Palawan may be the most beautiful in the world but hidden in its coves and towering limestones are stories of both tragedy and hope. One of which is the tale of the Tagbanuas in the northern part of the island.
It is believed that they are descendants of some of the oldest people in the country like the Tabon Man. Archaeologists claim that evidence of the earliest Homo sapiens in the Philippines were found in a cave in Lipuun Point in Quezon, Palawan. Named after the large-footed bird that frequent the cave, the Tabon Cave is believed to be populated by a community (possibly from more than 50,000 years ago) that lived even before the generation of the human fossils (22,000 - 23,000 years old) found there. Known in history books (and grade school history class) as the fossil of the "Tabon Man of Palawan," the set is actually from three individuals, one of which is that of a female. The discovery was made by a National Museum team headed by the late Dr. Robert B. Fox.
Other researchers claim that the Tagbanua people likely came from Borneo, the third largest island in the world and just off the coast of Southern Palawan.
With such long history, it is without a doubt that this old ethnic group have adapted to the changing landscape of their surroundings. The "Central Tagbanuas," one of the two major classifications of the tribe, are found in the western and eastern coast of Palawan while the "Calamian Tagbanuas" reside in some parts of El Nido, Busuanga Island, and Coron Island. It is the latter group which has a sea-centric way of life having resided in the islands. Their methods of harvesting from the ocean differ greatly from what we usually know. Tagbanuas of every age do spearfishing, net fishing, octopus fishing, and gathering of seaweed and sea cucumbers to make the most out of the rich resources that the ocean provides. They have learned to breathe underwater as if they have gills, swim fast like the sailfish, and, sometimes, move inconspicuously in the waters like sharks.
They may have a magnificent view of Palawan day in and day out but it's not all sunshine and rainbows for the Tagbanuas. Their shelters built from native materials are either right by the beach or perched on cliffs, exposed to the fury of nature. Because of their remote location, basic necessities such as electricity, clean water, and access to health care are seldom available to them. Even education is far from reach. Children from their villages have to go on hours-long journeys, ride balsas, or cross wooden bridges to attend class in the nearest public school. Because of this reality, the no-read no-write Tagbanuas were once exploited in a local election.
"[...] nagkaroon po ng National Election tapos po yung mga Tagbanua ay sinundo ng malaking bangka pagkatapos dinala sa kanilang barangay pagkatapos ay hindi sila kaagad pinapunta sa kanilang presinto para bumoto, so pagkatapos po noon ay isa-isa silang pinalabas at mayroon silang kasamang magsusulat ng kanilang kandidato. Naramdaman ng mga Tagbanua na hindi ang kanilang kandidatong gustong iboto ang isinulat sa balota. So nung marinig ko po iyon nakaramdam ako ng galit, kasi sabi ko may injustice na nangyayari. Ginamit yung mga Tagbanua na walang alam para manalo ang kandidato nila at sinabi nila sa mga madre noon na hindi na dapat mangyari ito, sabi ng mga Tagbanua, ‘kailangan mag-aral kami, gusto naming mag-aral," narrated Lilia Diaz, a local teacher from Culion, Palawan.
Fondly called Nanay Lilia, she paved the way for the Tagbanuas to get basic education despite the challenges in the island. She taught for 35 years in the Jesuit-run St. Ignatius Academy (now Loyola College of Culion) and retired in 2004. Four years later, she was called back to duty by the Jesuit priests in Culion and started teaching again, this time to the children of the seas and amid the raging waters of the West Philippine Sea.
Nanay Lilia is a Gawad Geny Lopez Jr. Bayaning Pilipino awardee in 2014. Learn how she taught the people of Sitio Alulad how to read, write, and count through rocks and twigs in the next part of this series.
(As told by Pamela Mercado)
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