Culion, a 500-square kilometer island in the Calamian Archipelago in Northern Palawan, used to be called as the Island of the Living Dead or the Island of No Return as it was once the largest leper colony in the world. Back when leprosy was still an incurable disease in the early 1900s, the American colonial government rounded up Filipino lepers from all over the country and sent them for isolation in the remote island.
The island may now be a municipality of free men but its original settlers, the Tagbanuas, are still bound by the inadequacy of basic necessities in the faraway place. One of the things that can be lamented upon is their lack of access to education. Being unable to count, read, and write, the Tagbanuas are often exploited and looked down to. "Pagdating sa colonya (bayan) sasabihin ng mga tao kulang sa timbang kaya babawasan ang presyo at tsaka kung magkano lang ang naibayad sa kanila, yun lang ang tatanggapin nila. Pag bibili sila kung magkano lang ang ibarya sa kanila, 'yun lang ang tatanggapin nila," narrated Lilia Diaz, a local teacher from Culion, Palawan.
It even came to a point that the Tagbanuas were taken advantage of 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."
That was a wake up call for the natives and in 2008, retired teacher Lilia Dioquino Diaz, was sent to Sitio Alulad in Culion by the Jesuit missionaries with a 150,000-peso budget from the local parish. To reach the smaller island, one has to ride a banca from Coron to Culion. It will take another banca ride from Culion proper to reach Alulad. This will take about 30-45 minutes, even longer during typhoon moments when the waves are stronger.
"Noong unang araw ng pagpunta namin doon sa, una naming pinuntahan yung sa tinatawag naming Alulad. Sa malayo natanaw namin na maraming mga bata, may matatanda sa dalampasigan. Noong dumaong na iyong bangka, nawala ang mga tao, tapos iyon pala tumago sila. Pinapakiramdaman nila kung ano ang layunin namin doon."
Even for a Cuyoni like Nanay Lilia, it wasn't easy to communicate with the Tagbanuas during their initial encounter. She had to win their hearts first to be able to do her mission of educating them.
"Sabi ko 'di ba oh magkakulay tayo. Oh di ba Tagbanua rin ako.' Sabi kong ganun, 'pareho lang naman tayo eh. Kaya wag kayong mag alangan sa 'kin.'"
As it turns out, Nanay Lilia's family wasn't even originally from Culion. Her parents who hail from Bicol were unfortunately infected with leprosy and were thus sent to the leper colony. Young Lilia, unaffected by the disease, was brought to Welfareville in Mandaluyong because of the segragation law. Every summer, the social workers would bring her to Culion so she can spend some time with her parents and siblings. When she reached the fourth grade, her family found a way to bring her back secretly to Culion.
Nanay Lilia may be used to the comforts of the classroom, having taught for 35 years in the Jesuit-run St. Ignatius Academy (now Loyola College of Culion) until 2004. Alulad was a totally different story. The whole beach strip was their corridor while the ground underneath a coconut tree was their classroom. About six long tables were set up to accommodate Nanay Lilia's class as dried coconut leaves served as roof above their heads. She started teaching about 40 Tagbanuas, young and old, toddlers and parents. With zero access to school supplies, they never even know how to hold a pencil, much more draw a line.
"'Yung unang araw sa lupa nga, kunyari gumuhit ako sa lupa tapos kunyari meron kaming, kailangan mayroon silang stick na hawak tapos guguhit silang ganun. Parang Kinder, straight line, vertical line ganun. Matanda, bata."
She had to adapt to what the Tagbanuas know. She used the things that the sea villagers are familiar with: "taga" (chop, downward motion) and "pana" (arrow, horizontal motion) in order to teach the letter A. "Taga sa kanan, taga sa kaliwa, pana, Letter A. Tapos halimbawa yung Letter S kasi syempre, halimbawa ang pangalan ay Carlos, may S yun. So ano yung korte ng S, edi yung ahas." As for the numbers part, Nanay Lilia used whatever's available by the beach. The rocks and shells were her visual aids for teaching the number concept.
Through Nanay Lilia's help, the Tagbanuas were able to vote properly the following election. "Nung first time na ginamit yung ano, ano ba tawag dun yung ginamit sa eleksyon, yung sinusubo. Yung PCOS Machine. Mayroon ako doong isang estudyante, mag-aaral na may edad na rin siya mga 37 years old na siya. Sabi ko sakanya, Francisco siya, ‘Francisco, kailangan mo ba ng tulong?’, ‘Di po Ma’am, kaya ko po.’ Natutuwa ako doon kasi alam na niyang basahin ang mga pangalan ng kandidato, National Election yun eh. Pagkatapos naisubo niya ang kanyang balota nang hindi ni-reject. Tuwang tuwa ako."
The budget given by the Jesuits lasted for only about five months. It covered the gasoline for the boat, fee of the boatman, and the teacher aides' small honoraria. It was only through the help of NGOs like Cartwheel Foundation and volunteer groups like LIBLIBRARY that the program for the Tagbanuas continued.
When asked if she would ever stop teaching the Tagbanuas, the old teacher answered: "Mahal ko yung mga Tagbanua eh, bahagi na sila ng buhay naming mag asawa. Kasi nung nabubuhay pa yung asawa ko, dalawa kaming pumupunta sa isla. Kasama ko siya sa bahay, siya ang taga-luto ko, very supportive siya eh. Tapos yung mga Tagbanua barkada na niya, kaya mahal na namin yung mga Tagbanua kaya hindi sumagi sa isip ko na hihinto na ako. Kasi kung hihinto ako wala namang mga batang magtitiyaga doon eh. Yung mga kabataan na bagong graduate, sa katotohanan lang eh yung dati naming kasama last year, ngayon ayaw na niya. Sabi ko sa sarili ko hangga’t kaya ko pa, babalik at babalik ako sa isla at siguro hihinto lang ako kapag may kapalit na ako."
With such great love for her fellowmen, it's not a surprise that Nanay Lilia was eventually known as the Mother of Culion. She also became a Gawad Geny Lopez Jr. Bayaning Pilipino awardee in 2014. Hopefully, her story will be of inspiration to teachers so that, in the future, there will be no more no-read no-write Filipinos.
(As told by Pam Mercado)
Read Part 1: Tagbanuas Seek Education After Suspicious Election: Tragedy & Hope in the Most Beautiful Island