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The Ilocano People of the Philippines: History, Culture, Customs and Tradition [Ilocos Region]

The Ilocano People of the Philippines: History, Culture, Customs and Tradition [Ilocos Region]

The narrow northwestern coast of Luzon directly facing the West Philippine Sea is the native domain of the Ilocano. Prior to the coming of the Spaniards, the coastal inhabitants were called Iloko, which derives from the prefix i, meaning “people of,” and lokong, referring to the low-lying terrain (Alvarez 1969, 143-149). The Iloko, therefore, are “people who dwell in the lowland,” as opposed to the Igolot who are people of the gulot or mountains, specifically the Cordillera mountain range. Ilocano is the Hispanized adaptation of the original name. Iluko refers to the language of the Ilocano.

The geographic depression of the Ilocos region is largely due to the hilly feature of the landscape hemmed in by the peaks of the Malaya range that merges with the higher ridges of the Gran Cordillera Central. The topography of Ilocos projects the appearance of a series of salad bowls rimmed by rolling hills on a cramped table. Being contained in a relatively bare coast, the region is vulnerable to extreme climatic changes. During the dry spell, the land is particularly parched because the eastern ridges prevent the inflow of wind and precipitation from the eastern valleys and uplands.

This coastal region combines starkly contrasting terrains. At its southern sprawl in Pangasinan are fertile alluvial flats that extend from the coast of Lingayen Gulf to the foothills of the Cordillera and the Caraballo Sur mountains. La Union and Ilocos Sur towns alternate between hilly and flatland. Ilocos Norte landscape interweaves alluvial plains, hillocks, and deserts; but toward the northern tip, in Pagudpud, the wooded mountains tower directly over the large area situated in the hinterlands occupied by other cultural minorities who have been, to a large extent, acculturated to the Ilocano lifeways.

As of 2000, the Iluko-speaking people number 6,938,920, or almost seven million, constituting 9.07% of the total Philippine population of 76,504,077, thus making them the third biggest ethnolinguistic group, after Tagalog and Cebuano. Although the Ilocano people are widely dispersed throughout the country, if not the world, the largest concentration of their population is still to be found in their original home provinces, where they number almost two million, broken down as follows: 658,587, which is the total population of Ilocos Sur; 741,906, the total population of La Union; and 568,017 in Ilocos Norte, where they constitute 93% of a total population of 594,206, the other 7% comprising the Kankanaey, the Isneg, and the Tagalog (NSO 2010).

However, the Ilocano have become the dominant group as well in their neighboring provinces where they have emigrated: In Quirino, 72% or 106,640 of the population, are Ilocano; in Abra, 71.9% or 150,457; in Isabela, 68.71% or 883,982; in Cagayan, 68.7% or 680,256; in Nueva Vizcaya, 62.3% or 228,027; and in Apayao, 50.82% or 49,328. There are other provinces in northern Luzon where they constitute the majority, or if they appear to be the minority in proportion to a province’s total population, they are the largest group in real numbers because the rest of the province’s population is divided among other ethnic groups: In Pangasinan, they are 44.25% or 1,076,219; in Tarlac, 40.9% or 436,907; in Nueva Ecija, 19.3% or 319,858; in Zambales, 27.5% or 118,889; in Baguio City, 44.5% or 111,132; in Aurora, 31.43% or 54,557; in Benguet, 13.4% or 43,984; in Kalinga, 24% or 41,633; in Ifugao, 13.7% or 22,171; in the Mountain Province, 6,968; and in Batanes, 149 (NSO 2000; 2010).

In central and southern Luzon, including the National Capital Region (NCR), also known as Metro Manila, they make up almost half a million, dispersed as follows: Bulacan, 24,159; Bataan, 11,259; Pampanga, 9,996; Angeles City, 3,680; and Olongapo City, 2.54% or 8,842. They are dispersed in the NCR as follows: Quezon City, 5.2% or 112,258; City of Manila, 49,831; Caloocan City, 44,487; Valenzuela City, 15,092; Pasig City, 13,668; and NCR, 15,657. They are in the southern Tagalog region, also known as CALABARZON, such as in the provinces of Rizal, 37,278; Laguna, 16,692; and Quezon, 2,146. In the MIMAROPA region: Occidental Mindoro, 26,766; Oriental Mindoro, 10,728; Marinduque, 237; and Palawan, 24,902 (NSO 2000; 2010).

The government census reflects about 200,000 Ilocano in Mindanao. This significant number in that region reflects the national government’s homestead program, which began during the Spanish colonial period, and the consequent displacement of that region’s indigenous peoples, including the Muslim groups: in Sultan Kudarat, there are 88,160 Ilocano or 17.17% of the province’s population; in Cotabato, also known as North Cotabato, 65,832; in Sarangani, 19,106; in Zamboanga del Sur, 14,086; in Maguindanao, 8,106; in Lanao del Sur, 5,300; and in Lanao del Norte, 563. By mid-2016, the Ilocano people would number at least 9.27 million in the Philippines, at a ratio of 9.07% of a projected total Philippine population of 102,250,133 (NSO 2000; 2010; WPR 2013).

In 1998-2005, Ilocano emigrants to Hawaii, numbering 31,346, made up at least 50% of the 62,366 Filipino emigrants in that state. With a current Filipino population of 300,000 in this same state, one may surmise that at least 150,000 of them are of Ilocano origin. Ilocano overseas workers worldwide number at least a quarter of a million, or 253,350. From the three home provinces of the Ilocano come at least 133,850 of the country’s overseas workers: 24,444 from Ilocos Sur; 94,111 from Ilocos Norte; and 15,295 from La Union. Many more come from the neighboring provinces with a significant Ilocano population, such as Pangasinan, which has 64,106 overseas workers; Cagayan Valley, 44,630; and Nueva Vizcaya, 10,764 (Fonbuena 2014; NSO 2000; 2010).

History of the Ilocano People

At the early stage of Spanish colonization, the maritime trade posts in Ilocos were linked by sailboats and by a lingua franca called Samtoy, a contraction of sao mi’toy meaning “our language here.” The Augustinian Andres Carro noted in his 1792 manuscript that Samtoy was used so extensively that the Spanish colonizers, led by Salcedo in 1571, learned the language because it was spoken by the people from Bangui to Agoo. Eventually the natives called it the Ilocano language.

Ilocano man illustration
Damian Domingo, Un Yndio Natural de la Provincia de Ylocos, circa 1830 (Paulino and Hetty Que Collection)

While many people in Abra Valley trace their ancestral links to lowland communities, they are in fact dwelling in the Cordillera range. The prehistoric migration and trade routes between this valley and the coast are the rivers interlinked with upland horse trails.

Ilocana Woman
Damian Domingo, Una Yndia Ylocana, circa 1830 (Paulino and Hetty Que Collection)

In the 16th century, the Ilocano who lived in the port towns of Candon, Laoag, Vigan, Lingayen, Bolinao, and Sual were already trading with the Chinese. In 1582, Spanish expeditionary forces came upon the natives of the Ilocos, whom they described as similar in appearance, attire, and manner of living to the mountain dwellers and those of the southern islands, specifically the Pintados (de Loarca 1903).

When the Spaniards, led by Juan de Salcedo, arrived in 1573, the tight-knit trade posts of the Ilocos put up a fierce resistance against the invaders; in retaliation, Salcedo and his men destroyed over 4,000 houses in just that year. The depopulation was such that authorities in Mexico were afraid that the Ilocos would not recover in six years or a lifetime. Salcedo subsequently became the first encomendero of the Ilocos. He founded near the old Vigan trade post, the Villa Fernandina, which he named after the Spanish king’s infant son. After he died in 1576, the villa was ravaged by an epidemic. It then fell under the administration of Vigan, and later was incorporated into the town.

All the riverside trade posts from Lingayen to Bangui were the first to be transformed into pueblos organized along the typical grid pattern radiating from the church, plaza, and town hall. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, Spanish control was established systematically through the conversion of the natives. The process of reduccion, or of keeping the people “under the bells,” forced other natives to migrate to the hinterlands and remote valleys, where they intermingled with the Igorot. For many generations, these new mixed settlements provided a refuge from Spanish raids and headhunting forays of the mountain dwellers until the latter were also converted by the missionaries.

Scene from Lino Brocka’s Dung-aw, starring Armida Siguion-Reyna as Gabriela Silang
Scene from Lino Brocka’s Dung-aw, starring Armida Siguion-Reyna as Gabriela Silang, 1975 (CCP/Lino Brocka Collection)

In reaction to the Spanish imposition of more and more onerous tributes and monopolies on the Ilocano, several revolts erupted from the 17th to the 19th centuries. In 1589, only 13 years after Salcedo’s death, the people of the northern town of Dingras rose in arms against the colonizers. In 1660, another revolt took place in San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte, led by Pedro Almazan, who had been inspired by the Malong Rebellion in Pangasinan. But the most renowned Ilocano revolt was that one led by the couple, Diego Silang and Gabriela de Estrada, from 1762 to 1763. This uprising is known today as the Ilocos Revolt because it drew participants not only from the provincial capital of Vigan but also from other towns. A simultaneous revolt, known as the Palaris Revolt and named after its leader, occurred in Pangasinan (Blair and Robertson 1906, vol. 49, 300).

The Ilocos Revolt can be divided into two independent but sequential events: The first uprising was led by Diego Silang (born 1730-died 1763), and the second uprising, by Gabriela de Estrada, also known as Gabriela Silang (born 1731-died 1763). At daybreak on 22 September 1762, on the day that the British invaded Manila, Diego Silang and 2,000 armed indios suddenly appeared at the residence of the alcalde mayor (provincial governor), whom they were intent on killing. They represented various sectors and classes, not only of Vigan but also of the neighboring towns, particularly Bantay, Santa Catalina, and San Vicente in Ilocos Sur. After the governor’s forced departure, the uprising lasted for eight months, until Silang’s assassination on 28 May 1763, and even beyond, when it was revived by his wife Gabriela and her uncle Nicolas Cariño (Palanco 2002, 521).

The revolt was motivated by the following factors, besides the people’s hatred of the alcalde mayor: their vehement objections to the tribute and forced labor; the British conquest of Manila, thus exposing the vulnerability of the Spanish colonizers; and the ban on free commerce in the provinces (Palanco 2002, 521-522).

Government officials engaged in trade were prone to abuse their position of power by extorting from the native traders and producers. Seven years before Silang’s revolt, the alcalde mayor had been put on trial conducted by Judge Santiago Orendain, who was a close friend of Silang. Among the alcalde’s accusers were three members of Vigan’s principalia: Don Julian Miranda, Don Martin Crispin, and Don Juan Salazar. Legal measures to stop government corruption were futile, however. Hence, a few years later, the government decided to profit from illegal commerce by imposing a tax on it called the alcabala. Seven years later, during Silang’s revolt and the British occupation, Orendain took Silang’s side against the Spaniards and facilitated negotiations between Silang and the British. The three accusers of the alcalde became members of Silang’s advisory council during the revolt (Palanco 2002, 516-526).

In the next months, after putting down two Spanish counteroffensives, Silang established a government, which was shaky at best as he juggled the Spanish and the British threats as well as the Ilocano elite’s growing resentment of him. He had demanded of the Spanish government that all Spaniards and mestizos from the province be expelled, and he was mainly recruiting the timawa (common people) to his movement. Silang was assassinated by his erstwhile comrades Miguel Vicos and Pedro Becbec (or Bicbic), at the instigation of the Augustinian friars and with the blessing of Bp Bernardo Ustariz (Palanco 2002, 523-530; Blair and Robertson 1906, vol. 49, 163-168, 302).

Gabriela de Estrada and the venerable elder Nicolas Cariño continued Silang’s fight. On 23 June 1763, the rebels burned down the town of Santa Catalina to flush out Pedro Becbec, who had by then been appointed chief justice as a reward for Silang’s assassination. By mid-July, however, the Augustinians had mustered about 9,000 men from the north to recapture Vigan and demolish its visitas so that all the natives would be forced to move to Vigan “within hearing of the bells.” The colonialist troops, on their way to attack Bantay, burned all the barrios and killed everything that moved, including the residents who had taken sanctuary in the church at the advice of the Spanish commanders. The troops then forced these people out and executed them on the church patios (Palanco 2000, 530-531).

Pingit Island, now Puro Pingit, became a refuge for everyone fleeing the Spanish reprisals. Gabriela de Estrada retreated to the uplands of Abra, where she had the support of Tinguian warriors armed with bamboo lances and amulets. The colonialist forces giving chase engaged the rebels in a battle at Sitio Banaoang, between Ilocos Sur and Abra, and lost 35 troops. However, on 20 September, colonialist troops from Cagayan, led by Captain Manuel de Arza, quelled the rebellion with their superior firepower and executed Gabriela de Estrada, together with 90 others, on the gallows. The burial record of Diego Silang’s widow reads: “Doña Gabriela de Estrada, viuda de Diego Silang, natural de esta ciudad, del barangay de Endaya” (Palanco 2000, 531-532). The notable clans of Vigan who had supported the Silangs left town. A monument that had been erected at Bantay, Ilocos Sur in honor of the assassin Vicos was replaced by another to honor Diego Silang.

After Governor-General Jose de Basco imposed the Tobacco Monopoly in 1781 to raise revenue for the colonial government, Ilocano farmers again mounted a series of uprisings in Bacarra and Laoag in 1788, led by Juan Manzano. This was followed by another revolt led by Lumgao, which had religious undertones and which eventually led to the split of the Ilocos province into Sur and Norte in 1822.

The first decade of the 19th century also witnessed the imposition of the Basi Monopoly. The decree banned, on pain of grave penalty and fine, the drinking of basi (sugarcane wine) not bought in government stores. Although the native wine is normally fermented at home, the Ilocano were forced to sell their produce at a low price to the stores, from which they then bought back the wine at a higher price. In 1807, a few years after the imposition of the monopoly, the Ilocano in the northern towns marched with raised bolos and bows and arrows, all the way to San Ildefonso near the capital town of Vigan. The Basi Revolt, which started in the hilly town of Piddig, was led by Pedro Mateo along with a few Spanish deserters from Vigan. The rebels secured the allegiance of the people along the towns they passed. However, the massive mobilization of the disenchanted folk became more unwieldy as the rebels approached Bantaoay River in San Ildefonso. The Vigan colonial forces were well positioned at the southern bank of the river that provided a natural barrier to the rebels. Despite this obstacle, the rebels tried to cross the river, but in this vulnerable position, they were easily routed. The revolt is also known as the Ambaristo Revolt, in honor of the bravest right-hand man of Mateo (Ramirez 1991, 68-74).

Folk accounts of the early 19th-century revolts must have been current when Father Jose Burgos was a young boy in Vigan, and it was perhaps inevitable that he would become a leader of the widespread clerical nationalism or secularization movement of the clergy at the close of the 19th century. When the revolutionary movement led by the Katipunan spread outside the Tagalog region, many Ilocano joined the armed struggle for independence, some emerging as top officials of the Revolutionary Government, such as Director of War Antonio Luna. Katipunero (Katipunan members) such as Isabelo Abaya of Candon and Eleuteria Florentino-Reyes of Vigan organized the townsfolk to continue the fight for independence during the Philippine-American War even long after the surrender of many generals close to General Emilio Aguinaldo (Scott 1986, 23-27). Aguinaldo sought sanctuary in the Ilocos hinterlands prior to his crossing the Cordillera on his way to his last stand in Palanan, precisely because the Ilocano defenders were fighting on many guerrilla fronts—from the Cordillera hinterlands like the Amburayan and Abra Valleys to the southernmost tip of Ilocos Norte.

Throughout the centuries of Spanish rule and even after, the Ilocano were noted for their tendency to migrate. Most of the old towns in the Ilocos spilled over to adjoining sites because of population growth and the limited areas for tillage and habitation. Beginning in mid-18th century, there was a steady migration from the coast to the midlands that was matched by a movement of settlers from the uplands to certain uninhabited coastal sites, particularly in the northern reaches of the Ilocos. Many folk accounts in Ilocos Norte towns trace the original settlers of these towns to Tinguian clans from the uplands who first came down to trade but subsequently founded farming and fishing villages.

Toward the end of the 18th century, the scarcity of land and population pressure impelled more Ilocano families to set up homesteads in the Cagayan Valley, at the opposite side of the Cordillera, as well as in melting pot areas like Tarlac, Zambales, and Pangasinan. The friars also conscripted entire Ilocano families to join the pioneer settlements in the country’s southern regions, including Mindanao and Palawan.

General Manuel Tinio
General Manuel Tinio (Colorized by the Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines)

Most of northern Luzon, including the Ilocos region, was already in the hands of the Filipino revolutionary army at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which turned over the country to the young imperial nation, the United States. Filipino resistance within and around Manila delayed the entry of the American forces into the Ilocos. In November 1899, the Ilocos forces, headed by the 23-year-old General Manuel Tinio of Nueva Ecija, were pitted against the American army and navy. Tinio and his generals, the Villamor brothers Blas and Juan of Abra and Estanislao Reyes of Vigan, resorted to guerrilla warfare. Military vicar general Father Gregorio Aglipay mounted a separate campaign in Ilocos Norte. The Americans starved out the guerrillas by destroying crop sources and preventing local support by hamletting and stockading towns and barrios. Ilocano resistance ended in April 1901 (Scott 1986, ix-xii).

When the plantations in Hawaii and the west coast of the United States called for contract workers in the first decade of the 20th century, most of the adventurous cane cutters and fruit pickers who responded were Ilocano peasants. Some 200 Ilocano sugar plantation workers arrived in Hawaii in 1906 and 1907. By 1929, Ilocano immigrants to Hawaii had reached 71,594. Most of the 175,000 Filipinos who went to Hawaii between 1906 and 1935 were single Ilocano men (Foronda 1976, 25; Pertierra 1994, 58).

Major Isabelo Abaya, center with cane, and his Igorot recruits during the Philippine-American War, Candon, Ilocos Sur, 1899
Major Isabelo Abaya, center with cane, and his Igorot recruits during the Philippine-American War, Candon, Ilocos Sur, 1899 (Photo courtesy of Arnaldo Dumindin)

The laborers who worked in Alaskan canneries were also Ilocano migrants. The struggle of the Ilocano in the United States to fulfill their dreams was chronicled in the novel America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, an Ilocano migrant from Pangasinan, who saw the exploitative system of that period as something more harsh and uncertain than the conditions in the Ilocos farms. Quite a few of those Ilocano migrant workers secured a college education in the United States and came back to the Philippines to teach. Some persistent ones stayed on long enough to earn a pension, which they sent to their relatives in the Ilocos or used to buy a house and some land in their Ilocos hometown. Many of the new concrete houses rising in recent times amid farms in the Ilocos, from Pangasinan to the tip of Ilocos Norte, have been built by these repatriate Ilocano adventurers or their heirs.

The hidden coves and valleys of the region became the guerrilla zone when the Japanese invaders landed on the Ilocos coast in December 1941. Following the strategy of political control set up by the American colonizers, the Japanese Imperial Army persuaded some local officials to cooperate with them while they hunted the defiant leaders in their upland guerrilla bases. The lack of unity of the Ilocano guerrillas was partly due to conflicting areas of operation and partly to the rivalries of American and Filipino commanders.

The coves in Santiago, Ilocos Sur and the remote bays in Bangui, Ilocos Norte were the secret landing sites of supplies from Allied forces. The guerrillas, however, could not operate extensively because of the cramped coastal terrain and population density. Hence, there were relatively light wartime clashes and destruction during the Japanese occupation. Besides, the Ilocos was then under the care of the Society of the Divine Word whose key missionaries were Germans. There was a concerted effort among these missionaries to impose discipline on the Japanese soldiers who respected the priests because Germany and Japan belonged to the Axis powers.

The Ilocano were divided in loyalty during the Japanese occupation, as they were under the American regime. Some leaders swayed the people into accepting Japanese control, in the same way Mena Crisologo of Vigan and Claro Caluya of Piddig had persuaded the people to show allegiance to the American flag earlier in the century. Pro-Japanese leaders went around the region campaigning in public gatherings for the Japanese-sponsored Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. At the same time, some leaders went to the hills to organize guerrilla forces, such as Floro Crisologo of Ilocos Sur and Roque Ablan of Ilocos Norte. However, the guerrilla groups were not united and this prevented them from inflicting severe damage to the invading forces. Worse, their disunity sometimes gave rise to fake guerrilla leaders or units who harassed the people more than they fought the Kempeitai forces. The Ilocano guerrillas became more active when the Japanese Imperial Army retreated to the Cordillera upon the return of the American forces. They displayed their gallantry side by side with the Americans in the capture of Bessang Pass in Cervantes, where the Japanese concentrated their forces to enable General Tomoyuki Yamashita to regroup his command staff on the other side of the Cordillera. After the battle, many Ilocano were awarded various medals and citations, a few of which later turned out to be dubious because they are not found in the records of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).

General Artemio Ricarte
General Artemio Ricarte (Colorized by the Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines)

Right after the defeat of the Japanese Imperial Army, the social and political situation in the Ilocos was not stable because of the lingering effects of the clash of loyalty and the rifts in the community caused by the war, as well as the treasonous acts of certain leaders. The postwar general amnesty program cleared the courts of numerous charges and countercharges arising from the wartime killings and reprisals.

General Antonio Luna
General Antonio Luna (Colorized by the Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines)

The Ilocano conscripts to the USAFFE, like other Filipino soldiers throughout the country, were deprived of most of their wartime benefits because of the Rescission Act passed by the US Congress in 1946. In 1991, the US Congress approved the USAFFE veterans’ application for American citizenship, but the recent law does not provide for the restoration of financial and other benefits legally extended at the height of World War II.

The Ilocos region is the stronghold of the Marcos dynasty. Despite the ouster of the dictator Marcos Sr. in 1986, his wife Imelda and two children, Marcos Jr. and Imee Marcos, have won national and provincial electoral seats (Associated Press 2010). Thus, the Marcos dynasty exemplifies a basis for the description of the Ilocos region as the “solid north.” This epithet, however, is belied by principled Ilocano individuals who have put up a persistent resistance to Marcos’s martial law and its lingering effects at the price of either their freedom or their lives. Jose Maria Sison, born in 1939 in Cabugao, Ilocos Sur, founded the left-wing youth organization, Kabataang Makabayan (KM) in 1964, revived the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in 1968, and organized the New People’s Army in 1969. Having gone into hiding when martial law was declared in 1972, he was captured in 1977, tortured, and kept largely in solitary confinement until his release in 1986, when the newly elected president Corazon Aquino declared amnesty for all political prisoners (Toledo 2012).

Antero Guerrero Santos, 1948-1971, of Laoag, Ilocos Norte, was a student leader in the years leading to the First Quarter Storm of 1970. By 1971, he had taken his political convictions to the remote mountain villages of Isabela, where he was learning to organize farmers and to expand the resistance movement against the Marcos dictatorship that had just begun. Santos, along with three fellow activists, disappeared in the currents of a river in Barrio Dipogo, Isabela, as they were fleeing heavily armed government soldiers. To this day they remain desaparecido (Bantayog 2015).

Poet and visual artist Alan Jazmines, born in 1944 in Ilocos Norte, was arrested in 1974 and 1982, both during martial law. In 1978, his torture in the hands of the military, as well as that of his fellow political detainees, drew major international attention to the brutality of the Marcos dictatorship. He remains in political detention since his arrest for the third time in 2011, despite the Philippine government’s guarantee of immunity for him as a consultant on the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front (“Alan” 2015).

Events that led to the 2000 EDSA Revolt, which ousted President Joseph Estrada and ended in his conviction for plunder in 2007, were triggered by anomalies in Ilocos Sur’s Virginia tobacco industry. In 1992 Republic Act (RA) 7171, also known as “An Act to Promote the Development of the Farmers Producing in the Virginia Tobacco-Producing Provinces,” was passed primarily through the efforts of then Ilocos Sur Rep Luis “Chavit” Singson. It provided for a “tobacco excise tax fund,” which meant that 15% of the tobacco tax collected by the national government should be returned to the four tobacco-producing regions: Abra, Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, and La Union. In 1999, Singson, who had been governor of Ilocos Sur since 1992, publicly accused Estrada of receiving 130 million pesos in kickbacks out of the 200 million of Ilocos Sur’s tobacco excise tax fund (Rufo 2013; Associated Press 2000; Sandiganbayan 2007).

Ilocanos' Way of Life

The harsh climatic intervals in the region are not conducive to the lush tropical verdure found in many parts of the country. When the southwest monsoon blows in, the northern reaches of the Ilocos experience the country’s highest average rainfall. Then from mid-November to March, the coast is visited by the Siberian winds, locally known as amian, bringing the lowest average rainfall in the archipelago. The deforestation of the range since the Spanish times has caused massive erosion and siltation of riverways.

A tobacco farmer in Sulvec, Narvacan, Ilocos Sur
A tobacco farmer in Sulvec, Narvacan, Ilocos Sur, 2017 (Freddie G. Lazaro)

Largely because of the extreme weather changes and the scarcity of arable land, the Ilocano have evolved an intensive system of agriculture and social values to cope with seasonal adversities: adaptability, frugality, industry, and neighborliness. To make ends meet, even marginal farm lots are tilled almost all year round to suitable crops. Rice, corn, and various vegetables are the main crops for subsistence in the region. Cotton, camote or sweet potato, tomatoes, garlic, and onions are grown either after the harvest of the staples or after the rains, both for the table and the markets. The town of Sinait, Ilocos Sur, is the garlic-trading center, which continues to thrive despite the country’s growing dependence on imported garlic. Besides providing garlic to retail markets, Sinait has the capacity to deliver a regular supply of several metric tons of peeled and powdered garlic to at least one popular fast-food chain nationwide as well as a food and cosmetic company (Guiang 2013).

In every town, certain farms are still devoted to sugarcane, although it is no longer the main cash crop since the introduction of Virginia tobacco in the 1950s. Sugarcane is processed into hard brown-sugar cakes, the favorite native wine basi, and vinegar. Coconuts are raised in shoreline sitios for the oil, which has varied uses among the Ilocano, from massage liniment to expectorant, as well as for the meat used in making bibingka (rice-flour cakes), kalamay (rice-flour-and-coconut sweets), and bocayo (candy from grated coconut). Mango orchards now enjoy a boom in Pangasinan.

Extinct farm products are cotton, indigo, and maguey. Indigo dye was a major export commodity shipped to Europe and the Americas up to the turn of the 20th century. Maguey used to be grown more extensively for making ropes, bags, and sandals. Native tobacco, brown and sun dried, has always been grown largely for home consumption and the local market.

Carabaos and cows are raised by the Ilocano for a dual purpose: first as a draft animal for the farm and for transport; and second, for meat. There are not as many goats as hogs and chickens in the Ilocano farm and yard. Deer meat is a delicacy available during the hunting season in the wilds of Abra and Ilocos Norte. Abra is the breeding place for horses used for the calesa (horse-drawn carriage) in Vigan and its environs, and the bigger karetela designed for transporting harvests from the farms around Narvacan, Ilocos Sur and Bangued, Abra.

Most craftware of the Ilocano is made primarily for use in their livelihoods: saddle and bridle from Bangued; bamboo and twine baskets from the upland towns; clayware from San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte; burnay stoneware jars from Vigan; salakot or dried gourd hat from Abra; stone mortar and pestle from San Esteban, Ilocos Sur; abel or handloom fabric from Bangar, La Union, Caoayan, Ilocos Sur, and Paoay, Ilocos Norte; shell craft from various towns of La Union; slippers and sandals from Vigan; bolo and scythes from Santa, Ilocos Sur; wooden furniture from San Vicente, Vigan and Bantay, Ilocos Sur; and bamboo baskets and furniture from various places in Pangasinan. Being utilitarian in intent, these craftware are generally made to last and are rarely ornate or decorated.

Burnay makers in Vigan, Ilocos Sur
Burnay makers in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, 1990 (CCP Collections)

The exceptions to this pragmatic aspect in skilled artistry are jewelry making, now a vanishing art, in Bantay, Ilocos Sur; the carving of religious icons; and furniture making in San Vicente, also in Ilocos Sur. Vigan’s famous guitar and violin craft is almost a thing of the past while harp making in Bacarra declined after the transistor radio began to blare in farmers’ huts all over the region.

Other cottage industries that thrive because of necessity and not on account of entrepreneurial acumen are salt making, bagoong (fermented salted fish) making, seaweed gathering and processing, meat processing for longganiza and chicharon, making of delicacies and sweets for pasalubong, and preservation of fish, including the highly valued fry called ipon harvested in certain months along mouths of big rivers. Aquatic food items caught or raised in inland waters and fishponds form a sizeable portion of the Ilocano viand. But fishing is a relatively marginal activity in the Ilocos mainly because of inadequate gears and lack of entrepreneurs to pioneer offshore trawl fishing.

Large-scale mining in the region has caused ecological destruction, dislocation of local residents, and loss of people’s livelihood. Black sand, also known as magnetite iron ore, is dug out of the shores of Aparri, Buguey, and Lallo in Cagayan for export to China. As with other industries generating enormous profits, black-sand mining has been embroiled in a graft-and-corruption case amounting to 10.7 million pesos against a government head and, in another case, caused the homicide of a mayor of Cagayan (GMA Network 2013; Whymining 2014; ATM 2015; Bernal 2014; de Guzman 2014; GMA Network 2014.).

Ilocano outmigration has had a long history since the Spanish colonial period. The Ilocano have pioneered in lowland farming techniques in other regions and been employed as government bureaucrats, military personnel, and teachers. A significant amount of the provincial revenue comes from overseas workers whose remittances have almost entirely supported some barangays (Torres- Mejia 2000).

The colonial vista of Vigan, arising from the rows of brick-and-tile ancestral houses hugging the narrow streets, has made it a favorite place for location shooting among filmmakers, either from Filipino film studios or foreign outfits. In the mid-1950s, Hollywood filmed The Day of the Trumpet starring John Agar, in Vigan. Many period movies made by Fernando Poe Jr. were filmed here. These ventures have given some part-time jobs to Ilocano talents, artisans, hoteliers, and food vendors.

Ilocos Norte’s Bangui and Pagudpud wind farmsare icons of 21st century technology, being electric power generators utilizing wind as the energy source. Blending with the province’s scenic landscape, the turbines are tourist attractions, standing in a row along several kilometers of the shoreline and facing the West Philippine Sea. The Bangui Wind Farm, established in 2005, is the first in Southeast Asia. Its 21 wind turbines generate 52 megawatts (MW) of electricity, while those of Pagudpud generate 81 MW. Since 2013, the 50 turbines of Burgos Wind Farm in Ilocos Norte, being larger than those in Bangui, have been drawing even more tourists (Lazaro 2015).

That the ouster of President Joseph Estrada in 2000 was caused by anomalies in the tobacco industry of Ilocos is a stark illustration of the inextricable intertwining of politics and economics in the region. It began in 1956, when the Ilocano president Ramon Magsaysay legislated support for the industry and its farmers. During its 16-year existence—from 1956 to 1972—the Farmers’ Cooperative Marketing Association (FACOMA) earned the epithet “pakumaw,” referring to a horseback-riding, black-garbed bandit and kidnapper, but which was the farmers’ word for “letting your tobacco disappear.” This was because local political bureaucrats and landlords had taken control of the FACOMA and were cashing in on its benefits, which had been meant exclusively for the farmers (Torres-Mejia 2000, 35).

In the 1960s, the tobacco monopoly in Ilocos Sur was in the hands of the Crisologo family, the father being a congressman; the mother, the provincial governor; and their son, heading a private army called the saka-saka (barefoot). Farmers were forced to sell to this family at 1/5 the price that their tobacco leaves could have fetched in the neighboring province. The other three provinces did not fare significantly better: Out of a reported 35 million kilograms tobacco leaves harvested in this whole region, the actual export of tobacco leaves was a mere 1 million kilograms. Banana and papaya leaves were substituted for tobacco, and receipts were issued for “ghost merchandise.” The anti-heroes to these villains in the system were the unlicensed buyers called “cowboys” who bought the tobacco leaves on the field at risk of their lives. Haggling was their method of transaction, thus allowing the farmers some power over the price (Torres-Mejia 2000).

In 1970, the industry collapsed, but so did the ruling dynasty: The congressman was assassinated in the Vigan Cathedral; his wife was defeated in the elections by a cousin who would play a pivotal role in the impeachment of future president Estrada in 2000; and their son was sentenced to life imprisonment for the burning of two barangays in Bantay municipality. In 1972, the government shifted to the principle of laissez faire and opened up the tobacco industry to free trade: Transnational corporations were allowed entry, and rural banks offering tobacco loans replaced the FACOMA (Torres-Mejia 2000).

In 1999 to 2007, the total amount of the tobacco excise fund for the four tobacco-producing provinces added up to 10.057 billion pesos, intended to be used exclusively in the interests of the tobacco farmers. Ilocos Sur was to receive 50%, the largest share of the fund, and the rest was to be divided among the provinces of Ilocos Norte, La Union, and Abra. In 1999, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) reported to the justice department that Governor Singson had taken 170 million pesos in cash advances from the fund. The anomalies continued after Estrada’s conviction in 2007. In 2009, the Commission on Audit (COA) reported that 1.3 billion pesos of the same fund had not been properly liquidated by the office of the governor. Moreover, it was used to finance expenses disallowed by RA 7171 such as the non-functioning 332-million-peso tomato paste plant in the town of Santa, the privately-owned Multi-Line Food Processing International Inc, a badminton court, a thousand T-shirts, contractual workers’ wages, and office supplies. In 2013, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales filed graft charges against Singson and his successor Deogracias Victor Savellano for having misspent at least 26 million pesos of the fund (Rufo 2013; Rappler 2013).

Ilocos Political System

Unlike in Cebu or Manila, there were no distinguished chieftains in the region when the conquistadores raided the coastal villages. The political system was rooted in the clan or the extended family structure. This made it easier for the colonizers to establish their encomiendas and political dominance. The clan system also enabled the emergence of leaders and warlords who directed the people in the series of revolts that wracked the region.

Ilocos Norte Capitol
Ilocos Norte Capitol, 2014 (Alaric A. Yanos, Provincial Government of Ilocos Norte)

As in Mexico, the Spaniards established the pueblos as the first step in colonizing the Ilocos. The church and other ecclesiastical buildings were in the center of the pueblo, as were the politico-military offices and quarters. The plaza and surrounding streets were used for religious rituals and military drills. These streets strung the houses of officials and the principalia who owned most of the landholdings. As in other pueblos, the town planning was compelled by the dual objectives of conquest and conversion.

In the Ilocos, as in other regions of Christianized Philippines, the friars enjoyed tremendous powers. Under the patronage of the Spanish king, the members of the clergy were exempt from civil governance, nor could they be transferred by the governor-general without the king’s approval. Thus, the friars combined the powers of the church and royal protection. But in the Ilocos, ever an active base for colonizing the uplands and a region far from the central government, the friars assumed extra powers and privileges over the flock and the guardia civil (constabulary). For one, they were often more up-to-date on public and private affairs than the local officials. Moreover, elections to political office and undertaking of public projects required friar approval, which effectively diminished local leadership (Scott 1986, 10-11).

The political structure was the same for all the pueblos. The principalia elected from among themselves the gobernadorcillo, the municipal mayor who was dependent on the support of the cabezas de barangay who, in turn, were responsible for collecting taxes and extracting labor services from the citizens. The provincial governor or alcalde mayor was most of the time a ceremonial figure, acting more as an overseer for projects originating in Manila. The self-perpetuating principalia carried out civil governance under the guidance of the friars. Because these native rulers were the power brokers of the clans, it was also from their ranks, ironically, that rebel leaders or warlords emerged time and again.

These leaders enjoyed ready support from among their tenants and workers, as well as their extended families composed of blood and affinal relations among other families of the landed gentry. Moreover, they enjoyed the loyalty of the people who were traditionally in awe of the maingel (brave and just), the way their highland neighbors and kin followed the minger or mingel, the brave ones. In 1818, the Spanish colonial administration divided the Ilocos province into Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur to distribute the rapidly growing population and to keep a tighter control over the people (Wallace 2006, 16).

Under the American colonial administration, most of these clan leaders in Ilocos who led the people’s fight for freedom were eventually harnessed by the new colonizers in the pacification campaign as well as in the mass-education program. The same method was used by the Japanese invaders, but a number of American-educated professionals joined the guerrilla forces in the hills.

Officially, the Ilocos region is governed by the Department of Interior and Local Government, acting in behalf of the president. The provinces are each headed by a governor and a vice governor, with a representative for each district, and board districts composed of four members each. The municipality is a conglomeration of a number of barangays and is administered by elective and appointive officials. The barangay is synonymous to a village, consisting of not less than 1,000 inhabitants and administered by a set of elective officials headed by a punong barangay. The barangay functions as a basic arm for delivering goods and services at the community level. The purok is the smallest unit, a number of which compose the barangay. The purok leader and his or her council settle neighborhood disruptions, such as noisy family squabbles, stray animals, drunken behavior, and petty theft. The gravity of the problems, ranging from social issues to hard crime, determines whether these should be elevated to the barangay, municipal, or provincial authorities (Wallace 2006, 17-18).

In 1987, the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) was created out of five provinces in the Ilocos Region and Cagayan Valley. In a 1991 referendum and then again in 1999, Abra, together with all but one of the Cordillera provinces, voted against the autonomy of the region, which would have been called the Cordillera Autonomous Region (Casambre 2006).

The political rivalries today, which become volatile during election periods, are still driven by customary leadership based on clan loyalty and on vested interest, centering on the control of the government resources and the yearly tobacco trade. The rise of the Ilocano bloc in Congress from the 1950s to the 1960s was propelled by the tobacco subsidy, which was part of the business strategy of deported American tycoon Harry Stonehill. From this corporate base, using the big earnings from the tobacco trade, Stonehill succeeded in manipulating Philippine politics and industry with the help of Ilocano politicians. When Stonehill was ousted from power in the mid-1960s after the investigations of Jose Diokno, then top state prosecutor, the profitable tobacco trade became a source of rivalry among Ilocano politicians.

The gunslaying of the powerful congressman Floro Crisologo inside the Vigan Cathedral is believed by many Ilocano to have been linked with the rivalry for the control of the tobacco industry, the major cash crop of Ilocos and the prime factor behind the rise and fall of many Ilocano politicians. Studies on the links of the tobacco industry and Ilocos politics have shown that trade in this cash crop has provided the financial resources and overzealous supporters during poll campaigns, thus making it the most emotional issue among Ilocano voters.

This livelihood in the Ilocos became the power lever of some Ilocano leaders who created the myth of the “solid north”—which led to widespread terrorism and electoral fraud. Through the “solid north” scheme, politicians from other regions desirous of the “solid” Ilocano vote were pressured to support the tobacco subsidy and the power play of the Ilocano leaders. Grateful tobacco traders were the main source of money and materials for this type of politicking.

For good or ill, the Philippines has had three Ilocano presidents: Elpidio Quirino, Ramon Magsaysay, and Ferdinand Marcos. Other prominent Ilocano leaders are Quintin Paredes, Camilo Osias, Vicente Singson Encarnacion, Benito Soliven, Ignacio Villamor, Jorge Bocobo, Josefa Llanes-Escoda, Salvador P. Lopez, Onofre D. Corpuz, Fred Ruiz Castro, and Jose Maria Sison. In 2008, Grace Pádaca, a two-term governor of Isabela from 2004 to 2010, received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service. Coming from a middle-class family with parents as educators, she had achieved the improbable feat of breaking the power of the clan dynasty that had ruled the province of Isabela since 1967. Her political base was composed largely of her listeners, to whom she was “Bombo Grace,” broadcaster and political analyst on Bombo Radyo in Cauayan, Isabela, from 1986 to 2000 (Sipress 2004, A28; RMAF 2008).

Ilocano Culture, Traditions and Customs

The precolonial social structure in most parts of the archipelago consisted of three layers within each community (de Loarca 1705 and 1903; de Plasencia 1906). In the Ilocos, the top layer was composed of the babaknang families, who later comprised the principalia; the cailianes, who owned home lots but tilled the landholdings of the babaknang clans; and, at the bottom, the adipen or slaves, who became such by birth or for indebtedness.

Ilocano farmer wearing native hat, cape, and rain skirt and Ilocana vendor wearing saya, tapis, and baro
Ilocano farmer wearing native hat, cape, and rain skirt and Ilocana vendor wearing saya, tapis, and baro (Laplace 1835)

Among the cailianes usually emerged the artisans and specialists like the healers, salt makers, stem cutters, and wood gatherers, who supported themselves by their labor. They also provided labor to the babaknang when the season called for it, as in monsoon months when the farms required more hands, or when the well-to-do needed some house repairs and extra help during banquets and social gatherings. The cailianes normally brought some produce from the farms and orchards for the banquet and brought home a token of food served at the party. This customary practice of give-and-take has strengthened the bonds between these groups—the upper class providing the occasion and bounty to be shared, the lower class giving their labor and loyalty. Some social scientists prefer to focus on the behavioral and attitudinal aspects by calling it patron-client relationship, where the rich and the powerful serve as the constant source of social and psychological aid when the poorer families are in dire need. Generally, however, there has been a considerable degree of social mobility among the cailianes, particularly because they have special skills and therefore can migrate or form new homesteads far from the community.

The agkakabbalay (household) begins with a newly married couple living in their own house, not with their parents. The couple calls each other asawa. When they become parents, their anak (children) call the father tatang and the mother inang. Siblings are kabsat: The older brother is manong and the older sister manang; the younger sibling, regardless of gender, is ading. Other kabagyan (relatives) compose their own households in their own residences. The ikit are the siblings and their spouses on the father’s side; the uliteg are the siblings and their spouses on the mother’s side. Male cousins are called kasinsin; female cousins are kapiddua. One’s nephews and nieces are kaanakan. The brother-in-law is kayong, the sister-in-law, ipag; their spouses are abirat. The manugang are one’s son- or daughter-in-law. The katugangan are the parents-in-law. Members of a nuclear family that might typify the migrant tendencies of the Ilocano may be dispersed geographically thus: one son in Hawaii, two sons in Cagayan and Mindanao; the youngest son remaining behind to tend to their small landholding; one married daughter living in her husband’s residence; and one unmarried daughter staying home to look after the parents (Wallace 2006, 26-27; Griffiths 1988, 16).

The system of public education and the diverse prospects in professional life have eroded the social barriers of old. Moreover, the migration of Ilocano workers has further blurred this social levelling. Today, the traditional feasts and holidays still revive the social divide between the rich and the poor, or between the old rich and new rich, simply because the trappings of wealth in the past—like lifesized religious statuary and residence in premier blocks of the town—always come to the fore during these social and religious rituals. Hence, although retired balikbayan (returned overseas workers) may have acquired assets and a financial capacity equal to those of the old rich, they do not have the social and political connections, having been away for most of their adult lives and having risen from humble, often peasant origins (Griffiths 1988, 56-57; Torres-Mejia 2006, 32).

An occasion for either establishing or affirming one’s social prestige, besides being an occasion for community revelry, is the town fiesta. It may be held on any of the following special days: the feast day of the town’s patron saint, the anniversary of a historic event, or at the peak of the town’s trading season. The selection of the fiesta queen, which highlights the celebration, is also the climax of a month-long series of fund-raising activities. The votes for the candidates are purchased by friends, relatives, and political or institutional sponsors such as the parish church or a school. The candidate who brings in the most money is proclaimed queen. Final canvassing is done on fiesta night, interspersed with fund-raising dancing and food auctions. Men choose their dancing partners from among the candidates for a fixed amount. Traditionally, the price is “five pesos a dance.” The candidates’ supporters auction off food items, ranging from chocolate boxes to lechon (roasted pig). A government official who is also the town patron is expected not only to outbid supporters of his own candidate but also those of all the candidates. A chocolate box, for instance, has been known to cost an official 17,500 pesos. The funds collected go to fiesta expenses and a community project such as a waiting shed or an artesian well (Wallace 2006, 203-207; Griffiths 1988, 61-63).

Growing up the Ilocano way is to imbibe steadily the customary beliefs and rites, alongside the current trends in culture purveyed by mass media. The cherished beliefs and practices of previous generations can still be observed in some villages far from urban centers, or in families where wisdom and sentiments of the elders hold sway.

A family can call upon any of five folk healers when a member falls ill or needs medical assistance: The mangagas, also known as arbolaryo, is the traditional healer who has a thorough knowledge of the medicinal properties of a wide range of herbs, including the leaves, roots, bark, flowers, and seeds. They treat not only physical illnesses but also those caused by invisible beings. The partera or mangablon (unlicensed midwife or birth attendant) primarily helps the mother deliver her baby but on other occasions, may also be consulted on gynecological matters. The mammullo treats bone injuries and other related aches and pains with massage techniques and various kinds of massage oils. The mannuma treats animal and insect bites, which can range from the venomous to the tiny. The mannuma uses a small piece of glass or carabao horn to cut the affected skin, so he can suck out the poison (Wallace 2006, 34).

Some beliefs relating to prenatal care and child rearing are still observed, though they are waning. These include discouraging the woman from eating dark-skinned fruits lest the child is born dark; and discouraging her from sitting at the top of the stairs so that their labor pains will not be prolonged. Sitting on a mat or rug minimizes the pain of childbirth. Sleeping at daytime will cause her baby to have ebbal (edema), bloated face and feet. A woman who does not tie her long hair back whenever she goes out will cause her to deliver a snake with her baby. She takes some salt with her to keep evil spirits from snatching her unborn child. There are taboos as well for friends and relatives of the mother-to-be. Anyone standing on the threshold of her home will cause her a difficult delivery. When the woman is in labor, visitors must be kept away lest any one of them might be carrying a sungat, which brings bad luck. As soon as his wife’s labor starts, the husband conducts the anglem, which is a simple ritual of burning a pile of old rags in a bak-ka (clay jar) underneath the house to keep evil spirits away. He also jumps over his wife three times for good fortune (Wallace 2006, 27).

To ensure that the child will be intelligent, the placenta and a pencil are wrapped together in a newspaper and buried; additionally, a folded newspaper is placed under the infant’s head as a pillow. The umbilical cord is dried and kept by the mother among her personal jewelry to ensure that the child does not abandon its parents when it has grown. If the newborn wears used clothes, it will grow up to be frugal. However, these must be carefully chosen because the baby will become close to the owner of these clothes (Wallace 2006, 30).

During the dalagan (first 15 days after delivery), the mother continues to heed certain prescribed actions and taboos to ensure her recovery. She lies on a balitang (inclined bamboo bed) with her child to make her bleeding flow down. Every day, she takes a drink of herbal tea purchased from the Yapayao, a neighboring ethnic group, and inhales the sidor (medicinal incense and smoke from a bowl of hot coal). The day after her delivery, she bathes in water with guava and pomelo leaves. On the fifth day, in a process called sarab, she is wrapped in a mat with heated guava leaves so as to warm her womb. Sitting on banana leaves wrapped around hot wood ashes has the same effect. On the ninth day, she takes a bath in water that has been filtered through rice-straw ashes. On the 15th day or when the hilot, partera, or mangablon decides that she can resume her normal routine, the mother takes the tennab, a bath lasting long enough for her to soak in alternating hot and cold water (Wallace 2006, 29-30).

A number of taboos and prescribed behavior attend the newborn child as well. Before the infant’s first foray from the home, a sign of the cross is drawn in charcoal on the baby’s face, and garlic is pinned to its clothes to fend off malignant beings. Keeping the baby’s first gift of money will give it a lifetime’s virtue of thrift. The baby sleeping on its stomach will bring financial misfortune on the family. A haircut before the baby’s first birthday will shorten its life. An adult touches the baby’s forehead when it enters his or her house for the first time so that it will feel comfortable. If a mother takes her baby along on a visit to someone else’s house, she deliberately addresses it by name and tells it to come along before they leave so that its soul does not stay behind (Wallace 2006, 30).

The onset of a girl’s puberty is marked by her first menstruation. She must then heed taboos and prescriptions during her menstrual period. Sitting on the third to the last bottom step of the ladder or stairs leading to the house will ensure that the period will last no longer than three days. Eating sour food causes the blood to clot, which in turn causes menstrual cramps. Taking a bath or washing her hair will stop the menstrual flow. On the other hand, puberty for boys is marked by the ritual of kugit (circumcision), which is done when he turns 13 (Wallace 2006, 31).

During courtship, when the suitor is shy or the woman’s parents are tight lipped, old men are relied upon to provide the discreet motions and verbal performance designed to ensure more positive responses. The “rooster courtship” exemplifies this indirect approach. Here, a suitor provides an old man a rooster to bring to the girl’s father. The old man brings the rooster to the girl’s house and tells the girl’s father that he would like the rooster to crow in their yard. The father asks whether the rooster, meaning the suitor, is “domestic,” meaning from the same barrio, or “wild,” meaning from outside the barrio. The old man identifies the rooster and soon after, divulges the suitor’s name. If the father seems open to the suitor, the old man gives him the rooster.

Today, courtship unfolds in schools, parties, parks, and the movie houses, since most areas are markedly urbanized. Moreover, public education and mass media have also made inroads into the folk beliefs and practices in the Ilocos. However, in traditional courtship, women are told to be careful and not to give any of their personal effects to a suitor. Since it is believed that personal items bear the owner’s karma or spirit, this taboo would prevent the suitor from gaining full control over the girl’s feeling and soul. To be sure, such a custom or its variations elsewhere in the region is resorted to by suitors from tradition-bound families.

When the man and woman have agreed to marry, the man conducts the panagpudno, in which he calls on his future parents-in-law to ask for their consent. The palalian is a subsequent meeting that includes the suitor’s relatives and his panglakayen (spokesman), who negotiates with the parents on the sab-ong (bride price), the sagut (the cost of the bridal trousseau), and the parawad (the suitor’s token gift to his prospective mother-in-law). The sab-ong is in the form of cash or property, such as a piece of land or a farm animal. It is presented the day before the wedding in a grand ceremony called albasya. During their engagement period, the couple avoids traveling because their betrothed status makes them particularly vulnerable to mishaps. Agsaksi, also known as getting their marriage license at the municipal hall, is done by the engaged couple in the company of their parents. The wedding can either be a church or a civil ceremony (Wallace 2006, 25).

Weddings are the most exuberant of occasions because they either expand or intensify the clan links. It is in nuptial feasts where traditions are most pronounced. After the wedding, the newlyweds return to the house, where an elderly woman with a gift for oratory conducts the lualo, which is a prayer for blessings on the couple. The couple then greets their ninang (wedding sponsors) by touching the back of each ninang’s hand to their forehead. With plate in hand, the newlyweds collect gifts of cash from their guests (Wallace 2006, 26).

After the meal, the bitor is held. Here family relations and pride come to the fore, and rich kinsfolk outdo one another in giving topak gifts (cash or farm lots) to the newlyweds. After a relative has given a gift, he or she drinks a glass of basi, which has been placed on a stand at the center of the dancing area. To induce their relatives into giving more, the couple dances continuously, waltzing close to each relative who is then cajoled by the rest to give a gift. Since this contest of gift-giving aims to help the newlyweds make a good start in life, tradition impels the relatives to give whatever they can.

In a similar vein, family reunions during wakes and burials are occasions for tears, laughter, and feasting. Feasting is mostly on meat, a reflection of the underlying cultural belief in sharing meat and blood to reinforce kinship. The festive atmosphere of reunions may be interspersed with sudden tears upon the arrival of relatives.

Another custom shared with the Cordillera inhabitants is the long wake to enable distant kin to bid their last goodbye to the departed. Those coming from distant places might reveal that a black butterfly had suddenly flown into their living room, a sign that the dead indeed conveyed his/her departure. After the burial, the bereaved family goes into the river or seashore to wash away their grief and the languor from the sleepless nights, when playing cards and mahjong tiles competed with the wailers who expressed the agonies of the clan and the goodness of the departed through the chanting of the dung-aw (dirge).

Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Ilocano People

The Ilocano share much of the indigenous belief system prevailing throughout the archipelago that underlies what has been called folk Catholicism, a blend of precolonial and colonial precepts.

The Ilocano believe in the beneficial and harmful influences of creatures of the netherworld. To the Ilocano, Namarsua is the supreme spirit who created both the world of nature and the spirit realm. Mount Mawakwakar is the abode of all the spirits. A favored person may be flown to this mountaintop in a sailboat and taught how to heal people with the medicinal plants growing here (Griffiths 1988, 78).

The al-alia is the spirit of the dead, which appears as a hazy pale figure. The pugot is the denizen of groves and giant trees that may be harmful if provoked; when friendly, it can be the source of a taguilinged charm, which gives the possessor the power to make oneself invisible. Mangyaoaoan is the spirit hovering in woodlands and streams that play pranks on trespassers. The manggagamud (witch) is the scourge in the Ilocano’s daily life because it could be a neighbor, a relative, or a coworker.

To counteract the spell of a mannamay (witch), one keeps a bottled potion of roots and oil on the wall of their home or paints blood-red crosses on their doors. An anib (amulet) of special roots, salt, and garlic, or a piece of ginger and a knife keep spirits away. A shield against lightning is an anib of roots purchased from the neighboring Yapayao ethnic group and blessed by a priest on Palm Sunday (Wallace 2006).

The supernatural power to punish an offender is believed to belong mainly to women. And it is also the women who are usually consulted about omens and dreams, and the best time to plant, hunt, go to war, and marry.

Ilocano cosmology links the here and now with the afterworld, hence the belief in hovering ghosts during wakes or in naluganan (possessed), whereby the spirit of the dead enters the body of a living person to communicate with certain relatives. Shady towering trees are regarded with awe, since these may be inhabited by the supernaturals generically called kibbaan or ansisit. If one must cut such a tree, one shouts “Dayo, dayo,” or “cayo cayo,” a contraction of umadayo kayo, meaning “go away.” Anthills and similar mounds along the road should not be touched lest the kibbaan are provoked to cause harm. Passing a lush corner of a yard or close to a large tree is preceded by an invocation: “Bari bari,” meaning “please let me pass.” Nausea or a general weakness may be a state of an-annong caused by having nakadalapos (bumped or disturbed) the kibbaan lurking around the bushes.

To relieve the person of this malaise, an older relative plucks a twig from a tree such as malunggay and gently brushes it on the victim’s head and body while muttering to the unseen kibbaan to let go. If the victim’s condition persists, the relatives offer atang, a ritual food offering to appease the supernaturals. The mangangatang or manglolualo (prayer leader) places the atang on a winnowing tray and takes it to the dwelling of the offended kibbaan who is implored to accept the offering and to restore the person’s health. The atang consists of a mixture of grated coconut and oil, surrounded by bits of crushed coconut husks and shells (Picache 2012; Gagelonia 1967, 470-471).

Women in Paoay, Ilocos Norte honoring the dead with atang
Women in Paoay, Ilocos Norte honoring the dead with atang, 2013 (Grazielle Mae A. Sales, Provincial Government of Ilocos Norte)

The complexity of the composition and performance of the rites of propitiation increases for as long as the patient remains sick. A more elaborate rite centered on blood offering is a white pig: One-half of it is left at the site where the afflicted had a brush with unseen spirits; the other half is taken home to the sick person. The third type of atang is more difficult because the mangangatang must ask the community members for the ritual items without explanation and without anyone else touching these items. However, if this rite proves just as ineffectual, the most elaborate atang must now be addressed to the most powerful kibbaan. A chicken is sacrificed on a small makeshift altar in the patient’s yard. Its meat is the centerpiece of the atang, which “includes rice cakes, a glass of water, three pieces of dinubla (rolled tobacco leaves), oil from a coconut with reddish-brown husk, betel-nut chew, and fruit” (Gagelonia 1967, 470-471; Picache 2012).

Since the Ilocano traditional universe links the natural and the supernatural realms, rites of appeasement and thanksgiving are done periodically for the spirits dwelling in the loam, river, and woodland. This traditional worldview, which has persisted in a modified and more casual manner, may incorporate traces of ecclesiastical rites. Religious syncretism, which merges indigenous and Christian rites, was observed during the Diego Silang revolt in 1762. As the rebels entered each town, they were welcomed with “anito sacrifices,” which are indigenous rituals and offerings, much to the friars’ dismay. After a victorious battle, Silang’s brother-in-law, Benito Estrada (Gabriela’s brother), reenacted the Eucharistic sacrifice by drinking wine over the decapitated heads of the Spanish colonialist troops. The rebels wore both a white cross and an anting-anting (talisman) composed of the following items: “some [strands of] hair, threeroots, a fruit called ‘cat’s eye,’ a piece of ginger, some wax stuck to a piece of paper, some leaves, and a dry areca leaf” (Palanco 2002, 528-529).

The merging of indigenous and Christian tenets continues today. For instance, upon opening a bottle of liquor, the host usually first sprinkles a few drops of liquor on the ground, like a priest sprinkling holy water. The intent is to offer the kadkadua (unseen partners) their share of the repast and merriment. The religious feasts such as town fiestas honoring the patron saints and other Christian holidays are occasions for communal piety or revelry. An elaborate blending of the customary and contemporary beliefs and rituals may be seen in the defunctorum, in which the priest leaves the church premises and goes to the orchards, farms, and springs to pray to the in-dwelling spirits to keep on helping the tillers produce food from their domain. After the invocation, the farmer offers the priest a token of the harvest.A fusion of olden and current rituals is the setting up of the abong-abong (shed for a temporary altar) along the route of the procession during the Holy Week. The bamboo-and-thatch shelter is decorated with a variety of native fruits and flowers. This abong-abong rite has an affinity to certain rituals of chanting and harvest offering among the upland dwellers. The lectio (chanting of the pasyon) echoes the traditional dung-aw dirge normally heard during wakes and burials. To the devout, Semana Santa is a very intense period of prayers and processions; to the less pious, it means a series of gawking sessions on the roadside as the procession passes by and sharing liquor and food with friends and relatives.

Indigenous religious beliefs and practices are predominant in rituals for wakes and funerals. These are presided over by an elderly widow whose status has earned her the right to communicate with the spirit world. Several kinds of atang for the spirit of the deceased as well as other spirits lurking nearby are prepared for the umras, rituals marking various stages of mourning. These are held on the afternoon after the burial, on the 30th day after the burial, and a few days before the first death anniversary (Picache 2012).

As soon as a person dies, the widow slits a chicken’s throat outside the house to determine if the spirit of the deceased has accepted its fate: If the chicken flies up, the spirit is willing to go on to the next world; if the chicken falls to the ground, the spirit wants to stay on. The family builds an atong (a bonfire of neatly piled firewood) in the front yard and keeps it alive until the funeral. This is to announce to passersby that there is a death in the family (Picache 2012; Wallace 2006, 32).

The first and simplest atang is cooked over this bonfire on the first night of the wake. This consists of a bunch of half-ripe saba (a type of banana) and a rooster, if the deceased is male, or a chicken, if the deceased is female. The aroma of this atang cooking over the bonfire is meant for the pleasure of the spirits (Picache 2012). During the nine-day wake, candles are kept burning constantly to keep evil spirits away. Mourners wear a barabad (white headband). Until the burial, the dead is treated as if still alive: The usual meals and beddings are prepared to avoid giving them offense (Wallace 2006, 32; Madamba 1984, 20).

The second atang is held in the early hours of the day of the funeral. The mourners wear black if the deceased is an adult, and white if a child. The internal organs and best parts of a butchered pig are strung on a stick, one end of which is stuck to a beam inside the house. The rest of the pig is either buried or served to the men who have helped prepare the pig. The officiating widow deliberately breaks a small pot and makes another chicken sacrifice. When the coffin is lifted to carry it out, it is first turned around twice clockwise and then once counterclockwise. Care is taken as the coffin is being moved so that it does not touch any part of the house, or else another death will follow shortly. All openings of the house are tightly shut to keep malignant spirits out. When the funeral procession begins, a headless rooster is left in the path of the procession for the benefit of the dead relatives so that they can prepare for the newcomer in the afterlife. The funeral rites are led by the minister to whichever religious denomination the family belongs (Picache 2012; Wallace 2006, 32).

After the burial, the bereaved family does the diram-os, the washing of their faces and arms with basi from a basin into which coins have been placed to drive away the kibbaan. Upon their return home, the family opens all the doors and windows, which are kept open for the next three days in readiness for the visit of the soul of the deceased on the third day (Wallace 2006).

The first umras is held before sunset on the afternoon after the burial, in time for the coming of the spirits, for whom the most elaborate atang is prepared. On the bed of the deceased, a kilo of rice grains is placed in the form of a solid cross, on which five eggs are placed, following the outline of the cross. Near the head of this cross is a lighted candle. Twelve platefuls of native delicacies are placed equidistantly around the cross-shaped rice grains, thus covering the surface of the bed (Picache 2012).

The food offerings consist of a variety of glutinous-rice cakes: Patupat is unsweetened, slightly salted rice cake contained in a triangular pouch of woven strips of a banana or palm leaf and boiled in sugarcane juice and coconut milk. Linapet is a cylindrical cake, with the glutinous rice, coconut milk, and molasses mixed together before it is boiled, wrapped in a pre-cut piece of banana leaf, and steamed. Busi is puffed rice mixed with molasses and shaped into a fist-sized ball. Kaskaron is boiled bel-laay (rice flour) mixed with coconut, shaped into a ball, and then coated with sugar. Baduya is made of deep-fried flat halves of saba mixed with rice flour. Binuelo is grated coconut mixed with sugar and sesame seeds. Pilais is fried ground rice. Linga is made of sesame seeds mixed with molasses and shaped into diamonds. Ninyogan is glutinous rice mixed with coconut milk and egg. Several of these pieces of glutinous-rice concoctions are carefully piled on each of the 12 plates in six layers and fenced around by pieces of linapet standing to form a pyramid. Complementing these are pieces of fried chicken, a glass of basi and of water, bits of tobacco, bua (betel nut), and gawed (betel leaf) (Picache 2012).

The following day, the bereaved family buries the ingredients of the betel chew at the riverbank and throws a sack of the ashes gathered from the atong into the river. They stand on the riverbank, facing east, as the widow performs the gulgul (ritual washing of their hair) on each one, using a mixture of river water, basi, and the ashes of rice stalks. The widow leads them into the river until their heads are completely under water, and she helps each make two turns counterclockwise, and one clockwise. As they emerge out of the water, they leap over a pile of burning rice stalks onto the riverbank. Upon their return home, another widow dabs coconut oil on their hair, forehead, and nape three times, washes their face with a basinful of water mixed with basi, and gives their forehead three gentle taps (Picache 2012).

In the next nine nights, the mourners hold a prayer vigil consisting of a lualo for the dead and the rosary. The second umras, with another atang, is held on the ninth night (Wallace 2006, 32-33; Picache 2012).

The official mourning period lasts a year, during which pamisa (feasts) are held periodically to honor the deceased: the makasiyam on the ninth day after the death; makabulan, a month after; and pitobulan, seven months after. A few days before the makatawen, or the first death anniversary, the family performs the gulgul again but this time facing west, to express their acceptance and letting go of the loved one. The waksi, or the end of the mourning period, is marked by the family shedding their black mourning clothes and holding the grandest atang and feast. Ingas or ladawan (idols) of wood, stone, ivory, or gold may be carved in memory of the dead (Wallace 2006, 32; Picache 2012; Madamba 1984, 20).

Gregorio Aglipay, Obispo Maximo of the Philippine Independent Church
Gregorio Aglipay, Obispo Maximo of the Philippine Independent Church (Foreman 1899)

Besides Roman Catholicism, which is the predominant religion among the Ilocano, there are six other religions in the Ilocos region: Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI, founded by Ilocano priest Gregorio Aglipay), Iglesia ni Kristo, Saksi ni Jehova (Jehovah’s Witnesses), Seventh Day Adventists, Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and Pentecostal Protestants. In 1961, the IFI and the US Episcopalian Church became sister churches (Wallace 2006, 35).

During the Marcos regime, religious institutions of various denominations and their members in the region served their God by serving and protecting their fellow Ilocano in defiance of martial law. In 1974, Catholic schools in the whole province of Abra suspended classes for the funeral of peasant organizer, farmer, and school principal Santiago B. Arce, who had been tortured and killed in a military camp. The people formed the longest funeral procession in the province’s history despite fear of reprisal from the military. Jeremias Aquino, a priest of the IFI, also known as Aglipay Church, spoke out against martial law and the Cordillera dam project in his homilies. He was arrested in Sadanga, Mountain Province in 1979, released in 1980, and killed in a road accident in 1982. Father Zacarias Agatep of Ilocos Sur was a Catholic parish priest of Caoayan. He was an outspoken critic of the ruling class’ exploitation of tobacco farmers. Arrested in 1980, he was released in time for the visit of Pope John Paul II and was killed by the military in 1982. In 1980 he had written: “If it is a crime to love the poor and support them in their struggle against injustice, then I am ready to face the firing squad.” Filomena Asuncion, a deaconess of the United Methodist Church of Isabela province, spoke on behalf of the oppressed peasant class in her homilies and helped to organize farmers’ cooperatives. In June 1983, she was captured by government forces, tortured, and killed (Bantayog 2015).

The Ilocano Community

The major precolonial settlements in Ilocos like Sual in Pangasinan, Balaoan in La Union, Narvacan and Vigan in Ilocos Sur, and Laoag and Paoay in Ilocos Norte were situated along the coast or near the mouths of rivers, which made for easy traffic of trade goods between the coasts and the hinterlands, and foreign merchant boats as well. Thus, Balaoan was quickly renamed Puerta de Japon by the Spaniards who saw Japanese boats unloading merchandise there. Sual, which is the Arab word for port, most likely refers to the wharf for traders retailing goods from Malacca and the southern provinces of China where the Silk Road trade had its network of bazaars. This old commercial link brought beads, ceramic jars, and plates to Ilocos that were sold to the mountain dwellers.

Abra Provincial Capitol
Abra Provincial Capitol, 2014 (Romel Rafor Jaime)

The Spaniards transformed these tradeposts into pueblos and garrisons with a central plaza, using the Mexican pueblo complex as their model. They connected these settlements by means of the camino real or the royal highway where the king’s soldiers and missionaries must pass from one town to the next when delivering royal decrees or quelling dissidents. However, the sea continued to be the principal passage connecting coastal towns, islands, and nations.

Dominating every town was the iglesia or simbahan (church). The massiveness of churches and their central location beside the main plaza were due to their dual function in the life of the colonial pueblo. Apart from serving as houses of worship, they doubled as fortified shelters for the townspeople in times of Moro slave raids, invasion, and rebellion. The towering facades of churches face the sea because the highest windows and the niches served as lookouts for approaching vessels or invaders. Many bell towers were built separately and completed later when there was enough money for the big bells from Belgium or Mexico.

Being ideal garrisons and forts, the churches were among the first to be stormed by rebels, invaders, and the Katipuneros. In the layout of the pueblo, next to the church and fronting or flanking the plaza was the presidio or garrison housing the politico-military offices. The other streetblocks were occupied by the houses of the principalia. The plaza and surrounding streets were the sites for military drills, religious ceremonies, and an open market on specific days. The bell tower dominated the whole scene, as the sound of bells determined the tempo of pueblo life from early morning mass to the evening vespers.

The accent on a tightly-knit townsite beside big rivers was for maximum defense, as well as easy access to trade and transport, boats and rafts being then the mode of travel. None of the Ilocos towns erected high walls as defense perimeter in the style of Intramuros. There were promontories in some towns serving as lookouts for raiding parties. However, on the highest point of the camino real such as in Santa, Ilocos Sur, the Spaniards built turrets for sentries carved out of the rock wall, while a watchtower was built a few kilometers away in Narvacan. The series of watchtowers along the southern towns of Ilocos Sur were situated such that fires built on these lookouts at night would be visible to the sentries of the next lookouts who could then build their own fires to warn those manning the next lookout, and so on.

The highest edifice built by the Spaniards combining the functions of a watchtower and a beacon to sailors was the lighthouse on Cape Bojeador at the outskirts of Burgos, Ilocos Norte, overlooking the perilous eddies of Point Lacay-lacay. It was the main guidepost at the northern tip of Luzon for the galleons returning from Mexico.

The massive churches in Ilocos are the most enduring relics of the colonial period. The 21 Spanish-period churches of Ilocos Sur are constructed from building blocks of coral and brick, cemented with the mortar and plaster made of molasses, lime, and the sticky sap of sablot (Tag batikuling) wood and leaves. Sablot paste continues to be used as the binder to repair these churches, such as the church of Santa Maria (Esguerra 2013).

The hilltop setting of the church in Santa Maria makes it an outstanding landmark. The buttressed walls of brick extend through the entire crest of the hill without embellishments. From the church, two sets of stairs go down—one to the church cemetery and the other to the town. The convent, which housed the Augustinians, was built directly across the church, unlike most convents, which are built right beside it. An elevated and covered walkway connects the church and the convent. The church served both as a house of worship and as lookout for raiding parties coming from the eastern hills or the open sea. Since the Santa Maria town square is far from the coast, the hilltop base presents a better vantage point for observing the whole terrain and provides greater protection for people seeking refuge during raids. This church was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1993.

The most enchanting of the churches is Paoay Church, whose “pyramidal structure” has been simply called “earthquake baroque” or baroque adapted to the realities of Philippine earthquakes. Two violent earthquakes occurred through the long period of Paoay Church’s construction, so the builders erected extramassive buttresses. In 1973, Paoay Church was declared a National Cultural Treasure by virtue of Presidential Decree No 260, and in 1993, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Another National Cultural Treasure, as declared by the National Museum of the Philippines in 2001, is the Church of San Guillermo Ermitaño in Magsingal, Ilocos Sur, together with its adjoining structures and artistic interiors. Besides the church, the complex includes a convento, a tower, and a school. Inside the church are a baroque retablo, said to have been carved by Juan Nepomuceno Tolentino of Magsingal, and a pulpit carved by Pablo Tamayo. The brick-framed Stations of the Cross are placed at regular intervals around the interiors of the church.

The San Vicente Church is one of the finer examples of the baroque style in the Ilocos. The harmony of columns and windows with the other decorative features exhibits a keen awareness of perspective. The parapet extends along one side leading to the convento.

Vigan Cathedral
Vigan Cathedral (Jesse Alegre, Government of Vigan)

The Vigan Cathedral, also known as the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Pablo, is a showcase of eclectic ornamentation on a basic baroque plan. This admixture of design motifs is the result of a process common to Ilocos churches, where the basic structure is completed but the finish and ornamentation is done much later by a new parish priest or designer, or changes are made by succeeding reconstruction or renovation, after an earthquake, or in preparation for a special occasion. Being the seat of the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia and the site of various religious congresses, the Vigan Cathedral has undergone several facelifts and brick facing. The vaulted ceiling used to be painted with biblical scenes and personages bordered with curlicues. Some leaks in the roof soiled this surface decor, and the ceiling was repainted in the 1950s minus the figures. The tile roofing was added in the early years of the American occupation through a donation of a Vigan matron. On the arch below the choir loft is a 16-square meter mural titled The Life of Saul, done by Arturo Rabara in the 1960s. It depicts certain religious episodes and turning points in the town’s history.

The facade of Laoag Church is very similar to that of Vigan Cathedral. The three-tiered design of the facade of the Laoag Church is a fine showcase of Filipino Baroque.

The Aglipay Shrine in Batac is another tourist landmark. The shrine projects a Gothic outline, although the bare walls and rooftiles on the canopy follow the Vigan house prototype. The shrine was renovated, along with other Ilocos Norte historical sites, during the Marcos regime.

The Agoo Shrine in La Union differs in architecture from all the other old churches because instead of being renovated in the mid-1970s, it was torn down and was completely rebuilt with the use of poured concrete and steel rods. This explains why its lines are more graceful and its walls much thinner than the old stone or brick churches. Agoo’s design was copied from an Italian church.

In colonial times, next to the churches in size and strategic location were the episcopal palace in capital towns and the presidio complex housing the offices of the gobernadorcillo and the guardia civil, and the jailhouse. The structure of these buildings was basically similar to the brick-and-tile residential houses, except for their large windows. The schoolhouses set up at the latter part of the 19th century were either an extended part of the convento or an annex whose design followed the old brick buildings, with their slightly arching doorways and windows. The sliding capiz window shutters had protective vertical grills at the ground floor. Most of the old brick-and-tile houses in Vigan differ from the bahay na bato in the Tagalog region in terms of architectural style. In the Tagalog bahay na bato, the second story usually extends beyond the ground floor by means of overhanging beams and floor joists. In Ilocos houses, the two floors are normally of the same dimension, with ground floor windows slightly arched. Exceptions are in a few houses with an overhanging second floor, like the Florentino house, which covers a whole block.

In the Ilocos houses, the lower floor is usually used as storage area for tobacco, rice, the karo (floats), farm implements, and others; and as living or working quarters for servants. A grand wooden staircase with carved twin balustrades leads to an ante sala. The big formal sala, whose windows overlook the street in front, is usually furnished with carved wood, carved chairs and sofas, round marble-topped tables, pianos, and portraits of ancestors. Adjacent to the sala would be several cuartos (rooms) with four-poster beds, aparador (cabinet), tocador (dressing table), and mesa (table). Other rooms include the comedor (dining hall) with a long table and high-backed carved chairs and a platera (porcelain cabinet rack); the oratoryo (prayer room) with an altar for the family statuary; and the kusina with its stoves, tables, and benches. Some of the bigger houses have viewing towers and azoteas facing the scenic Banaoag Gap of the Abra River, the old riverway for traders from the inland valleys. Gone now are the rows of tile roofs seen in old photos of the town, although a few still have this cooler but heavier roofing material. Many house owners in the 1950s changed the roof tiles to galvanized iron when saltpond owners from the Tagalog region offered to buy the old tiles for use as bedding in their saltponds.

Other buildings around the Vigan plaza, including the historic seminary, were razed to the ground in the 1970s. Some old houses have been renovated to serve as hotels and lodging houses. The former residence of dramatist Mena Crisologo has been transformed into a hotel now called Aniceto Mansion, and the courtyard has been greatly altered. So was the floor plan of this ancestral house, which used to be a remarkable prototype of the Vigan houses, with a granary and stable behind the house and fruit trees in the courtyard. A beautiful courtyard newly landscaped is that of the Villa Angela at the southern edge of the pueblo. The present Vigan Hotel used to be the residence of Mariano Villanueva; the Grandpa’s Inn is another renovated old house; and the Cordillera Inn used to be a high school for the region’s Chinese-Filipino residents. The Burgos House museum is squatter and lies practically outside the enclave of the gentry. In fact, it is on the westside boundary of the naturales or the natives’ district not far from the western riverbank. North of the Burgos House is the former provincial jail, now a museum; and to its south is a school building that formerly housed the defunct University of the Philippines branch in Vigan.

Burgos House, Vigan, Ilocos Sur
Burgos House, Vigan, Ilocos Sur, 2005 (Philippine Heritage Homes: A Guidebook by Jaime C. Laya, Maria Cristina V. Turalba, and Martin I. Tinio Jr. Anvil Publishing, Inc, 2014.)

In 2015, Vigan was declared one of the world’s “Seven New Wonder Cities.” Along with Beirut in Lebanon, Doha in Qatar, Durban in South Africa, Havana in Cuba, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and La Paz in Bolivia, Vigan was described as “best representing the achievements and aspirations of the global urban civilization” (Lopez 2015).

On the opposite side of Vigan flows the southeast branch of Buqid River, more popularly known as the Mestizo River, because the old brick houses built on its banks housed the Filipino-Chinese mestizos. The houses in this section are taller and closer to one another. Being the old commercial district of the pueblo, formerly called kasanglayan (Sanglay traders zone), the ground floor of these houses were used as stores for wine, clothes, cheese, and candies from Manila, China, and Europe. Others served as repair and service shops, or as storage for cash crops like tobacco and indigo dye.

Just across this river are the farms and ancient facilities for indigo making in Barrio Capangpangan (from pangpang “riverbank”), as well as for tanning hides of cattle, and slipper making. The indigo dye exported to Europe and America enabled the Filipino-Chinese clans to build big houses and engage in the local trade of rice, gold jewelry, and Ilocano abel blankets and fabrics. Before these products secured an overseas market, the Chinese settlers enjoyed a monopoly of burnay jar making, a smaller variety of which, called taibor (a small and cylindrical stoneware), was exported to Japan for tea-drinking rituals (Morga 1961).

The location of Vigan—at the center of the cluster of towns specializing in trade and food production—is very revealing of the ecological and economic life in colonial times. South and west of Vigan are the towns of Cagayan, Santa Catalina, and San Ildefonso supplying seafood, vegetables, and salt. To the north are Bantay, Magsingal, and Santo Domingo supplying jewelry, livestock, bricks, and basi in olden times. To the east is Santa, source of bolo and scythes, firewood, and bamboo poles. Further north are the communities producing rice, tobacco, garlic, and baskets. This sizeable area had comprised Salcedo’s encomienda; and Vigan, right from the time of Spanish conquest, had been the commercial hub, seat of ecclesiastical and political power, and later on the region’s education center. Thus arose Vigan’s buildings as centers of commerce and governance.

Houses of the lower class were the simple balay, bamboo-and-thatch dwellings that became wooden with brick footing at the end of the 19th century. Today these are mostly a mix of concrete and wood with galvanized roofing, with the general outline of the traditional bamboo-and-thatch house. A smaller version of the thatch shelter built on the farm is called kalapaw (hut).

In townsite planning and evolution of building designs, the Ilocos region is highly tradition-bound. Only when the American period ushered in the Gabaldon-type schoolhouse and the neoclassical lines in the provincial capitols did the landscape witness a change in architecture. This has much to do with the conservative outlook of the Ilocano as it does with the available building materials and construction technology. The engineers of the American period introduced the durable steel reinforcement and cement and thus changed the terrain’s face and mood with concrete roads and long-span steel-and-concrete bridges. Time and distance has since been compressed, but not much else has changed in the Ilocano worldview, which continues to be rooted in family and community.

Under the Marcos era, new government offices and school buildings were built, while the “Vigan House” motif of plain walls, red tiles, brick columns, and slight arches sprang in lakeside Paoay, in former rice lands of Batac, and in resort houses along the beaches of Ilocos Norte, La Union, and Pangasinan. The renovated Aglipay Shrine in Batac combines this Vigan House motif with the Gothic twin-tower outline. The ancestral house of Juan Luna was practically rebuilt from the ruins while erstwhile simple houses were “restored” into massive and luxurious mansions in Sarrat and Batac. In Sarrat, Ilocos Norte, the Factora family residence, also known as Balay Tawid, built 2012, stands across from the Santa Monica Church. It has replaced the family’s American-type chalet built in the 1950s. The design, by architect Raisson John J. Bassig, integrates the owners’ postmodern (emigrant) lifestyle with the appearance of the Spanish-period stonehouse. The interior courtyard with a fountain resembles an inner church patio; the ventanillas are of concrete with a wood finish; the azoteas feature landscaped greenery; the roof is lined with red tiles; and the windows, though framed with aluminum, are modeled after the traditional capiz window (Phil ArchiCon 2013).

On the other hand, renovated and newly built houses with contemporary designs have become more commonplace. The towns of Santiago, San Esteban, Santa Maria, and Narvacan in Ilocos Sur have a number of mansions no longer bearing traces of the vintage stonehouses. Their modern features include foundations and walls of cement, metals, unadorned but arched wooden doors, lanais, balconies, swing-out windows and, in some instances, French-type windows. Nevertheless, an occasional roof of red tiles instead of the standard galvanized iron sheets shows a concession to the stonehouse of old (Yap 2016).

The landscape of the Ilocos countryside has been influenced as well by the architecture of two-story mansions owned by retired migrant returnees, particularly those from Hawaii. Variously described as “elaborate,” “fabulous monuments,” and “garish” because they are “painted in many bright colors,” these are made of cement blocks and expensive hardwood, in stark contrast to the neighboring bamboo-and-nipa huts (Griffiths 1988, 3).

A number of newly built hotels and resorts in Ilocos have adopted the minimalist style. The Ilocos Norte Hotel and Convention Center in Laoag, Ilocos Norte uses basic and simple materials for its two-story structure and complex. Its roof uses white paint and brown tiles. Similarly, the Vitalis Hotel in Santiago, Ilocos Sur mimics the simplicity of whitewashed, cubist houses of Santorini, Greece in its use of whitewashed finishing for the walls and blue galvanized roof and tiles for its villas (Ancheta, 2016).

The two types of settlement—the barangay and the town—that define the Ilocos landscape have taken on modern trappings. A barangay consists of at least 200 households or a population of 1,000 of either farmers, if located on the countryside, or fisherfolk, if on the coast. The relatively large and solid buildings in the barangay are the elementary school and the barangay hall. The hall functions as a meeting place for the barangay council, an assembly hall when higher government officials visit, and a site for the occasional public health programs and other such public service activities. The residential houses are of either nipa and bamboo, or of wood and tin roof. Neighborhood stores called sari-sari (variety) stores are attached to the front of some houses. Backyard structures are pens for domesticated animals like pigs and chickens, a storage shed, and an outhouse (Wallace 2006, 18).

The town or city, being an urban center, consists of commercial and government buildings, churches of various denominations, public and private schools, hospitals and health centers, doctors’ private clinics, lawyers’ offices, and entertainment facilities. Along the main road are the commercial buildings: restaurants and fast food outlets, gas stations, repair shops, hardware shops, garment shops, the wet market, and tobacco-trading centers. Two-story residential houses along this main road have shops on the ground floor. The second largest building after the Catholic church is the Virginia tobacco warehouse (Torres-Mejia 2000).

Ilocos Arts and Crafts

The oldest forms of Ilocano visual arts are clay craft, wood and bamboo craft, weaving, and stonecarving—all essential in earlier times. The clay pots were for cooking and water storage; the wood and bamboo artifacts for housing, fishing and farming implements, as well as weaponry; the stoneware for pounding and milling rice; and weaving for garments and blankets. In ancient times, metal tips of spears may have been bartered with foreign traders or with the Igorot, who may also have brought goldsmithing to the lowland dwellers. Perhaps to this early time belongs a 1–m wide stone phallic figure dug up by collector Angel Cortez and his workers in Bussawit Hill not far from the town center, and now displayed in a garden beside the church of Magsingal, Ilocos Sur.

Pottery is beyond doubt among the earliest and most developed arts in the region. Clayware is either of the terra-cotta type made by means of the paddle and round stone and fired in open pits, or the stoneware type commonly called burnay, which is used in fermenting basi and vinegar, preserving fish with salt into bagoong, or storing grains and beans until the next planting season. The main difference between the ordinary reddish clay pot and the burnay is that the former is not vitrified or fused like ceramics by means of high temperature. Moreover, the clay for the burnay is mixed with a little amount of sand, which tempers the medium while it is fired to make it nonporous and hard as rock. When buried in soil, this vitrified quality makes the burnay resist corrosion and the chemical changes that the basi or bagoong undergo. Since this stoneware is resistant to the action of salt and fermentation, it was often used in the Spanish galleons for water storage and as chemical containers. In pre-Spanish times, this stoneware was a regular trade item between the Ilocano and Japanese merchants, who preferred the Ilocos-made tibor to any other Asian ceramic, especially for their tea-drinking rituals (Morga 1961).

Another type of this stoneware crafted in Pagburnayan, Vigan, is the wangging, which has a bigger mouth. Shaped like an oversized pail, it is commonly used for storing water and salt. Traders from Ilocos in the previous generations preferred the burnay as a water vessel when they traveled on the viray (two-masted sailboat) just as the galleon sailors did. Besides the traditional types of stoneware, the Vigan potters today produce decorative, smaller items like ashtrays, pencil holders, flower vases, and paperweights for the tourist trade. Such smaller items are also meant to maximize the heat in the kiln, since these small pieces can be placed in spaces between the big burnay jars. The burnay cottage industry was in the hands of Vigan Sanglay families for a long time, since the technology used to be a tightly guarded secret. It was only in the early part of this century when non-Sanglays were allowed to learn the craft. Among the master burnay artisans is Fidel Go, who received the Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan Award (GAMABA) in 1990.

Ilocano textile called inabel
Ilocano textile called inabel (Elmer I. Nocheseda)

The Ilocano handloom-woven abel fabrics and blankets were also a regular trade item in the galleons bound for Acapulco, Mexico, aside from being used as sails for these trading ships. Many historians have documented how the Ilocano abel became the favorite manta (shawls) in Nueva España, Mexico, because a yard of Ilocos manta cost one real while the Mexican-made one cost six reales in Acapulco (Corpuz 1989, 91-92). The native Americans of Central and North America also preferred the abel because of its durability and inexpensiveness. But when the abel found a ready market in Spain, a high tariff was slapped on each shipment to protect the textile industries in the cities of Cadiz and Seville. The old centers of abel in the Spanish period were Paoay and the surrounding towns in Ilocos Norte; today, the barangays of Bangar in La Union, and Caoayan in Ilocos Sur, are the busiest abel producers.

Ilocano textile called inabel
Ilocano textile called inabel (Milo A. Paz)

Ilocano textile called inabel
Ilocano textile called inabel (Elmer I. Nocheseda)

The abel blankets and fabrics are still common trade items in Luzon and some parts of Mindanao for their multiple uses. Their distinct designs are cherished by those inclined to folk art and artifactual heirlooms. The old, ornate blankets from Abra Tinguian villages, generally called binacol, or the rare Kankanaey blankets called kalgo, are highly treasured not only for their antiquity but also for their ritual and mythic significance in the traditional lifeways. These Tinguian or Kankanaey abel heirlooms are not products of the highland looms but are actually the handiwork of Ilocano weavers many generations back. Only a few decades ago did the highland weavers adopt the handloom. According to various anthropologists and historians, the binacol or kalgo blankets were among the major trade goods from the Ilocos, along with ceramics, beads, salt, and dried fish bartered for Igorot gold dust, mountain rice, and forest by-products like almaciga, honey, and herbal medicine. The Ilocano also produced the heirloom loincloth of the Igorot, who used to make their native G-string from fibrous tree barks. Master textile weaver Magdalena Gamayo of Pinili, Ilocos Norte, received the GAMABA award in 2012 at age 88. Aside from the basic binacol or “triple-toned warp design,” Gamayo also forms more intricate patterns such as the kusikos or “spiral forms like oranges,” and sinansabong or “flowers” (Tobias 2015).

Magdalena Gamayo, Manlilikha ng Bayan for inabel weaving,
Magdalena Gamayo, Manlilikha ng Bayan for inabel weaving, 2014 (Provincial Government of Ilocos Norte)

The other folk arts are beaded slippers, necklaces, and belts made in Vigan; clayware from San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte; limestone mortar and pestle from San Esteban, Ilocos Sur now used as accents in interior decor; leather craft mainly for bolo sheaths with decorative imprints from Santa, Ilocos Sur; the katukong (salakot) made of bamboo slivers or the tabungaw (gourd shell) from Abra; shell craft made into necklace pendants and framed mosaics from La Union towns; and bamboo craft including baskets, hampers, and furniture from Pangasinan. While the salakot and the tabungaw are commonly made along the most functional lines, GAMABA 2012 awardee Teofilo Garcia of San Quintin, Abra lines the interior of his tabungaw with a mat made of woven uway (rattan) and adds an accent to its brim by weaving in strips of puser (bamboo) (Tobias 2015).

The religious images and wood-carved furniture are more ornate because they are intended to be replicas of colonial models or patterns, such as the engraved curlicues of church silverware or the double-headed eagle of the Spanish monarchy. However, some local symbols of fertility and harvest in the form of fruits and clustered blooms are also carved into canopied beds.

Traditional game in honor of Apo Lakay, the Santo Cristo of the Simbaan a Bassit, under a ramada or canopy decorated with agricultural produce
Traditional game in honor of Apo Lakay, the Santo Cristo of the Simbaan a Bassit, under a ramada or canopy decorated with agricultural produce, 2010 (Edwin Antonio)

Harvest too is the theme of the elevated bamboo trellis called ramada, literally “a framework of branches,” used as decorative archways during fiestas. These big bamboo lofts are hung with clusters of coconuts, macopas, bananas of different varieties, caimitos, mabolos, nangkas, and all such bounty from the farms and orchards that sustain the folk during the dry spell. The ramada is a sort of thanksgiving altar.

Students commemorating Juan Luna at his shrine in Badoc, Ilocos Norte
Students commemorating Juan Luna at his shrine in Badoc, Ilocos Norte, 2012 (Provincial Government of Ilocos Norte)

Some Filipino painters who have made a name here and abroad have Ilocano roots. Juan Luna won a medal for his Spoliarium at the Madrid Exposition of 1884. Macario Vitalis, born in San Juan, Ilocos Sur, lived and painted in Brittany, exhibiting in Paris and other parts of Europe in the post-World War II era. Influenced by French Post-Impressionism, Vitalis created a series of Breton seascapes and landscapes of France. His oil-on-canvas work, House in Puteaux, 1937, bears the post-impressionist color schemes that are evident in his other works (Tayag 2011).

Beginning in the 1960s, Ray Albano, Santiago Bose, Ace Verzosa, Roberto Villanueva, and Willy Magtibay created notable pieces of contemporary art. Albano, a native of Bacarra, Ilocos Norte, painted abstract and experimental works. As the visual arts director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) starting in 1971, he promoted conceptual art in the CCP’s major exhibitions (Mayo 1994). Bose, 1949-2002, used indigenous materials like bamboo and ash to create mixed-media works. The subject matter of Garrote (Iron Collar), 2000, reveals his interest in the effects of colonialism on the Philippine identity (Carroll 2003). Verzosa and Villanueva established their careers as visual artists in Ilocos before exhibiting their works in national and international communities. One of Verzosa’s collaborative exhibitions is Trio, 2010, with Ed Gerlock and Laya Stanley, at Galeria de las Islas in Intramuros. Villanueva does art installations such as the Cordillera Labyrinth, which depicts the deleterious effects of copper mining on the region (Lerma 2005). The work of Baguio-born Magtibay centers on the life and culture of his hometown (Tibaldo 2016).

Painters of the subsequent generation are Arturo Rabara, Ashley Martinez, Rex Avila, Catherine Bautista, Rey del Mar Sumabat, Amante Quias, Neopito Lagasca, Teodoro Lagasca, Jerry Amadar, and David Pichay. Rabara, born 1938 in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, did the mural at the entrance of the Vigan Cathedral. He took up painting under Vicente Manansala. His Sadyaya Waig (Sadyaya Creek), an oil-on-wood painting, won the first prize in a national painting competition in 1958. Rabara’s The Profile of the Filipino is an 8–square foot mural that won first prize in the Festal 2000 International Mural Painting Competition and is in the permanent collection of the Seattle Center Pavilion (dela Rosa 2007).

Sumabat has won several awards in national painting competitions, such as those sponsored by Shell Company, Philippine Long Distance Telephone (PLDT), and Metrobank. Quias, based in Los Angeles, USA, is a watercolorist. Pichay, born in 1945 in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, is largely a self-taught artist, who was inspired by a retired art teacher, Felicisimo Amores. He uses watercolor and oil in rendering realistic portraits of identifiable landmarks and artifacts of his hometown of Vigan: a pile of misshapen, discarded burnay; the church and its belltower; details of a window missing some capiz shells; details of another window with a sagging bamboo grill; and the Vigan stonehouse from various angles (Pineda 2010).

Bryan Teves is from Santa Lucia, Ilocos Sur, and he does social realist paintings influenced by his father’s life as a laborer. His work titled Turning Tables won the grand prize in the 2012 Sining PSE, the first national art competition of the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE). It depicts three men, their torsos bare and their shirts wrapped around their heads like turbans, in a crouching position as they bear the weight of a wooden cargo box with the word “export” stamped in large letters across its front side (Lapeña 2012).

Besides caricatures and portraits, Khervin John Gallandez from Laoag, Ilocos Norte does miniature watercolor paintings that make up a collection called Project Lilliput: Visions from a Miniature World. Each miniature painting is made up of a circle at the center of the canvas, the circle containing a realistic depiction of a minuscule fraction of a whole entity, such as a human eye in Eye, one-fourth of a tiger’s face in Bengal Tiger, and a close-up of a reptilian eye in Green Tree Python (ArtPeople 2016).

Lebanese-Ilocano Mike Kairuz, who is from Laoag, Ilocos Norte, merges the realist and semi-cubist styles with silhouettes, and uses vibrant colors, invariably including blue, to depict vintage Ilocos scenes. In his work titled Begin the Journey, 2013, the sinking bell tower of Laoag is rendered in a montage of irregular shapes with jagged edges and in many colors, while a proportionately tiny image of a woman in a terno and with a parasol in hand stands beside the tower. He has exhibited his works at the Samtoy Books in the La Tabacalera Ilocano Lifestyle Center in Laoag, besides the galleries in Manila and Bacolod (Blauearth 2010; 2013).

Esteban Villanueva, La Victoria de la tropa de Vigan en 29 de Setiembre 1807
Esteban Villanueva, La Victoria de la tropa de Vigan en 29 de Setiembre 1807 (National Museum of the Philippines Collection)

The rarest and most important paintings in the Ilocos are the Basi Revolt series by Esteban Villanueva. This series of 14 oil paintings provide a visual history of the Basi Revolt, from the massing of rebel troops in the rolling hills of the northern towns, to the public beheading of captured rebels. The battle scene along Bantaoay River in San Vicente shows the Ilocano, armed with bows and arrows, facing the guns of the guardia civil and their native allies. Another painting depicts the townspeople rushing to seek sanctuary inside the cathedral as a drummer sounds the alarm. Another scene shows a Spanish military official scolding the gobernadorcillos of the southern towns for arriving too late with their promised reinforcements, and another depicts the brutal hanging of the defeated rebels. Belonging to the Naif tradition, the painting renders figures on a two-dimensional perspective, and shows the officials and hidalgos as bigger, towering over small folk like well-dressed giants among peasants. These paintings were originally on display at the Jose Burgos House, in the custody of the Filipinas Foundation. In 2015, the Basi Revolt paintings were transferred to the former provincial jail, now converted into the Ilocos Regional Museum Complex, which stands beside the Jose Burgos House (Cimatu 2015; National Museum 2015).

The wall paintings of saints in the Vigan Cathedral were done by an Italian painter based in Manila who did not sign his works. A veritable trove of colonial art is the archbishop’s residence in Vigan, which has a collection of large oil paintings depicting ceremonial scenes, portraits, and official seals of bishops and archbishops of the diocese of Nueva Segovia; silver relicarios, ciboria, candelabra, and other examples of religious colonial silver; and distinctively carved colonial furniture.

A distinct example of Ilocano religious folk art is the set of ex-votos, thin silver medallions or plaques pinned to the santos’ robes in thanksgiving for favors received or requested. Shaped like eyes, legs, arms, noses, ears, and so forth, these are pinned or decorated on the favored saint. The statue that has been almost completely covered by ex-votos is that of Santa Lucia in Santa Lucia, Ilocos Sur.

Jewelry continues to be done by a few smiths of Bantay. Their grandfathers used to craft ornate necklaces like the tamborin, cadena, and sinan-alokon; varied earrings like the sampalok, also called crolia or rosita (seven gems), tagaan (three gems), and dos amante (two gems). Using pearls, diamonds, rubies, and rare corals, they fashioned rings like domino, amante, tipani, dos amante, and rosita. Abra traders are the usual source of gold. The silver used for base comes from peso coins minted in the American period.

Sculpture has seen better days in Ilocos when those who worked with plaster and cement were busy sculpting likenesses of religious figures or Filipino heroes either in the round or in relief, for altars, monuments, and family mausoleums. An old wood carver in San Vicente still fashions religious icons mostly using santol wood. The makers of violins, guitars, and violas in Vigan have stopped producing the instruments, the last artisans simply accepting repair jobs for their products done decades ago. In his youth, Melanio Andino used to export macramé with clay vases and figurines to New York in the 1970s. He designed tiny figures and hired the traditional Vigan potters to produce them. Also in the mid-1970s, Andino developed and marketed the now famous red square “Vigan tiles.”

There is a brisk business in heirloom furniture and reproductions, as well as antique jars and porcelains. The main shops for antiques and wood-carved items are found in the old section of Vigan where the Ilocano baskets, drapes, and jars are also available. Notable sculptors are Boy de Peralta, who specialized in wood murals, and Jun Lazo, who continued the tradition of carving santos in San Vicente, Ilocos Sur.

Hyperrealism in sculpture is exemplified by the work of Raphael David of Pangasinan. Flavio is his fiberglass and cold-cast bronze statue of the folk hero Panday, made popular by movie actor Fernando Poe Jr. The sculpture was inaugurated at the annual Himala sa Buhangin Festival and now stands on the sand dunes of Paoay. David’s tribute to another lowly Ilocano hero is The Garlic Farmer, which stands at the Pinili Tourist Center in Ilocos Norte (Adriano 2015). In 2015, Senate Resolution No. 1447 honored sculptor, art historian, and teacher Lorenzo Lucero Mata, born in 1925 in San Vicente, Ilocos Sur, for his book documenting the local culture and history of his hometown, as well as his paintings, wood carvings of religious images, and bust sculptures of past presidents. It was his father, master carpenter Melecio Mata, who taught him to sculpt (“Senate” 2015).

Literary Arts of the Ilocano People

Poetry in Ilocano has its origins in the folk burburtia (riddles) and pagsasao (proverbs). Embodying wisdom of the ages, these are usually passed from grandparents to grandchildren during leisure hours. The riddles come in couplets, with closer attention to rhythm than to rhyme. The metaphorical expressions usually reflect analogies in nature and the domestic or work setting. While riddles are crafted to be witty, they are also primarily meant to be entertaining and easy to memorize. Most riddles are couched in irony and paradox but bare the similarities of ordinary objects with the varied conditions and cycles in life, as in:

No baro narukop

No daan nalagda.

(When new it’s weak

When old it’s strong.

[Mixed soil and carabao dung pounded

on the ground as bed for pounding rice.])

Idi naparsua toy lubong inda met naparsua

Uppat nga agkakabsat di pay nagkikita.

(When the world was created, so were these

Four brothers who have not met since.

[The compass’ four directions])

Ania ti banag a no ikkatam

Dakdakkel ti inna pagbalinan?

(What is that which you take from

But becomes bigger? [A hole])

Here are some pagsasao:

Ti makaturog, makamukat;

Ti nasalukag, agbiag.

(He who sleeps shall have motes;

He who is diligent shall have a full


No agmulaka ti unas

Di na ka pay taliawen ti lumabas

Ngem no adda basimon a naimas

Sarungkarandaka uray ania oras.

(When you are planting sugarcane

Passersby don’t even glance at you

But as soon as you have tasty basi

They visit you any hour of the day.)

Sadino man ti papanan

Sumursurot ti nakairruaman.

(Wherever one goes

Custom always follows.)

Oral literature is customarily chanted by the Ilocano as part of their rituals proper on the life cycle or as provider of tempo in the work sites, as exemplified by the rower’s song “Pamulinawen” (Stonehearted). The famous folk ballad “Marba Koma Diay Bantay” (Would That Mountain Crumble) follows the rocking motion of the cradle when a baby is being lulled to sleep.

A native poetic form that is more demanding is the arikenken, an impromptu joust between a man and a woman, usually held during a bridal party and centered on the rights and responsibilities of the wife or the husband. Stock phrases and metaphors are often used, especially since the performers must dance a bit while spouting measured verses in tempo with the body movements.

Lam-ang and Ines Kannoyan
Lam-ang and Ines Kannoyan (Illustration by Benedict Reyna)

The most cited Ilocano narrative that is chanted in verse is Lam-ang. Invested with supernatural powers, Lam-ang is born fully grown, and having dreamed of his father’s death in the hands of tribal foes, immediately engages in a dangerous quest for him. After singlehandedly fighting a big band of Igorot, Lam-ang emerges victorious with the use of his magical weapons. After this victory, he decides to court and eventually weds the loveliest woman in Kalanutian, Ines Kannoyan. In his last adventure, he decides to look for the rarang (big clam), but he instead gets devoured by the berkakan (giant fish). In the end, however, he is resurrected in a mystical rite involving his magical animals and the skirt of his wife.

Lam-ang defeating a band of Igorot
Lam-ang defeating a band of Igorot (Illustration by Benedict Reyna)

Several scholars have cast doubt on the legend’s precolonial antiquity, pointing out that the transcription by Pedro Bukaneg has never been discovered and that the Ilocano text includes both Christian elements and Chinese details. Nonetheless, the verse tale of Lam-ang stands out as a well-crafted piece of Ilocano poetry. Old men still recite fragments of the Lam-ang legend in the chanted style of the traditional oral verse called dallot, traditionally performed by older men and women to newlyweds. Dallot chanters normally perform some basic dance steps of the pandanggo or arikenken while counselling the young couple on the pitfalls of marriage. The lines are rich in analogies, often improvised but always in regular rhyme and rhythm.

Written poetry started in the early 17th century, when the Augustinian friar Francisco Lopez published the Ilocano translation of Cardinal Bellarmine’s Doctrina Cristiana, 1621, with the literary assistance of the Ilocano-Tinguian Pedro Bukaneg, and the Arte de la lengua Yloca (Grammar of the Iloco Language), 1627. These texts are very significant because they pioneered the use of a Romanized orthography for Ilocano. The Doctrina carried the earliest transcribed poems in the Ilocano script as well as a segment of an ancient Ilocano manuscript, while the Arte included a section on the rules for writing poetry.

From then on, the customary crafting of proverbs and riddles for the purpose of teaching folk wisdom or entertainment during social gatherings expanded to the printed medium, thereby making them more permanent and easier to convey from one generation to the next. Using the rules on poetic craft of Fray Lopez, Ilocano writers began to publish poems in the 18th century, mainly on religious themes. Jacinto Kawili was the most notable among the pioneer poets. The didactic writings of the friars in Iluko dominated the scene up to the mid-19th century, since printing served religious instruction and the printing presses were in the hands of the clergy. Literary production was oriented to inculcating piety and loyalty among the people.

Isabelo de los Reyes, circa 1937
Isabelo de los Reyes, circa 1937 (wikimediacommmons/Jackievon)

Among the earliest daniw (poem) written in Iluko is “Pampanunot ken Patay” (Meditations on Death), 1627, composed of 10 quatrains on the meaning of life’s trials up to sentencia nga ududi (the final judgment day). Isabelo delos Reyes and Leon Pichay attributed its authorship to Bukaneg mainly because of its humility and hint of protest; others, however, say these were written by a friar. The first three quatrains, as seen in the translation by Azurin below, bare sentiments that probably could not have been explicitly stated by a friar:

Daytoy kitak a nakaapaprang

ti sarming a paganninawan

iti tungpal a kailalaan,

ken amin nga ubbaw nga ag-aguman.

Dagiti agturay a mannakabilin,

babaknang, agtutubo ken ubbing,

lakay, nalaad ken nalaing

kasdanto kaniak amin.

Iti biag saan a maigawid

ta iti patay kas buis nga awan makapagkalis,

iti panangyawat a pilit.

(My appearance, so horrible

still reflects as a mirror

on the mirror where it is reflected

and all the good material things craved for.

The rulers ever powerful

the rich, the youth and children,

the old, ugly or wise

like me shall all become.

Life goes on inexorable as death, just like

taxes that no one can evade,

as its giving is imposed.)

Pablo Inis was born in 1661 in Sinait and, like Bukaneg, was intellectually bolstered by a friar. At 20, he began writing poems in praise of the Creator and the patron saints. Typical of his poems is “Pagdaydayaw ken Apo de la Rosa, Katalek ti Sinait” (In Praise of Our Lady of the Rose, Patroness of Sinait). The first three of 10 stanzas, translated by Pablo Ramirez, follow:

Bituen ti In agit a karaniagan,

Emperatriz a katan-okan;

De la rosa silaw a kasilnagan,

Tulongannakam a kaasian.

Sinait ti pangnagan

Ti Barrio a nakaipanam

Nga isu a nagayatan

O ina ti Dios a katan-okan.

Ta tiulongmo di lumangan,

Ken asim a nalipiasan,

Kadagiti naayat a sumangbay,

Iti puso a napasnekan.

(Brightest star of heaven,

Our empress most noble;

De la rosa, light most radiant

Help us in our great need.

Sinait is the fair name;

It was the place you chose,

Of your village residence,

Sublime Mother of God.

Your kindness and support

Without cessation go

To those who want to take

Refuge within your heart.)

By the middle of the 19th century, this pious and didactic sentiment was still the main, if not the sole, thread of Iluko poetry and all of literature in the region, so much so that the literary turning points were then impelled by this catechistic drive, as in the landmark publication of the Pasion de nuestro Señor Jesu Christo Escrita en Lengua Ilocana por el M.R.P. Fr. Antonio Megia (The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ Written in the Ilocano Language by the Very Reverend Fr. Antonio Megia), 1845.

Noteworthy in all these efforts was the steady development of writing skills and styles in Iluko—not Spanish, which was not propagated by the friars. The poetic idiom of the daniw, in the works of poets like Jacinto Kawili of Batac, Ilocos Norte started to come close to the vernacular as ordinarily spoken; although still religious in theme, it was less confined to the usual phrases in prayer books. Evidence of this change is Kawili’s poem “Ni Managindadakkel” (The Braggart), whose first of eight stanzas reads:

Kasano aya a kitaen,

ti tao a managindadakkel?

Di kad tungpalna laeng ti rigat a nadagsen…

no malabes dagitoyen?

(How then shall one view

a person who is a braggart?

Isn’t it that he is bound to face grave sufferings…

when all these have gone out of bounds?)

Leona Florentino
Leona Florentino, 1880s

A generation later, this more casual tone turned more secular in theme and sometimes satirical in tone in the hands of Leona Florentino who read her poems during gentry gatherings in Vigan. This new kind of daniw focused on social manners and showed a blend of gentility, irony, and humor. Through Florentino, the daniw also emerged in the international scene when her poems in Iluko and Spanish were included in a bibliography of poetry, the Bibliotheque Internationale des Oeuvres des Femmes, edited by Andzia Wolkska in 1889. Florentino’s poems were also exhibited at the World Exposition in Madrid in 1887 and in Paris in 1889. Fragments of different poems she wrote for close relatives follow, as translated by Foronda Jr.:

Anansata no ragsac ti maysa, ragsacyo a dua,

no rigat ti maysa, rigattayo met a dua;

aday-oanyo ti ilem quen panagdudua

a mangirurumen ti sudi ti panagtalentalec ti


(Therefore let the joy of one be the joy of both,

the hardships of one, the hardships of both;

shun jealousy and suspicions

which destroy the luster of the couple’s trust.)

Sabong ti cayarigan

ti macagteng ti quinabalasang

quet ti banglona nga agpanapan

ti macasay-op inca bang-aran.

(One who reaches maidenhood

is likened to a flower

and her fragrance is

unto one who breathes it, a balm.)

Sapaem ngad a liclican

daytoy cadaoyan a cadadacsan;

ipaquitam la ti lasbangmo quen rangpayam

uray no quinabaquetmo ti madanonan.

(And so try to escape

this most evil of states;

just show your loveliness and grace

even if you have reached old age.)

Ragragsaquem la dayta naquemmo

nangruna no maquitam ida nga agcariño

ni Baquet D. quen ni M.

ta casda la tugui iti cabudo.

(And just console yourself

especially when you see

Baquet D. and M. manifest their affections

for they are as itchy as the tugui [a rootcrop]).

Narrative poetry emerged in the form of corridos or romances rich in episodes testing the hero’s faith, valor, and sense of sacrifice. When the trials became impossible to overcome, there appeared a divine savior, or the heroes assumed magical powers. Because these romances were to show the way to the true kingdom and the glorious life, the Ilocano called them panagbiag (the way to live). Soon, they supplemented the stories of the miraculous lives of saints contained in the novenas. Among the most popular korido were Bernardo Carpio, Siete Infantes de Lara (Seven Devils), Rodrigo de Villas, Gonzalo de Cordova, Principe Amante (Prince Amante), Ari Villarba, and Princesa Florentina (Princess Florentina).

The latter part of the 19th century saw the emergence of a religious chanting ritual following the publication of Passion by Megia. This was the fusion of the customary dung-aw or dirge and the Passion, but with a big difference from the original story of the salvation-through-sacrifice role of Christ. This dirge revolves around the grief of the Virgin Mary over the sufferings and death of Christ. Apart from Lam-ang, it is the colonial era’s prime narrative poem, whose printed form is called sudario, from the Spanish sudar, meaning “to perspire.” Sudario literally means “a piece of cloth for wiping off perspiration,” but among the Ilocano, it connotes a handkerchief for wiping the tears of the Blessed Mother by men and women during Lent, before an improvised shed and altar called abong-abong. The whole practice is called agpa-leksyo or lectio.

The sudario, subtitled Dung-aw ni Apo Santa Maria iti Panagtutuoc quen Ipapatay ni Apotayo a Jesucristo (Dirge of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ), clearly combines the theme and idiom of the dung-aw, thus making the Virgin Mary mourn over her dead son like an ordinary Ilocano mother. This is evident right in the first stanzas translated by Pablo Ramirez:

“O Dios Ama”

Lectio Nga Umuna

O Dios Ama badangannac

Taliaoem cad toy casadsaad

Ta aoan naganac caniac.

Sangsangailiac ditoy a ciudad

Quet aoan balay a pagyanac.

Aoan di nasam-it nga asaoac

A Jose nga catulongac

Aoan met pangital-liaoac

Cadaguitoy nadam-egan a matac

Tapno maitabon coma toy anac.

Naquemmot tinungpalna

Quet bilinmot sinungpotna;

Caasiam ngarud unay ita

Toy nacacaasi a bangcayna

Tapno maitanem coma.

Ay! anacco a maymaysa

Ania ti aramidec quenca

Sungbatam cad toy ina;

Tapno ammona ti aramidenna

Itoy baquim a nacail-ilala…

(“Oh God the Father”

The First Lectio

Oh, Lord the Father, extend me thy aid!

Look upon my condition appalling,

I am all alone—an orphan—

Alone, a stranger in this town

And shelter I have none.

My Joseph, my own beloved spouse—

He, too, is gone—my better half,

To whom I, could direct my tearful eyes,

To whom I could ask for needed help

That my dead son be entombed.

Thy will, he has willingly taken;

Thy order, he has followed.

Extend then, Oh Lord, thy help,

That this pitiful cadaver,

To its resting place be taken.

Ay! my son, my only one,

What now shall I do to you?

Speak out, oh my dearest son.

To your mother, give your word

That she may do what is proper.)

Two major types of Iluko poetry were quite well-known at the turn of the century: the folk spiritual exemplified by the sudario, and the lyric-secular embodied by Leona Florentino’s poems. This is an unconventional way of classifying poetry but it is the most precise since in the Ilocos, the daniw as printed was an offspring of prayers and the printed novena pamphlets. The secular mood and theme of the humanistic Renaissance was just emerging in the poems of Florentino.

In the hope of widening the path toward a secular direction, Florentino’s son, Isabelo de los Reyes, began publishing in the 1890s his Iluko translations of European and Chinese poetry in order to expose Ilocano writers to the great literary traditions of the world. In 1926, the first comprehensive anthology of Iluko poems came out, showing a variety of forms and influences. Titled Sangcareppet a Dandaniw: Parnaso Ilocano (A Sheaf of Verses, Ilocano Parnassus), it was edited by Mauro Peña of Sarrat, Ilocos Norte and Antonio Fogata of San Narcisco, Zambales. The poems showed a loosening of meter and experimentation in form. The book included samples of the satira (satire), epigrama (epigrams), eucaristico (poem of thanks), sonnet, ode, and others. Also included were Iluko versions of the “Marcha Nacional Filipina,” Jose Rizal’s “Mi Ultimo Adios,” and German, Chinese, Spanish, and Italian poems as translated by de los Reyes. Notable in this early volume was its national and international flavoring, although the staple was Iluko poetry.

The generation of poets during the first decades of American occupation acquired the confidence to engage in public demonstration of their talents in impromptu-versified debates incorporating the traditional arikenken poetic joust and the newfound idiom about contemporary issues, the bukanegan. Named after Bukaneg and introduced in the 1930s as the Iluko counterpart of the Tagalog balagtasan, this public poetic joust usually revolved around the contrasting virtues of Beauty or Wisdom, Youth or Age, Learning or Wealth, and Reason or Heart. From the 1930s to the 1950s, bukanegan was a lively feature in fiestas and big school affairs. At its height in the mid-1930s, the Manila Grand Opera House was the venue for the bukanegan, pitting the talents of Leon Pichay and Victorino Balbin before an audience of Ilocano luminaries in government and business. The volume Bukanegan A Nagrurupiran (The Bukanegan Joust), 1934, features the poetic contest among Mariano Gaerlan, who spoke for Sanikua (Wealth); Godofredo Reyes, Adal (Learning); and Leon Pichay, Dayaw (Honor). In the 1960s, with the spread of the transistor radio, these jousts left the stage to go on air every weekend in some radio stations in Ilocos and Pangasinan. Thus, it gained a larger audience. Sometimes, it would be featured by drama troupes invited to perform during town fiestas and other gatherings. In the history of the bukanegan, no poet ever reached the eminence of Pichay, who in his time was invited all over the Ilocos during town carnivals to deliver encomiums to the carnival queen and her court. Thus was Pichay conferred the title “King of Ilocano Poets” and chosen to introduce the Dallang ti Amianan anthology of verse.

Members of GUMIL Metro Manila with National Artist for Literature, F. Sionil Jose, seated at center
Members of GUMIL Metro Manila with National Artist for Literature, F. Sionil Jose, seated at center, 2016 (Luce Domini F. Melegrito, photo courtesy of Marcelino Francisco Dumlao Santos)

After World War II, poetry anthologies, mostly published by Gunglo Dagiti Mannurat nga Ilocano iti Filipinas (GUMIL), were Ballatinaw (Mahogany), edited by Godofredo S. Reyes and Pelagio Alcantara; Pamulinawen: Dandaniw 1949-1975 (Stonehearted: Poetry 1949-1975), 1975, edited by Jose A.Bragado and Benjamin M.Pascual; Kutibeng (Native Guitar), 1976, edited by Marcelino Foronda Jr.; Dandaniw (Poetry), edited by Pacita Saludes; Sakbay a Lumnek ti Init (Before the Sun Sets), edited by Jaime Lucas and Antonia Cabuyadao; Alintatao (Pupil of the Eye), 1981, edited by Reynaldo A. Duque; Ani 7 (Harvest 7), edited by Herminio S. Beltran Jr. and Jose A. Bragado; and Talibagoh (Apex of Virtue), edited by Benjamin M. Pascual, Jose A. Bragado, and Cles B. Rambaud. Most of the anthologized poems had first appeared in the Iluko weekly Bannawag. While this magazine is a great boost to Ilocano talents, it is also regarded as a constricting medium for creativity, as some Cordillera-based writers find it oriented to the lowland market.

An edition of Bannawag
An edition of Bannawag (Photo courtesy of Bannawag)

An edition of Bannawag (Photo courtesy of Bannawag)
An edition of Bannawag (Photo courtesy of Bannawag)
An edition of Bannawag
An edition of Bannawag (Photo courtesy of Bannawag)

Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother), 1997, is Lilia Quindoza-Santiago’s study of women’s poetry in English, Tagalog, and Iluko. The appendix includes a collection, culled from previously published anthologies, of Iluko poems by 10 women: Leona Florentino, Enriqueta de Peralta, Antonia Marcos Rubio, Ursula Villanueva, Cresencia D. dela Rosa-Domingo, Pacita C. Saludes, Florentina R. Somera, Hermilinda T. Lingbaoan-Bulong, Alice Almario, and Mercedes Magno.

The past two generations have seen many Ilocano expressing their poetic imagination in English or in Filipino. A recent phenomenon is bilingualism as practiced by Reynaldo Duque and Juan S. P. Hidalgo Jr. (Iluko and Filipino), or Alejandrino G. Hufana and Benjamin M. Pascual (English and Iluko), and Herminio Beltran Jr., Arnold Molina Azurin, Pelagio Alcantara, and a few others who are trilingual poets.

In the mid-1990s the works of the poet Godofredo Reyes inspired the Avant-Garde Iluko Poetry Contest, which paved the way for experimental poetry. The winning works were published in the anthology Dagiti Kapintasan nga Avant-Garde a Daniw iti Iluko, 1995-1999 (The Best Avant-Garde Poems in Iluko 1995-1999), 2000. Thus did the works of Daniel L. Nesperos, John B. Buhay, and Mindo N. Aquino gain regional attention. The anthology Dandaniw Ilokano, Mga Tulang Ilokano, 1621-2014 (Ilokano Poems, 1621-2014), 2014, edited by Junley Lazaga, traces the development of Iluko poetry from the 17th to the 21st century. The generation of emerging poets included in Lazaga’s anthology are Brenda Subido, Nelson Daligcon, Gladys Menor, Walter D. Navalta, Roy Vadil Aragon, Jobert Ma. Pacnis, Prodie Gar. Padios, Bagnos C. Cudiamat, Ariel S. Tabag, Rosalie Alabano Barnachea, Neyo Mario E. Valdez, Frank Cimatu, and Rhea Rose D. Beroy.

"Angalo ken Aran,” an Ilocano myth
"Angalo ken Aran,” an Ilocano myth (Illustration by Benedict Reyna)

The earliest prose forms in Iluko literature are the folk narratives, which include myths, legends, and trickster tales. These used to be handed down through the elders’ nighttime storytelling; now they are propagated in schools as part of cultural studies, particularly those on the folk history of towns, mountains, and lakes. Among the Ilocano, the myth of “Angalo ken Aran” is a favorite in explaining the origin of the region’s rivers, lakes, and first inhabitants. The male Angalo and his mate Aran were the first creatures of human form, but they were giants. The entire land was their domain; the entire shoreline was their playground. Whenever they chased each other, their gigantic footprints and trails sank parts of the ground that soon became rivers and valleys. When they took a bath upriver and grappled with one another in horseplay, the entire area sank under their weight. Rainwater filled it up, and the sunken areas turned into lakes, while the rim became the hills. This myth supposedly explains why there is often a big stone shaped like a giant’s footprint in lakes and lagoons in the Ilocos. Once Angalo and Aran played on the shore during which Angalo piled up stone, shrubs, and sand, modelling his creation after Aran’s bosom. Thus was formed the Suso Beach in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur, with a prominent hill shaped like a giant breast. Other towns add on their version to explain any local dominant land feature. But they invariably agree on the origin of the first Ilocano; they were mud figures molded by these giants that later on gave life to earthen figurines. Thus did the Ilocano brown ancestors come to be.

Many legends are told to explain the origin of a town’s name. In Narvacan, some people say that the lone mountain overlooking the wharf in Barangay Sulvec is the overturned ark of Noah. Before it capsized, a member of this refuge vessel shouted to his companions “Marba kan! Marba kan!” (You are tumbling over), and eventually this cry of alarm became the root of the name of the original settlement.

One version of the legendary origin of Paoay Lake follows exactly the biblical episode about the wrath of the Almighty on Sodom and Gomorrah, when Lot’s wife looked back to see the destruction of the sinful cities and turned into a pillar of salt. In this Paoay Lake tale, the old villages locked in competition over lavish clothes and jewelry are also called by biblical names or adaptations such as Siduma and Sintapuli. The vain inhabitants were punished by the deities through a big flood.

Another tale on the Paoay Lake as told by a Paoayeño, Mario Plan, is more ethnic in orientation. A long time ago, the Dakkel a Danum (large watering hole) was not as big as it is today; it was just an ordinary lake. The Tinguian built houses along the lake. It was at this time that the Spaniards came to baptize the Tinguian. Those who refused baptism ran inland while others stayed to become Christians and became the ancestors of the people around the lake. Years passed and the lake became bigger and bigger until the Tinguian houses were covered with water. During the dry spell, some poles could be seen thrusting out of the water, and later generations believed that these were relics of the flooded houses.

Other olden tales intended for entertainment are the Juan Sadot (Lazy Juan) stories usually told by grandmothers to the young to send them to bed. Juan Sadot is a moron; in these yarns, he acts silly because of his failure to understand his errands or situations confronting him. One episode goes this way, and here, the narrator gives details of what the characters see along the way to show the half-witted reactions of Juan: Juan Sadot and his grandmother were walking by the river. They suddenly saw a group of people fishing out a drowned man. They went closer and saw the crowd wrapping the victim with buri mat but covering their nostrils because the corpse was already decomposing. Juan asked why the corpse smelled. His grandmother said, “Because he is dead.” “Why are they bundling him in a mat?” asked Juan. And the old woman said they were preparing to bury the dead. Later in the evening, as the old woman was trying to catch sleep on her mat, she quietly emitted a sudden foul odor. Juan smelled the terrible stench. Thinking that his grandmother was dead, he rolled the mat around her and began hauling her down the stairs.

During the Spanish period, the pueblo children and adolescents lived a regimented life: Holy Mass in the morning, prayers and singing hymns before lunch, and catechism sessions in the afternoon followed by the vespers and a novena in any of the houses in the poblacion where a religious ritual would be making the rounds in the neighborhood. To further strengthen this colonial mold of social life, the lay leaders distributed prayer pamphlets with religious poems interwoven in the novenas and booklets on the lives of saints. Along with these reading materials came the korido volumes to inculcate loyalty to God and the Spanish king.

The korido romances directly influenced the first Iluko novel Matilde de Sinapangan, written by Fray Rufino Redondo, who was awarded a gold medal for his novel and short stories during the 1892 Candon town fiesta. Literary historian Leopoldo Yabes has noted the excessive moralizing of this novel about a barrio girl who triumphed over the difficulties in upholding the Christian rites and beliefs. The succeeding novels did not transcend the mawkish, simplistic, and moralistic plot of the koridos. In 1909, Mariano Gaerlan wrote Biag ti Maysa a Lakay, Oenno Nacaamames a Bales (Life of an Old Man, or Frightful Revenge). In the same year, C.A. Duque’s Baltazar was published, followed by Facundo Madriaga’s Uray Narigat No Paguimbagan (Bearing Difficulty for the Good) in 1911. This phase of the Iluko novel, dubbed by critics as the Tearjerker Age, extended until World War II.

The shocks and stresses of war affected the traditional moorings of society and the Ilocano novelists reflected these changes and traumas in their works. Similarly, since most Ilocano novelists at this time had gone through college, every popular foreign novelist’s style and subject was a source of inspiration. Thus emerged the stage of experimentation among Ilocano novelists. Those who blazed the trail included David Campañao, Jose Acance, Arsenio Ramel Jr., Hermogenes Belen, Greg Laconsay, Marcelino Foronda Jr., and Constante Casabar. In the Bannawag serialized works emerged the folklore, landscape, and personal anguish of the Ilocano as homestead seeker, migrant worker, landlord, professional, guerrilla, lover, or provinciano newly arrived in the city. An outstanding novel in this batch because of its realism and sustained intensity was Dagiti Mariing iti Parbangon (They Who Awake at Dawn) by Casabar, who exposed the vile practices of usurers, politicians, and factory managers against laborers and peasants.

Novelists Dionisio Bulong and Lorenzo Tabin are known for their humorous and intimate depiction of the Ilocano uprooted from their rustic setting and awkwardly implanting roots in the city. Juan S. P. Hidalgo Jr. has been looking into the folk beliefs in the occult. Elpidio Unabia writes of the clash of characters in logging camps. Sex comedy in a light vein is Meliton Gal Brillantes’s forte, while Jose Bragado’s focus is on the Ilocano as a fortune seeker outside his homeland. Reynaldo Duque’s novels are depictions of social ills and the struggle for justice and economic uplift.

The subject matter of Marcos’s martial law looms large in the post-EDSA Revolt novels. Saksi ti Kaunggan (Innermost Testimony), 1986-1987, by Juan S.P. Hidalgo, is set in the years surrounding EDSA I. The protagonist, Felipe Lazaro Saleng, returns to his hometown in Ilocos after several years of absence and observes the effect of EDSA on local politics, such as the activities of Marcos loyalists and the appointment of officers-in-charge (OICs) to government positions. The novel takes the view that EDSA I was instigated by the US government, which therefore put President Corazon Aquino in power. The novel’s postmodern strategy is demonstrated in its fragmented, multilinear structure, and the use of documentary sources, such as film scripts and paintings, for historical material. Angkel Sam (Uncle Sam), 1990-1991, by Reynaldo A. Duque, is inspired by the true story of the Tinguian people’s struggle against a multinational company called Cellophil. Set in a fictional barrio named Bagani Ubbog in 1987, the novel begins with the arrival of the American Samuel Wright, also known as Angkel Sam. Soon, the barrio folk concede all political power to Angkel Sam. He is also the rival of the left-wing character, Romeo Komunista, for the love of the barrio lass Luzviminda. News of the reopening of the US-owned Cellocos finally rouse the barrio folk to action, which results in a violent and bloody struggle. Dagiti Bin-i ti Kimat (The Seeds of Lightning), 1995, by Clesencio Rambaud, is set in San Isidro, Ilocos Norte and portrays the intensified militarization following EDSA. A family in the fictional barrio of Puritac is caught in the crossfire between the New People’s Army (NPA) and the government military. Piling’s husband is falsely accused of harboring the insurgents and is killed, and Piling herself is violated (Galam 2008).

Events in history that the Ilocano take pride in continue to serve as sources for contemporary historical fiction. Alsa Masa 1763, 1996, by Bernardino Alzate, is set in Tayum, Abra and is inspired by the revolt led by Gabriela Silang in 1763. The rivalry for the love of a Chinese woman becomes the catalyst for the continuation of Silang’s revolt, led by the protagonist, Anastacio Saavedra (Tacio), against his rival, Kapitan Peña, the alcalde mayor of Tayum (Galam 2008).

The Ilocano who have ventured into novel writing in English, like F. Sionil Jose, usually deal with the same subjects and characters as those writing in Ilocano. However, the larger audience of English writings has meant greater eminence and more translations in foreign languages. Another Ilocano writer, Gracianus Reyes, has written two novels and two volumes of short stories in English.

Alongside the growth of the novel, the short story emerged as a close parallel, both in theme and craft. According to Yabes, “Ti Langit Inanamatayo” (Heaven of Our Hope), written by Isabelo de los Reyes toward the end of the 19th century, is the oldest existing Iluko short story. But not until the 1920s, when vernacular publications proliferated, was there a noticeable surge in this literary form. Like the novelists, short story writers focused initially on the sentimental themes and Cinderella plots. Thus, writer Benjamin M. Pascual labelled the stories of this era as “a bucketful of tears.” There were a few experimental pieces, but they were unremarkable.

Notable in this early crop of short fictionists are Hermogenes Belen, Mauro Peña, Narciso Capusan, Benjamin M. Pascual, David Campañano, and Jeremias Calixto. Most of their stories depicted the rustic humor and customs of the Ilocano, the anxieties of young lovers, and the triumphs of the downtrodden, or the downfall of powerful clans. The stories from the post-World War II years to the 1960s showed a surer craft and a deeper insight into character and social conflict. Pascual referred to this phase as the “Second Basi Revolt.” Writers like Constante Casabar, Arsenio Ramel, and Marcelino Foronda Jr. highlighted the wartime problems and the postwar tensions impelling a new wave of migration from the region.

Gregorio Laconsay continued the traditional storyline revolving around romance and rustic bliss—the same mold of narrative mastered by Manuel Arguilla, an outstanding Ilocano writer from Bauang, La Union who wrote in English before the war. Arguilla’s “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” was typical of his themes on the simple joys and hopes of barrio life even as the folk began feeling the ripple of social change. It was the same setting for the short stories of Ilocano migrant worker Carlos Bulosan from Binalonan, Pangasinan who was the first Filipino to attain literary fame in the United States before World War II. Bulosan’s stories of Ilocano farm life were rich in local color but with a shade of exaggerated humor bordering on satire. His pieces, published in American magazines, were gathered in one volume titled The Laughter of My Father. Bulosan was also a poet and author of the acclaimed book America Is in the Heart, a biographical novel that revealed the deceptions of labor recruiters and the injustices suffered by Filipino contract workers, many of them Ilocano, in the West Coast and Alaska in the United States.

The Iluko short stories published in the Bannawag from the early 1960s to the 1970s achieved a degree of distinction in style and psychological depth. Pascual referred to this stage as “the bolo sharpening period.” It was a high point in Ilocano literature, particularly for the short fiction. Hermilinda Lingbaoan-Bulong highlights the following fictionists who gained fame after the 1960s: “Jose Bragado, who typified the Ilocano mode of value inculcation through father-and-son relationships; Pelagio Alcantara, who explored the existential pain of loss; Antonio Sanchez Encarnacion, who probed into the inner dynamics of choice and decision; Juan S. P. Hidalgo Jr., who delved into the spiritual and metaphysical dimension of human beings; and Edilberto Angco, Rogelio Aquino, and Peter La. Julian, who were most interested in sociopolitical issues.”

In the 1980s, the Iluko short story expanded its cultural vista as migrants to various regions in the country as well as abroad began to focus on the peculiar situations and fresh challenges in such crosscultural milieus. But the old hometown was also experiencing change and new tensions that were revealed intimately in the stories of Cristino Inay, Severino Pablo, Lorenzo Tabin, Francisco Quitasol, Herminio Calica, Manuel Diaz, Casimiro de Guzman, and Prescillano Bermudez.

From the homestead regions and logging camps in Cagayan Valley emerged the life portraits of Rosito Pimentero, Renato Paat, Arsenio Ramel, Samuel Corpuz, William Alvarado, Wilson Salvador, and Juan Quimba. The highlands of Abra came alive in the stories of Bernardino Alsate, Lito Peig, Donato Abanilla, and Esmenio Calera. Life in resettlement areas and bustling trade centers of Mindanao was the forte of Billy Sambrano and Lito Soriano.

Another development in this period was the emergence of more women fictionists: Sinamar Robianes Tabin, Amanda Pugot-del Rosario, Onofreda Ibarra, Ruperta Asuncion, Cresenda Alcantara, Maria Quiagao Ventura, Eden Cachola-Bulong, Crispina Martinez-Belen, Cresencia dela Rosa, Crispina Balderas-Bragado, Linda Landingin-Villanueva, and Pacita Saludes. Hermenegilda Lingbaoan-Bulong, born in Peñarrubia, Abra, writes Iluko fiction but is Tinguian.

Since 1997, when the Palanca Awards opened the category of the Short Story in Iluko, the winners have been Aurelio S. Agcaoili, Ricarte A. Agnes, Jimmy M. Agpalo Jr., William V. Alvarado, Eden Aquino Alviar, Danilo B. Antalan, Roy V. Aragon, Juan A. Asuncion, Sherma E. Benosa, Prescillano N. Bermudez, Norberto D. Bumanglag, Clarito Garcia de Francia, Noli S. Dumlao, Arnold Pascual Jose, Joel B. Manuel, Daniel L. Nesperos, Severino V. Pablo, Ronelyn Ramones, Fernando Sanchez, Gorgonia Serrano, Bernardo D. Tabbada, Ariel S. Tabag, and Lorenzo G. Tabin. In 2003, the bilingual Reynaldo Duque was elevated into the Palanca Hall of Fame after having collected six first-prize awards from the Palanca, the last two simultaneously in the same year for the short story in Iluko and in Tagalog. All in all, Duque won 20 Palanca awards between 1974 and 2009, eight of them for the Iluko short story (“Directory” 2016).

The subject matter of the Iluko short story of this period consists of the diaspora, life in the provinces, social issues, and metaphysical and existential themes. Most of the works were published in Bannawag and subsequently anthologized in Tarigagay: Antolohia Dagiti a Napili Sarita (Desire: Anthology of Selected Stories), 1994; Saguday: Antolohia Dagiti Napili a Sarita Iluko (Virtue: Anthology of Selected Iluko Stories), 2000; Anaraar: 21 a Napili a Sarita it Lidko (Daybreak: 21 Selected Short Stories), 2000; Samtoy: Dagiti Saritami Ditoy, Ang Aming mga Kuwento (Our Language, Ourselves: These Are Our Stories), 2011; Nabalitokan a Tawid: Antolohia Dagiti Napili a Sarita dagiti Ilokano (Golden Legacy: Anthology of Selected Ilokano Stories), 2011; and Bin-i ti Biag: Sangabakruy nga Ababa a Nobela, Daniw, ken Sarita (Seeds of Life: A Harvest of Novellas, Poems, and Stories), 2015.

The essay is the least developed and patronized by writers from the Ilocos. However, this literary genre is the first to have emerged in Ilocos through the linguistic analyses of Fray Francisco Lopez on the native language and the craft of poetry in his Arte de la lengua Yloca, 1627.

Jacinto Kawili wrote the first essay by a native Ilocano, “Kabibiag ni Apo Jesucristo” (Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ), toward the end of the 18th century. It was in the late 19th century, however, when the essay became popular through the pages of the biweekly El Ilocano, a local paper published by Isabelo de los Reyes in 1889. This periodical carried essays either in Iluko or Spanish written by Ignacio Villamor, Claro Caluya, Mena Crisologo, Fr Mariano Dacanay, Canuto Medina, and the editor de los Reyes. The topics ranged from folklore to local history and sociopolitical issues. After its third year of continuous publication, the editor received a gold medal in the exposition of the 1892 Candon fiesta. El Ilocano proved to be a timely training ground for intellectuals in the region in developing their expository skills and consciousness as a people belonging to a nation. Within the same decade, they would be using their logic and language in their advocacy for Philippine independence.

An example of this patriotic rhetoric is the New Year’s Day circular of Ecclesiastical Governor Gregorio Aglipay to the clergy, urging the priests to use their moral stature in rallying the people in the defense of “the integrity and independence of (t)his natal land, free from all foreign subjugation.” Aglipay urged the priests to use the pulpit in telling the people “with the frankness of a true believer” that if they do not really adhere to the ideals of the Revolution or if they remain indifferent to whatever happens, all too soon they will see with their own eyes the sure end of everything they have: they themselves, or if not their children, will shed tears of blood to behold the ruins of their house, the death of how many loved ones.

The following year, the most rousing and thorough manifesto of the Ilocano Katipunero in support of the revolutionary government led by General Emilio Aguinaldo was issued by Cap Isabelo Abaya, commander of the Ilocos Sur Guerilla Unit One. Abaya’s appeal to the Ilocano was his last, for he fought to his last bullet, was captured, and tortured to death in the plaza of Candon, Ilocos Sur. Abaya’s call to arms reads in part below, as translated by W.H. Scott:

Let us fight then from those mountains, with neither hesitation nor rashness, and without predicting the outcome by considering the imbalance of resources but rather the beauty and sacredness of the ideal which we are pursuing against the oppressive imperialist designs of North America, who, concerned only with her wicked desire to dominate and degrade us unjustly—we with whom she once joined hands to defeat the Spanish army in these islands—would now impose her sovereignty on us by the brute force of her cannons, a sovereignty as evil as it is ridiculous …

For it is an insult to you, and a great one, to call the Filipino Army insurgent, that is to say, something despicable, and without honor to your sons, spouses and parents who, obedient to the rallying cry of that Government which you recognized, revered, and extolled with song and acclamation, they who, submissive to your will and counsels, took to the field of battle to seal with their blood and their lives the affectionate love they professed for you, as well as the inalienable right which is yours to be free and independent.

It is also a deliberate slap that brings the blood rushing to the face not to recognize that Government which the Philippines’ most illustrious sons formed in the enemy’s full view and with their aid in the beginning, and to deny with utter lack of shame the validity and efficacy of the Constitution and decrees which that Government promulgated with your applause for consolidating your present well-being, as well as for initiating that future greatness and prosperity of our beloved country.

And finally, it is an offense to you in your Catholic sentiments not to respect those objects your fathers taught you to hold sacred, to profane your temples, and to mutilate and rob you of your venerated images. Eloquent witness and examples of such profanations and usurpations are the churches of Pangasinan, La Union, Ilocos and Abra …

Under the American occupation, Ilocano essayists and advocates of various political persuasions had more space due to the proliferation of periodicals such as Dalan ti Cappia, Dangadang, El Grito de Ilocos Norte, Biblioteca El Mensajero Catolico, Naimbag a Damag, Ti Mangyuna, Wagayway, Timek, and The Ilocos Time. The essays varied from the familiar and lyrical to the satirical and hard-hitting expose. The foremost Ilocano essayists of this period were Camilo Osias, Mariano Gaerlan, Hermogenes Belen, Mauro Peña, Agapito Kuramen, Buenaventura Bello, Leon Pichay, Florencia Lagasca, Santiago Alcantara, and Mena Crisologo.

The best post-World War II essayists included Benjamin M. Pascual, Trinidad Benito, Benjamin Gray, Hermogenes Belen, Narciso Gapusan, Horencio Hernando, David Campañano, Arturo Buenavista, Marcelino Foronda Jr., and Jose Acance. The current crop writing on every conceivable subject, from lonely old-timers to the occult, includes bilingual writers like Zacarias Sarian, Segundo Foronda, Juan Bautista Alegre, Leonardo Belen, Juan Hidalgo Jr., Severino Lazo, Paul Zafaralla, Prescillano Bermudez, Jorge Ramos, Herminio Calica, and Arthur Urata, including expatriate essayists based in Hawaii, Guam, the Middle East, and the American mainland.

Ilocano Music and Songs

In Bacarra and nearby towns are found the makers of the arpa (harp), which is favored to the guitar by the gentry in Ilocos Norte. The guitar and the violin are also made in some towns of the region. In festive gatherings, a band is usually invited to perform the native airs. The group usually includes a flutist, trumpeter, saxophonist, bass drummer, trombonist, and a cymbalist. When a band is invited to accompany a sarsuwela performance, one or two violinists go along with the group as lead musicians. There are also several rondalla groups in the Ilocos based in public and private schools. The big bands of Pangasinan are often contracted to provide music for the weeklong carnival dance sessions held before and after coronation pageants for the fiesta queen and her court. They also make the rounds in Metro Manila nightclubs, on a contract of six months to a year.

The smaller hometown band members, whose instruments are usually inherited from their fathers, are invited to weddings, religious processions, and funerals. The kutibeng (native guitar) is now a cherished artifact displayed in museums, but the bamboo flute is still heard in the hilly areas of Ilocos, along with the heirloom gongs that accompany the tadek dance in interior towns like Cervantes or San Emilio in Ilocos Sur. Some returning oldtimers from Hawaii and California have brought home a few old accordions and banjos, while all over the Ilocos can be heard transistorized radio sets blaring with pop songs almost nonstop, as well as karaoke sing-along systems brought home by overseas Filipino workers.

As soon as the fruit-laden ramada rises in front of a chapel or before the house of the family designated as hermana mayor of the fiesta, the Ilocano start rehearsing their song-and-dance rituals and such traditional poetic jousts as the arikenken or the more rhetorical bukanegan. The Ilocano feast is often a multipurpose gathering, commemorating the day of the patron saint, a baptism, a housewarming, a bienvenida (welcome party), a wedding, or a class reunion. The delightful customs, folk songs, and delicacies come to the fore with the verbal battle of metaphors and folk wisdom through the bukanegan and the more stylized dallot, which is partly sung and declaimed, on such a feast day.

Among the most renowned Ilocano songs are “No Duduaem Pay” (If You Doubt Yet), an impassioned plaint of endless affection; “Dundungnguenkanto” (I Will Always Care for You), a lullaby that may as well be a love song; “Ti Ayat Ti Maysa nga Ubing” (Love of a Young One), which swings from tenderness to humor in reminding an old man not to fall for a maiden but instead to settle for a widow more tolerant of his white hair and missing teeth. A favorite of the young is “Manang Biday” because of its lively rhythm and puppy love theme. “No Sumken ti Sennaay” (When Longing Sinks In), composed by Claro Caluya of Piddig, Ilocos Norte, has a more mature outlook to love and life and is usually sung during the evening tapat (serenade). There are songs to provide tempo in the work sites, like the “Pamulinawen,” which was actually the rowers’ song in the days when the viray sailed the West Philippine Sea.

The duayya is sung by a parent to rock a baby to sleep. It is typified by this ballad chanted as a lullaby (Azurin 1991, 48-49):

Marba koma diay bantay

Ta magaboran dediay baybay

Bareng makitak pay

Ni manong ko no dipay natay.

Kaasi pay ni manong ko

Ta naayaban nga agsoldado

Napan nagehersisio

Idiay paraangan ti palasio.

(Would that mountain crumble

So as to cover the sea

That I may walk over it

To find my brother if he’s not dead yet.

Pitiful fate befell my brother

Since he was conscripted,

And gone for military drills

At the front yard of the palace.)

“No Duduaem Pay,” a favorite courtship song, is often sung by a man intent on baring his heart during a serenade. The song makes the plea that should the woman still doubt the frenzied depths of his love, she must really be so cruel, for only the grave can still this heartache. So, would she be kind enough to try feeling what he feels?

Opera aficionados are now a rarity in the region, although the baritone Elmo Makil comes from San Emilio. However, the Iluko songs popularized by the sarsuwela Ilocana troupes always come to the fore during the fiesta season. During the Semana Santa, it is the lectio chanting and lamentation based on the sudario that is heard in the plazas and on the radio. While it is mostly the elderly who perform this Lenten dirge in the manner of the traditional dung-aw, there are always teenage chanters ever ready to substitute for the older ones.

A traditional song-and-dance performance infused with poetry revolving around the wedding ceremony is the dallot, a vibrant medium for articulating Ilocano folk beliefs because it gives expression to the social values of the community regarding conjugal relationships, even as it revives the treasury of poetic lines bequeathed by previous generations. Through the dallot performers’ interpolation on their respective positions concerning the mutual obligations of husband and wife, the verbal joust becomes a communal counseling for the newlyweds. The other family members can participate spontaneously, clap in approval of or hiss in disagreement with the arguments presented. Performers accompany their chanting with the characteristic sway-balance of the pandango. Arikenken, on the other hand, is a more casual and hilarious variant of the dallot, which provides the preliminaries to the moment of counseling. However, in certain areas of Ilocos, “dallot” is a generic term for oral narrative poetry interspersed with spellbinding chant and expansive swaying of the hands as the performers catch their breath and trace the continuity of ideas.

In 2010, some members of GUMIL Filipinas formed the group Daniw ken Basi as a means of reviving traditional Ilocano poetry through performance art, though they are not averse to transforming it into modern, even comic, forms. They have performed the elegiac dung-aw and a bukanegan in which three women comically compete for the love of one man. A dallot in which two parties discuss terms of betrothal and wedding details have been performed by Fe Camacho and Mario Tejada. Contemporary forms in the group’s repertoire are the daniw iti parparaangan, narrative poetry about everyday life in Ilocandia; the daniw iti radyo, poetry recited on radio with an instrumental rendition of “Faithful Love” as standard background music; and the danirak, poetry accompanied by rock music (Tabag 2016).

A danirak band called Manong Diego, composed of Ariel Tabag and Mighty Rasing, existed until 2014. Tabag was the band’s composer and lyricist as well as the bassist; Rasing was the singer and guitarist. Manong Diego performed in schools in the provinces of Ilocos Norte and Isabela, occasionally in the capitol of Cagayan, and at events of the GUMIL Filipinas. It jammed with other bands whenever possible. It performed twice at the Conspiracy Bar in Quezon City. But the band held its last performance at an event of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino in 2014 before Rasing left for America (Tabag 2016).

Ilocos Folk Dances

Video: Ilocana a Nasudi "The Lovely Ilocana" [Ilocano Folk Dance Heritage] - Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival

As the Ilocano way of feasting pragmatically unites the old folk and the youngsters, and blends custom with the current scene and styles, some dances considered traditional have evolved through cultural adaptation. This is evident in the favorite dances of the babaknang—pandango, chotis dingresa, duratsa pakoayesa, and la jota laoaguesa —performed in more formal occasions.

Ilocana a Nasudi performed by the Baranggay Folk Dance Troupe of Philippine Normal College, circa 1965
Ilocana a Nasudi performed by the Baranggay Folk Dance Troupe of Philippine Normal College, circa 1965 (Photo courtesy of Ian-James R. Andres)

The Ilocano dances more deeply rooted in the lifeways are manangbiday, a courtship dance centered on a woman’s shy and tender feelings; biniganbigat (every morning) and sileleddaang (in sorrow), both depicting love’s trial and difficulties; Ilocana a nasudi (chaste Ilocana), celebrating the virtuous Ilocana; and the arikenken, performed during weddings and interwoven with the customary verbal joust.

Video: Dinaklisan Currimao Folk Dance | Gabut Norte, Badoc Ilocos [Ilocano Cultural Dance Heritage]

Other folkdances are ingrained in the quest for sustenance, such as the rabong (bamboo shoot), which celebrates this Ilocano delicacy, the dinaklisan (fishing) and the asin (salt). Other “occupational” dances are the agabel (handloom weaving) and the agdamdamili, which depicts the ingenuity and rusticity of the potters’ life. Some of these dances glorify such social traits as persistence, abiding affection, industry, and thrift.

Video: Guling Guling Festival of Paoay 2021 | Ilocos Norte Philippines Ilocano Cultural Folk Dance Heritage

The guling-guling (to mark or smear), said to have started 400 years ago, is a yearly festival of Paoay, Ilocos Norte, held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It is an occasion for unrestrained merrymaking before the Lenten season begins the following day. The people put on their native garments: the women, their abel kimona and pandiling (handwoven blouse and skirt), along with their heirloom jewelry and suitable accessories; the men, the camisa de chino and abel trousers. They dance toward the anawang, “a makeshift oven made from dried sugar cane pulp,” where they partake of dudol, “a native delicacy made from rice flour, coconut milk, sugarcane juice, and anise.” The mayor—the chieftain during the Spanish colonial period—then marks the forehead of each one with the guling. The people break into boisterous street dancing, which is also an act of reconciliation and forgiveness as they dance with townmates with whom they have had conflicts and differences. The dances are traditional forms: the sabunganay, paoayeña, arikenken, kuratsa, amorosa, pandango, and la jota, as well as the occupational dances binatbatan and the agab-abel (“Guling-guling” 2016).

Ilocano jota performed in a street dancing competition
Ilocano jota performed in a street dancing competition (Edison Adzuara)

Since 2000, the Tan-ok Festival has been held yearly in Ilocos Norte’s provincial capital, Laoag City. It is a merging of the dance festivals of the province’s 21 towns and two cities into one grand fest: Laoag City’s Pamulinawen Festival revolves around the rivalry between an Ilocano youth and a Spaniard for the love of a lass named Pamulinawen. Piddig town reenacts the events culminating in the Basi Revolt. Batac City offers the Empanada Festival. Pinili town demonstrates their harvest of garlic in a white-and-gold motif. The fishing town of Currimao demonstrates the use of daklis (fishing net). Badoc town reenacts the arrival of the image of La Virgen Milagrosa, patroness of the province. The Tinguian people are represented by the town of Nueva Era, with the Tadek Festival. The dances are a fusion of traditional and contemporary forms set to the appropriate pop beat and melody (Adriano 2013).

Video: Surtido Banna - Ilocano Folk Dance [at the Malacañang of the North] | Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival

Ilocano Folk drama, Comedia and Sarsuwela Ilocana

Protodrama in the Ilocos may be traced to the rituals. An example is the ritual of the nakadalapos (bumped), where a white pig is butchered and half of its meat left in the haunted grove during the healing rites. Whiteness here signifies purity of intention, and the fresh meat symbolizes the desire to offer a gift of atonement. All through this process, the healer leads the family of the victim “touched” by the spirits in the woods to a solemn process of prayers requesting the supernaturals to release their hold on the victim’s soul.

Closely related to this process is the belief in naluganan or possession, where the soul of a dead person goes inside the body of a living relative to communicate with the family, either to ask for simple favors like placing on his or her grave a plateful of a favorite dish or a pair of sandals. The Ilocano family usually fulfills these wishes expressed by the dead. A famous case of naluganan was that of a housemaid of the Paredes family in Bangued, Abra by the spirit of a pilot’s son whose plane was shot down in Europe but whose corpse could not be located by the family. In a trance, the maid described the specific site of burial but the voice heard was that of the dead pilot. Members of the family flew to Europe and retrieved the remains from the designated gravemound that they recognized as that of the dead pilot. The traditional “rooster courtship,” the arikenken poetry-and-dance joust between a man and a woman, the dung-aw for a departed kin, as well as for the entombed Christ during the Lenten Lectio, are protodramas, too. Other performing arts during feasts and other social gatherings are the komedya and the sarsuwela Ilocana.

Ilocano komedya with an all-woman cast, Santa Catalina, Ilocos Sur,
Ilocano komedya with an all-woman cast, Santa Catalina, Ilocos Sur, 1991 (CCP Collections)

The komedya is staged during fiestas in certain towns of Pangasinan, Ilocos Sur, and Ilocos Norte, but not in the capitals since a generation ago. It enjoyed patronage in Ilocos Sur for a few years during the governorship of Carmeling Crisologo, who herself took part in this folk theater characterized by colorful costumes, high-flown rhetorical verse, and stylized dance sequences for battle scenes.

A typical storyline unfolds in the Comedia a Biag ni Atamante (Comedia on the Life of Atamante), published by Imprenta Parayno in Calasiao, Pangasinan. The heir to the throne of the kingdom of Verona, Prince Atamante is yet a boy when King Lodimonte’s queen-to-be, Countess Loandra, has him banished to the wilderness to be devoured by wild beasts, so that her own son, Prince Menople, would be the heir apparent. Count Aristipo strongly objects and informs Princess Florinda, the king’s sister, about the conspiracy. He goes in search of the ill-fated Atamante. While Verona’s royalty are mired in intrigues and amorous pursuits, Sultan Palmadin of the Turkish Empire sends his best fighters to spy on Verona’s domain and military defenses. He then sends envoys to demand King Lodimonte’s acceptance of Turkish domination or he would be attacked. Verona’s army and court are routed, and the royal family incarcerated. Count Aristipo and a young fierce villager called Quintillano stage a counterattack and free Verona. Quintillano turns out to be the castaway heir to the throne who has grown up under the care of a shepherd. The story rises to a tragic climax when Quintillano, almost late for the tournament in the Turkish royal grounds, insists on fighting although Prince Menople is about to be declared winner of both the tournament and the hand of Laudamia, the sultan’s daughter. In the battle between Menople and Quintillano, they discover that they are the long-lost brothers and heirs to the Verona throne. Quintillano is anguished not only for having killed his own brother but also by the realization that he is the Prince Atamante whom Menople had been searching for. When Atamante recovers from his grief, he persuades Princess Laudamia to flee with him to Verona. The enraged sultan attacks the kingdom, but his Turkish army is defeated. Their lives are spared on the condition that they submit to Veronian rule and to the Christian faith. Laudamia is baptized, taking the name Emiliana. Sultan Palmadin is baptized next with the king’s blessing, thus merging the once rival empires under one crown and religion.

Traditionally, the closest rival to the bukanegan and electoral campaign in attracting a large crowd in the Ilocos is the folk drama, sarsuwela Ilocana. The first performances of this kind of operetta were staged in the early 1890s by the Spanish director Baguer Barbero. The theater group came from Manila to perform the Spanish zarzuela in the principal towns of Ilocos during fiesta celebrations.

By the first decade of the century, the sarsuwela Ilocana had edged out the komedya or moro-moro, when Ilocano playwrights and composers created orginal sarsuwela. Foremost pioneer of the sarsuwela was Mena Pecson Crisologo, who wrote Noble Rivalidad, also known as Natakneng A Panagsalisal (Noble Rivalry), Codigo Municipal (Municipal Code), and Maysa a Candidato (A Candidate) during the first decade. Other sarsuwelista of note during the first quarter of the century were Claro Caluya, Marcelino Crisologo Peña, Florencio Legasca, Mariano Gaerlan, Filemon Palafox, Mariano Navarette, Pascual Guerrero Agcaoili, and Martin Puruganan. Sarsuwelista of the second half of the century include Leon C. Pichay, Nena Paron, Florenda Reintegrado, Valentin Ramirez, Pantaleon Aguilar, Eugenio Inofinada, Tomas Dapiza, Rogelio Panlasigue, Isaias Lazo, Jose Flores, Guillermo Lazo, and Pedro Aurelio. After World War II, sarsuwela playwrights of note were Constante Arizabal, Juan Guerrero, Lorenzo Mata, Melchor Rojas, Alejo Villegas, and Barbaro Paat (Palafox and Ramas 1987, 14-15).

The folk sarsuwela performed usually by local troupes or by community members capped and still caps the fiesta revelry as a nighttime spectacle lasting until the wee hours. The audience relishes the sentimental songs and the intermission slapstick numbers and jokes, which contain biting commentaries on sociopolitical events and personalities. This performing art should be regarded both as a community ritual of entertainment and as a stage play.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the most popular sarsuwela troupe was the Ped Avila troupe of Vigan, whose appeal was the realistic acting and the servant comic routines performed before the front curtains. This intermission comedy allowed for a change of backdrop for the next scene. The group of Barbaro Paat in Bantay, Ilocos Sur seems to have been the most patronized because of the dramatic storylines of its plays and the most enduring, as evidenced by the age and style of the roll-up telon (painted backdrop). Theater groups might also assist smaller barrios for a fixed fee by lending their script, sound system, band, and rehearsing the performers.

The Bravo family in Solid West, Vigan constituted a whole band of accompanying sarsuwelista. One of the favorite bandleaders accompanying sarsuwela troupes from rehearsals to performance night was Guildo Lazo, himself a composer. Since there are only a few composers like Lazo, the melodies of many sarsuwela scores have the same pattern.

The Riverside Sarsuela Guild of Laoag City performed at nearby towns of Ilocos Norte. These groups were composed of ordinary workers, tricycle drivers, and local radio talents sidelining as sarsuwelista, and were equipped with a repertoire of melodramas with true-to-life plots that were recycled from town to town, year after year. In Pangasinan, the Sison Dramatic Guild was a favorite group performing in Pangasinan-speaking areas. Some groups might travel as far as the Cordilleras and Quezon province where there are Ilocano migrants.

The Ilocano People in Media Arts

The Ilocos region has at least 10 radio drama series in Iluko airing on their radio stations, some of these streamed live on the Internet and are thus globally accessible: six on Bombo Radyo (Laoag, Vigan, La Union, Tuguegarao, Dagupan, Isabela), two on Radyo Totoo (Abra, Benguet, and Ilocos Sur), and one on Aksyon Radyo (Laoag) (Asiawaves 2016).

KPHI Pinoy Power Radio airs the drama series Manang Emmie, in which the host Emmie Anderson reads out letters in Iluko sent by the public. The combined force of the stories contained in the letters, and her dramatic delivery keeps the listeners riveted to her hour-long program. The show is also simultaneously streamed live on the radio station’s website and on Ustream (KPHI 2012).

Pagsarmingan (Mirror) is a drama series airing on Bombo Radyo Baguio, Cagayan Valley, and the Cordilleras. The theme of the series is expressed in the brief introduction that opens every episode, the first sentence of which is: “Natural laeng ti panagbiddut, adda latta kanito ti kinalupoy no ti puso ken panunot ket maandingay iti sappuyot ni sulisog” (It is but human to fall into temptation; nevertheless, our conscience compels us to contemplate our iniquities and transgressions so that we will become truly contrite.). Thus, all the episodes in this drama are about characters committing a wrong that sets off a chain of consequences leading to remorse and hence redemption. A typical episode is about a man who abandons his wife and two young children for another woman. On her own, the wife raises the children to become achievers yet loving and devoted to her. Twenty years later the family is reunited with the erring husband and father, who has fallen gravely ill. After much emotional struggle and heartache among the family members, all is forgiven (“Pagsarmingan” 2016).

The story of the 18th-century revolt led by husband and wife Diego Silang and Gabriela de Estrada is inscribed in the national narrative of the Philippine struggle against foreign rule. This is the subject of the musical-drama film in Filipino/Tagalog, Dung-aw (Peasant’s Lament), 1975, with running time of 75 minutes, directed by Lino Brocka, music by Gardy Labad. In Mario O’Hara’s screenplay, it is Gabriela (Armida Siguion-Reyna) who is the ruthlessly strong-willed character, while her husband, Diego (Mario Montenegro), is the cautionary voice. When his verbal protests against Spanish oppression land him in jail, Gabriela exhorts the people to take up their tabak (machete) and fight. The couple has just begun the armed revolt when Diego is assassinated by Pedro Becbec (Alan Glinoga), who objects to the couple’s plan to forge an alliance with the British invaders. Gabriela continues the fight until she is captured and hanged. The film ends with Tiago (Ven Medina) urging his son, the rebel youth Pablo (Bey Vito), to hold on to his tabak for the coming of the next Gabriela. The film was also screened at the 1979 Nantes Film Festival of Three Continents: Africa, Latin America, and Asia (“Dung-aw” 2016; Pandayang Lino Brocka 2011; Brocka 1975).

An action film on the same subject is Gabriela Silang, 1971, directed by Jun Aristorenas, with Virginia Aristorenas in the title role, Cesar Ramirez as Nicolas Cariño, Fred Galang as Diego Silang, Rod Navarro as Miguel Vicos, Ric Bustamante as Pedro Becbec, and Andres Centenera as Msgr Ustariz. Others in the cast are Eddie Garcia, Johnny Monteiro, Rex Lapid, Venchito Galvez, and Carlos Padilla Jr.

In 1952, in the second year of the FAMAS awards, Carlos Padilla Jr. won Best Actor for the title role in Diego Silang, 1951, directed by Gerardo de Leon. Others in the cast are Leila Morena as Gabriela Vicos-Silang, Jose Iturbi, Dely Atay-atayan, and Nena Cardenas (Video 48 2008; 2012).

Lilia Cuntapay of Tuguegarao, Cagayan was a largely obscure but ubiquitous bit player in horror movies, starting in 1991 in Peque Gallaga’s part three of the Shake, Rattle, & Roll series. She finally won a leading role playing herself in the metatextual semi-fictionalized documentary, also known as mockumentary, Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, for which she earned the Best Actress Award in the 2011 Cinema One Originals Digital Film Festival (“Six Degrees” 2016). Cuntapay herself may be of noble lineage, which can be traced back to Gobernadorcillo Felipe Cutapay [sic] of Tumauini, Isabela who, in 1621, led one of the first widespread uprisings against Spanish rule (Blair and Robertson 1906, vol. 32, 113-120).

Sid Lucero and Mae Paner in Lav Diaz’s Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan
Sid Lucero and Mae Paner in Lav Diaz’s Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, 2013 (Photo courtesy of Lav Diaz)

In 2012, the Ilocos Norte Media Incentives Ordinance was passed by the provincial government to develop a local filmmaking industry. The following year, the philosophical drama Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, The End of History), directed by Lav Diaz, with running time of four hours and ten minutes, qualified for the Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard competition in Paris, France. Inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the screenplay is by Rody Vera and Lav Diaz, adapted from a story by Rody Vera, Michiko Yamamoto, and Raymond Lee. The film’s nihilism is set in the context of Philippine history’s betrayals and failed revolutions, flawed judicial system, class oppression, and unmitigated poverty. The cast is led by Sid Lucero, Angeli Bayani, and Archie Alemania. In this film, Ilocos as a setting has an essential function: A glimpse of the sand dunes of Barangay 33-B, La Paz, Laoag City, where the story unfolds, underlines the film’s nihilistic theme; and other scenes such as the Ilocos Norte Provincial Jail, Badoc, and Bacarra, are intrinsic to the narrative. The film won Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography at the 2014 Gawad Urian Awards, as well as the Nuremberg International Human Rights Film Award (Samonte 2013; Dy 2014).

Ang Kwento ni Mabuti (The Story of Mabuti), 2013, directed by Mes de Guzman, is a drama centering on a hilot or folk healer, who lives with an extended family of four generations in the remote village of Kasinggan, Aritao, Nueva Vizcaya. She maintains a constant cheeriness in the face of almost insurmountable difficulties, being the sole support of two grownup children, four granchildren, and her own gloomy mother. One day, she goes on a long bus trip to the city to settle a financial problem and comes upon an unexpected windfall: a bagful of millions of pesos that a fugitive from the law has left with her. For the first time in her life, Mabuti is faced with a moral quandary. The entire script, written by the film’s director, is in Iluko, with English subtitles. Nora Aunor leads the cast, which includes Sue Prado as Nelia the fugitive, Mara Lopez as Lucia the daughter, and Arnold Reyes as Ompong the son. The film won awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay at the First Cine-Filipino Film Festival (Cabahug 2013).

A number of Philippine films have used regional languages in the dialogue either to add a realistic touch to the depiction of a small-town character and setting or to poke fun at a country yokel’s accent. Thelma, 2011, with running time 110 minutes, does more of the the latter for comic relief in a family drama. The film is about an Ilocano girl with a gift for speed running. She buys her crippled sister a wheelchair with her winnings in a local race, which opens doors for her in the sports world. The film won several awards, foremost of which are the FAMAS best actress award for Maja Salvador and best director for Paul Soriano. Other cast members are Tetchie Agbayani and John Arcilla. The film was shot on location at Ilocos Norte and includes a supporting cast portraying farmers of Barangay Fortuna, Marcos; the barangay tanod and empanada vendor at the Batac market; and visitors and staff of the Museo Iloko. The real-life track-and-field champion Elma Muros was a consultant for the film and plays the role of the coach (“Thelma” 2016; Dy 2011).

Emir, 2010, directed by Chito S. Roño, with running time 135 minutes, is a drama-musical film that confers dignity on the Ilocano overseas worker. The dialogues are in Tagalog, Arabic, English, and Iluko. The story is about Amelia, an Ilocano nanny for the baby of a Sheikh in the Middle East. Twelve years later, war breaks out, and the Sheikh’s wife is killed. Amelia and Ahmed, her charge, escape with Boyong, the driver. One day, Ahmed is snatched from Amelia. The Philippine government helps her return home, and things go well for her. Years later she is reunited with the grownup Ahmed. The two live happily together in her house, along with Boyong. The film has won a total of 18 awards, among them for Best Picture and for Best Director. The cast is led by Frencheska Farras Amelia and Jhong Hilarioas Boyong. Other cast members are Dulce, Sid Lucero, Kalila Aguilos, Beverly Salviejo, Julia Clarete, Gigi Escalante, Bayang Barrios, and Bodjie Pascua (“Emir” 2016).


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

Title: Ilocano

Author/s: Arnold Azurin, with Hermilinda Lingbaoan-Bulong, Reynaldo A. Duque, Filonila M. Tupas, Angelito Santos, and Herminio S. Beltran Jr. (1994) / Updated by Rosario Cruz-Lucero, and Jeffrey Yap, with Gonzalo Campoamor II, Arlo Mendoza, and Arbeen Acuña (2018)


Publication Date: November 18, 2020

Access Date: August 31, 2022

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