchas, giyera, and kasal.

The same subject is portrayed by the sinulog. The Christians are identified by their black costumes, kampilan (sword), and elongated shields; the Muslims by their red turbans and waistbands, and round shields. The participants may wear masks or paint their faces. Both groups, usually of six dancers each, sometimes perform to the beating of tin cans. Alternate steps of offense and defense such as advancing and retreating, with corresponding movements of weapons, are followed by circular formations simulating scenes of strategic plotting.

Media Arts

Judy Ann Santos in Dante Nico Garcia’s Ploning
Judy Ann Santos in Dante Nico Garcia’s Ploning, 2008 (Photo courtesy of Dante Nico Garcia)

An actor who came from Coron, Palawan, was Ramon “Monching” Fernandez Lim. His acting career began at the Manila Grand Opera House in the late 1950s before he shifted to film. The first film that focused on Cuyunon culture is Ploning, 2008, directed by Dante Nico Garcia, a native of Cuyo. The title comes from a local folk song. Ploning is the female protagonist portrayed by Judy Ann Santos. She is a woman who yearns and waits for the return of her lover, Tomas, who left Cuyo to seek greener pastures in Manila. Other actors in the film are Mylene Dizon as Celeste, Gina Pareño as Intang, Eugene Domingo as Juaning, and Meryll Soriano as Alma. Shot entirely in the Cuyo municipality, Ploning was inspired by the childhood memories of the director, who lived in the islands until he completed elementary school. The screenplay was originally in Cuyunon, written by Benjamin Lingan and Dante Nico Garcia. The cinematography by Charlie Peralta lyrically captures the scenes of the old town. The film was the Philippine’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film competition in the 2009 Oscar Awards. At the Asian Festival of 1st Films in Singapore, Garcia won the Best Director Award.


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This article is from the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art Digital Edition.

Title: Cuyunon

Author/s: Monica P. Consing (1994) / Updated by Rosalie S. Matilac, and Rosario Cruz-Lucero, with additional notes from Felicidad A. Prudente (2018)


Publication Date: November 18, 2020

Access Date: August 22, 2022

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