In Elsa Valmidiano's deeply moving debut collection of essays, We Are No Longer Babaylan, one finds oneself so utterly changed in the reading, in the way that only the rarest works do, and rarely so, for such transformations do not come lightly. Every book we open is a risk to all that we knew before. To read is an act of courage, to write, a bravery beyond even the word itself. Such is Valmidiano's book, a bravery in spirit, an absolute truth telling, a sacred kind of song. No matter how much has been done to them, the light of some things cannot be turned down. But we are required, then, to speak of the unspeakable, to hold the unholdable, to tell our stories with compassion, complexity, honesty and awe. We Are No Longer Babayaln is a brave and astounding work that touches the spirit in unpredictable and beautiful ways. Healing is part of it, and hope, and love, and pain.
Elsa took some time recently to talk with us about the themes of her book, and we are so honored to share it with you during Filipino American History Month.
James Diaz: I’d like to start by asking if you might bring us into the poem of Babaylan; of Babaylan in your life. Because one takeaway for me from this book is that Babaylan is very much a living presence in your life, despite colonialism and the West’s attempts to erase the vibrant and vital healing-pulse that Babaylan is. This is not, after all, an academic book about Babaylan, it is rather a memoir told from the very flesh of the heart. In this book, you are not talking about but from Babaylan. You mentioned to me in conversation that “Babaylan can exist within our own communities as living, breathing beings, but they unfortunately are often dismissed or lost like ignored angels or worse, relics.” This feels like a good place to start. Shall we?
Elsa Valmidiano: First, for those who were expecting a historical, anthropological, investigatory, academic reading of the Babaylan, yes, this isn’t that kind of book though some references are included. In naming this collection, one of the things about Babaylan is that I feel they’ve been very much part of my life since childhood, beginning with being witness to them particularly through my grandmothers and the older women in my family, as well as Pinays in my community.
It’s only as recent as 2014 when the term “Babaylan” first came to my awareness. Before that, it seems she was always standing there before me but without a name. When I was growing up, my grandmothers, great-aunts, and aunts used to practice certain rituals, which only when I grew to adulthood that I began to consider ascribing the term “Babaylan” to them. My paternal grandfather’s brother was an albularyo who practiced herbal medicine to cure skin diseases. His reputation as a healer became sought-after, reaching Manila where physicians would actually travel to the Ilocos to investigate his practice. My paternal and maternal grandmothers, both having lived into their 90s, also practiced some sort of herbal medicine when it came to treating various minor ailments. Unfortunately, I never carefully took note of their practices except that’s just what my lolas did, and I didn’t question it.
I was witness to ritualistic practices that I didn’t even know had names. Since 2014, the term “Babaylan” has taken on a somewhat academic investigation for me, while I keep in mind that Babaylan shouldn’t be simply boxed into some cool trendy thing to call oneself. What has been passed on orally and through memory—that is where the Babaylan still exists for me, holding space that is deeply personal.
Since college, I had academically learned that the Philippines was largely made up of matriarchal societies before colonization, where women had the opportunity to take on roles such as high priestess, healer, shaman, leader, warrior, and ecological protector, and in some instances, entering into polygamous and/or polyamorous relationships where they were not necessarily one of several wives, but rather, where they could have several husbands if they wanted. But even before learning any of that, the women who raised me provided a legacy of evidence of a commanding matriarchal presence, so it was no surprise to learn in college that the Philippines once existed under such female influence seeing the kind of powerful presence of women in my own life.
It’s then interesting to possess this knowledge and then see that balance of power shift over half a millennia, specifically since 1521 when Spain first arrived on Philippine soil, where patriarchy continues its attempts to control women and their bodies, where women once revered as high priestesses, healers, shamans, leaders, warriors, and ecological protectors have now been reduced under a male-dominated Catholic oligarchy. One can see this through the country’s continued exercise of control over women and their environment—outlawing divorce, the inaccessibility of contraception, the criminalization of abortion, the rise of violence against cis and trans women, and the threatened seizure and destruction of their sacred lands. And yet women still find ways to rise out of that patriarchal control—leaving unsatisfying or unhealthy marriages and starting new cohabitating relationships regardless of whether they can get an annulment or not; proving their resourcefulness in times of desperate measures turning to traditional and herbal ways of contraception or getting clandestine abortions if necessary; trans Pinays embracing who they are despite criticism and the threat of violence; and Pinays fighting as activists to defend their ancestral land against governmental seizure.
It’s also interesting to see how the modern-day Babaylan would live in an adopted country outside of their Motherland, a country that boasts of freedom and equality and yet is founded on white patriarchal values, a country that systemically oppresses black and brown folks, women, LGBTQ, and non-binary individuals, and a country that has established itself on stolen indigenous land. It’s quite a paradox to exist in such an adopted country of “freedom” while also trying to grasp onto Motherland rituals an entire ocean away.
When I consider who Babaylan are today, I don’t think they are far removed from us but exist as present-day magical beings. I don’t mean “magic” in a hokey sensationalized sense like Harry Potter or Marvel Comic superheroes. There seems to be this obsession that all magic and superpowers have to take on a physical manifestation. When I speak of magic and superpowers, I mean more so the highly empathetic people in your life, or those who have this unusual and unexplainable strong sense of intuition on how another is feeling or doing—I mean that kind of magic and superpower. I also find individuals who have gone through intense pain, trauma, or injury, but who are able to rise out of that with an unexpected and unusual kind of empowerment to not only heal from their own trauma and continue to do the work of self-healing, but they also do not perpetuate the cycle of violence, nor do they perpetuate the victim-perpetrator-enabler-savior trap. They also help empower others to heal themselves without neglecting their own needs—this is what I mean by Babaylan can exist within our own communities as living, breathing beings, but they unfortunately are often dismissed or lost like ignored angels or worse, relics. When you think about it, that kind of magic doesn’t come easy, and also remains unnamed.
JD: The opening chapter, Wait, begins with a question of memory: Do you remember? “Do you remember how your Grandmother would wait for your Grandfather?” Memory, throughout this book, is very much a dance partner of Babaylan. Remember, remember. Not only Babaylan herself, the healing powers within, but also everything that has happened to you, your family, your childhood friends. One must remember. Can you talk about memory? It is, after all, not such a passive thing to remember. We must, it seems, lean into what there is to remember, especially when trauma is part of the story we must tell.
EV: Yes, memory is very much a dance partner of Babaylan. Memory can be extremely difficult, not because things have been forgotten, but because there may be pain we’d rather forget. It’s the kind of memory that we don’t want our children or grandchildren to ever know because it’s humiliating and shameful, so there’s this instinct to save face in front of our descendants before they even exist. Because of that, it’s hard to keep certain memories alive, as it means keeping demons from the past alive too. Despite those demons, it’s important to know and never forget as it shapes us and our futures as we too are ancestors to future generations. Thus, intergenerational trauma is a product when it comes to the disruption and erasure of memory, especially where colonization affected our ancestors—how they saw themselves and the painful decisions they might’ve made to silence their own painful past, not just to adapt but to survive and cope under their colonizers, which in term affected each generation after, all the way down to us and to me.
I was reading an article by the late award-winning Philippine journalist, Sylvia L. Mayuga, who attended a 2012 Babaylan conference hosted by the Philippine National Commission for Culture and the Arts’ lecture series, “Light and Mystery: Katutubong Karunungan,” in which “Katutubong Karunungan” translates as “indigenous knowledge.” Quoting Babaylan who had attended, Ms. Mayuga had written: “Memory is the key to wholeness. When the Claveria Decree changed our names in 1856, our families did not retain our name or the memory of our ancestors’ name. This disconnected us from our ancestors. Disconnect results in trouble—personal, physical, emotional, spiritual. The role of the shaman is to reestablish connections.” I think that’s such a beautiful and profound analysis regarding ancestry for anyone, not just the Philippines, but for lands where colonization and conquest destroyed so much of the world’s ancestral identities.
So much of tradition is still passed down orally and through memory and experience. While some indigenous practices have been written down in the last century, ancestral knowledge is still passed down orally through superstition and ritual. As the generations go on, it will be interesting to see what the current generation remembers and incorporates amidst their American upbringing and assimilation.
JD: I was profoundly struck by the complex, tender and deep grief work and rituals that you describe around your Grandfather’s passing. Our tendency in the West is to circumscribe grief within a very short, oversimplified and quickly passing window. But for the Filipino community there seems to be a much richer attention to the loss of loved ones. Some things are lost in the new country, but many, many things remain. Could you talk about the shapes that grief takes, for you, for your family, in that tender balance between traditions lost and traditions kept alive?
EV: When I think about the performance of our grief rituals, I don’t think the performance is inauthentic of grief, but that they give license to be vulnerable and also allow the immortalization of a loved one through ritualistic practice. I think stoicism became a part of our culture due largely in part to colonization as a survival mechanism passed down from our ancestors, where funerals allowed the population the opportunity to release emotion for a loved one through performance of these rituals while also disguising these indigenous rituals with Catholic rites for the sake of survival and to be spared from further persecution. Under colonization and proselytization, one can only imagine how much of the original self did our ancestors bury or were buried by their conquerors, and how funeral rites gave our ancestors the opportunity to exhume their true, authentic selves.
I grew up among fellow Ilocano children in a parochial school predominantly Filipino-American. It was not uncommon to share our experiences where our families practiced the same rituals in our new adopted country. I don’t think we ever found our rituals weird. To call them weird would have been disrespectful, and we knew that. We accepted and witnessed the rituals as they were without question. Like when our grandmothers would musically wail at funerals or leave food out for the ancestors at family gatherings, it was like, “Oh yeah, my Lola does that too,” so there was a normalcy to it.
When my maternal grandmother passed away in 2010, the last living grandparent I had, my family had flown home to the Philippines and performed only some of the rituals as her funeral had taken place in the city and not in the country. My mother performed a very short dung aw at the burial, the wailing song for the dead. It was very brief that she probably wouldn’t even consider it a dung aw at all, but she did wail her own lamentation to her mother. While it wasn’t as theatrical and long as what I remember from my childhood and adolescence, it was still poignant. It makes me sad that the dung aw will be forever lost when it comes to my own parents’ passing, as I don’t know how to perform a dung aw. Who is there to teach any of us? It’s a ritual that will be lost.
Outside of discussing the rituals, I also thought it important to zoom in on how one family behaves and reacts while handling the death of a beloved family member. During mourning, emotions can run high where family members may not necessarily behave favorably among each other. Grief is powerful, demanding vulnerability, that for those who have a hard time being vulnerable can act explosively through anger, frustration, or fear. They might also act extremely passive, running away from their own grief by doing nothing when that might not always be the best thing. Highlighting these grief behaviors among my own family might invite judgment from readers, but I think those scenes also capture something universal of the human condition—and that is when we grieve, we may act angry, frustrated, or fearful, and that is normal.
JD: There are many joys also in this book. We are not one thing alone, we are many, and this book too, is many. One of those moments of joy, of an almost pure connection with another, is when you describe your masseuse at the hotel. Bonding with her, asking her about her life with a deep and genuine curiosity, noting: I could be her. Can you talk about this beautiful relational moment, this perhaps innate connection one feels for the people of one’s homeland. Strangers that can feel like family, in a way.
EV: There’s a running joke among Filipinos that we’re all related, and while it’s said in jest, I do think there’s some truth to it in that a certain number of us who are able to trace our genealogy can trace it all the way back to our great-great-great-grandparents, or at least I can. When I think about it, Filipinos being able to trace their lineage can be an exceptional feat considering how colonization and post-colonization had dispersed many of our original communities, compelling families and individuals to spread not just all over the archipelago’s 7,000 islands but all over the world beginning with the Galleon Trade in 1565 when Andrés de Urdaneta made the return route from the Philippines to Mexico, and then the diaspora continuing today through immigrants from the Motherland, and equally so, overseas Filipino workers across the globe who send remittances home to support their families while living with the reality that they may never see their families again. It is in tracing that passes from generation to generation that chance encounters with Filipino strangers can feel like family.
When I think of that moment with my masseuse at that Palawan resort, I wonder where our ancestral lines cross. Although that’s something that will remain unanswered, it’s just an unexplainable feeling. Also, most of the guests staying at the resort were white Europeans and white Americans, so I stood out as the Filipina-American guest. I didn’t feel the staff were there to serve me, but that I was a friend or long-lost relative passing through where my husband and I would spend long nights with the staff at the bar as if they were our friends, to the point that I learned about their lives and families back home.
JD: Returning to your hometown, your Grandmother’s home and lot and your childhood friend, how much has changed. Shame, sadness, regret, but love is there most of all. Meeting a cousin you hadn’t known about, for the first time, hearing of the struggles and dark turns his life took, there was such felt love rising up from those pages in that moment spent with him. You are very much tuned into the heart frequency of others, which I think may be Babaylan at work in your life also, no? Would you like to talk about the sense of place (of returning) and memory and reconnecting, about the unspoken that unfurls in these moments, the unsaid saids, the no less deeply felt and binding ties of love and memory and meeting and leaning in to hear these stories, these, from the ones you love?
EV: I could’ve met one distant relative once, but because of that one chance encounter, we are now forever cemented, falling into a comfortable space as if we have always known each other, even if we never see each other again. It’s difficult and uncanny to try and explain this feeling of affinity, but it can be a common feeling among Filipinos.
When I meet these cousins, the thing that hits me at my core is what would my life have been like if we never immigrated? Could my life still turned out so differently from theirs if my parents never moved to the United States? I think a lot about that. It’s these questions where it’s a push and pull situation where cousins may place me and my family on a pedestal because of our privileges as Americans, when they are family, they are my equals in blood and friendship.
I’ve found conversations in the U.S. can oftentimes be relegated to small meaningless non-contentious, non-controversial talk about work and the weather, but because I may never see these cousins ever again, there’s this pressure, good pressure, to maximize the limited time we have with each other by sharing as much as we can. We spare the small meaningless non-contentious, non-controversial talk. There’s just no room for it especially when this may be the only time we have with each other. With regard to the cousins whom I write about in the collection—their names changed by the way to protect their identities—they are people I will never forget and I don’t think they’ll forget me either, and I think it simply boils down to being remembered. “Remember me. I will remember you. You matter to me. I matter to you.”
I would be careful to ascribe the term “Babaylan” to myself or just anyone as it can feel like an insulting trendification in Western culture, especially where the term still holds a sacredness to the indigenous Babaylan who continue to embody the shamanistic ways of our ancestors. But yes, I can see how the tuning into the heart frequency of others could be Babaylan at work. I guess it’s a greater matter of doing Babaylan work than feeling you have to name yourself as such. A part of me fears that throwing the term “Babaylan” around, especially in the Western context I grew up in, can easily reduce the title to just being something cool. From what I understand, being a Babaylan requires a tremendous amount of emotional and spiritual labor, and at times physical labor, that requires ongoing growth, exploration, and understanding. It is far from easy work. It’s one thing to claim you are one versus doing the actual work and truly understanding the work.
JD: The body speaks here also. The body in pain, the body violated, the body reclaimed and listened to. The body’s instinct, the body’s song. Without oversimplifying the immense complex song of the body I’d like to ask about the score that the body keeps, what your journey has been like in this sense, what has gotten you through, from missed notes to painful ruptures to reconnections and reclamations, to perhaps, finally, being at home in the body?
EV: I think when it comes to the body, the body holds its own memory. It’s a mind-trip when thinking about how much of the body we can control, like move our arms and legs, but how the body also operates away from consciousness. We especially see this when physical illness or physical injury is inflicted upon the body and how it responds. We can’t force our bodies to physically heal. It can take an enormous amount of work between mind and body, to accept what the body holds. Examples in this collection highlight the constant work it takes to heal from trauma due to sexual assault, abortion, miscarriage—these actions that have been done to the female body where the female body holds memory, and it becomes a fine dance with the mental work, patience, and time required to make the body feel safe and whole again.
JD: In your chapter, Code Switch, you dedicate it to “every woman who code switches several times a day, because we do.” Having to be hyperaware and hypervigilant at times, shutting down and coming alive, feeling more at home when in the company of other women, the multiple registers you switch through within a single day. Would you like to talk about this, and more generally perhaps, about the painful effects of patriarchy that make code switching necessary in perilous daily environments? I felt resonant notes of the philosopher Luce Irigaray in some of your chapters, her description of finding a new language between the sexes, of refusing to bracket women to background for man, of building, together, a bridge over such waters, to newfounded psychic and emotional and communicative landscapes between the sexes. Does that resonate for you? I felt, in reading these pages, that Babaylan is perhaps such a bridge.
EV: When I think about code switching, there is this subconscious processing of how the Babaylan would operate under the clearly cut gendered roles and expectations set out for us today. I need not mention today’s over-the-top gender reveal parties that reinforce heteronormative expectations before we’re even born. This is not to give the impression that Babaylan were limited to the female as Babaylan could stretch across genders binary and non-binary. Before Spanish colonization, societies governed by the Babaylan operated under egalitarian conditions where men and women did not have such strict gendered roles as the patriarchy enforces today. Women held positions of power as much as men, and men fulfilled domestic responsibilities as much as women. It was a natural feminist environment before colonization came in and violently restructured these societies with the oppression of women.
When I think about code switching, it’s a performative manifestation of this multi-splice for women—behaviors and intonations subconsciously and intergenerationally inherited as a defense and coping mechanism in a patriarchal world that continues to impose itself on us.
JD: What is your hope for this book, your prayer? I believe it was Hannah Arendt who once said that what people will make of the book is out of her hands. Do you feel this way also? Still, one hopes one will be understood from the place one lives and writes. And yet some things are lost in translation. What are the things you hope will not get lost, here, from within Babaylan?
EV: My big hope for this book is that I want my readers to know that there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong in every situation, that it takes looking at the other side with all of its complexities to see why we do the things we do.
A large vulnerable part of me feels like I am breaking code, openly talking about family matters that should be kept private. While I believe some matters should remain private, I also believe there are issues in the Filipino community that require discussion no matter how painful or shameful it can feel, in order to heal and break the vicious patriarchal cycle that continues to control who we have become versus returning to the strong Babaylan we used to be.
And to come full circle on the first question, Babaylan are with us today. I want readers to know that. Babaylan are not so far removed from us as we may think. I think there are those among us—women and men and nonbinary individuals—who have the potential to be Babaylan if only we truly believed, if only we remembered, and if only we were truly willing to do the work.
Elsa Valmidiano is the author of We Are No Longer Babaylan, her debut essay collection forthcoming from New Rivers Press in November 2020. She is a recipient of their Editors’ Choice selection from their 2018 Many Voices Project competition in Prose. Her experimental prose: “Diversion” and “The Lover That Never Was,” previously appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic in 2017, and will reappear in her forthcoming essay collection. Preorder information for the book can be found on Elsa’s website, slicingtomatoes.com.
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