Juan Pusong and the Babaylans

Note: Thank you to Mila Aguilar, via Prosy dela Cruz, for bringing this topic to my attention. Mila is a critic of President Duterte and in her recent Facebook posts she invokes the figure of the Babaylan, the healer/priestess of Philippine precolonial history and one of the pillars of the indigenous community, to mobilize feminists in solidarity and resistance against Juan Pusong, the evil Trickster personified by Duterte.

I googled Juan Pusong as I have only vague memories of him as a Trickster figure in Philippine folklore. In the stories he also appears as Juan Tamad. In these stories, Juan Pusong is the trickster who is cunning, wily, mischievous, dubious, lazy. Mila Aguilar writes that Duterte is emblematic of the Juan Pusong trickster. But this interpretation speaks to only the “bad” side of the Trickster. In indigenous stories, the Trickster is usually revered as the one who brings about transformation — as the alchemist of situations where the players eventually recognize the lessons they all must learn. The Trickster is not demonized. In some of the stories about the trickster, he might be chastised for his mischief and he might recoil and then walk away in grief over his actions but he is never cast away by the village because they understand that the trickster is part of who they are.

I wonder if the original trickster figure in indigenous storytelling has somehow been transformed into the “Devil” with the ascendance of Christian influence (of the fundamentalist or evangelical kind) in the Philippines. I have not been keeping up with Philippine politics not for lack of interest but partly due to lack of access (I don’t have TFC cable of 24/7 Philippine television) and because my focus has been on diasporic issues in recent years. Of course, the homeland and the diaspora issues are always already entangled. But I have been away from the homeland for more than half my life and my attention on homeland issues has been selective out of necessity. During repeated sojourns to the Philippines, I was doing research about indigenous communities and babaylan spirituality. I haven’t been back to the Philippines since Duterte’s election in 2016.

Like so many, I, too, wonder why people elected Duterte (just like in the U.S. where those of us who are Democrats are wondering why Trump was elected; I think we know why now). Both events signal a sea-change in both local and global culture and politics that hasn’t been sorted out neatly yet…and perhaps can’t be reduced to a mere binary of “good vs. evil.” As long as we are trapped in this dichotomy, choices become limited, imagination is constricted. More than ever, we need new strategies. (I am reading Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Marie Brown and it’s a gem!).

From what I am seeing on my Facebook feed, critics of Duterte are afraid that the Constitution and the once-relied upon democratic systems of governance are failing. Corruption, Extra Judicial Killings, and misogyny are all indicators of moral decay that can only lead to an increasingly depressing assessment of the country’s future. The incarceration of Senator De Lima and the firing of Justice Sereno and the ongoing contestation of Leni Robredo’s vice-presidential win in the election — is mobilizing women and their allies. Mila Aguilar is sounding the call for modern babaylans to take up the fight against the sins of Duterte and his administration and restore the country to a higher moral ground. But my guess it that the definition of “moral ground” from a specific evangelical, born-again Christian perspective may also limit our capacity for historical and political analysis and imagination.

I can only hope and pray that the ones that Mila calls “modern babaylans” could or would also expand their context of analysis to include a very long historical lens including our pre-colonial cultures, practices and traditions. Stu Schlegel studied the Teduray justice system back in the late 60s. He said that when there was conflict, the elders and the village would gather and address both the victim and the offender. The victim is recompensed and the offender agrees to be restored to the community as s/he makes restitution for the offense. This is restorative justice.

How to apply restorative justice when the village is no longer intact and has morphed into a modern state born of neocolonial and imperial ideologies? I remember Ver Enriquez saying that imported and imposed democratic institutions don’t work efficiently in the Philippines because they are alien to the underlying animist/indigenous culture. I think this is still true, don’t you think?

Many of the historical Babaylans eventually became Beatas in the Catholic Church, according to Prof. Jaime Veneracion, and perhaps today some are evangelists and born-again Christians calling for a Christian moral ground. Meanwhile, the land-based indigenous Babaylans are caught in the cross-fires, too, as they are being displaced from their ancestral domains as the government offers the Land to global corporations in the name of “improving the economy.”

I agree with Mila that this is more than about the gender issue. For me, I sense that the rise of Duterte is buoyed up by the seething resentment of the “masa” against the “elites”; it is the seething anger about the failed promises of neoliberal ideologies of the free market (see Pankash Misrah in The Age of Anger).

For hundreds of years, the country has tried to mimic the West/U.S. and its institutions because of the belief in “progress” and “development” and “civilization.” The country has not yet reconciled itself to the fact that there is no “catching up” — that this is a mirage and we are destroying the Earth in this attempt. And I think many of our kapwa might be sensing this in their bones but do not know how to articulate this knowing. This tacit way of knowing is exploited by Duterte…and maybe that’s where his tricksterism lies. He believes himself to be the “strong man” who would clean up his country and save it from the claws of the imperial west. So he turns to China and offers up the islands to Chinese loans and casinos. And the comfortable elites schooled in the promise of neoliberalism are horrified.

It is up to the rest of the country and its citizens (at home and abroad) to figure out the Trickster that Mila names as Duterte’s game.

Leny is Kapampangan. Settler on Pomo and Coast Miwok lands. Founder and Elder at the Center for Babaylan Studies. https://www.lenystrobel.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store