1st August 2020
We Filipinos are known to be a religious lot. Notwithstanding the recent numerous conversions to various equally fervent other Christian sects, we mostly remain devout Catholics, loyal to the doctrines of the Vatican. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in our devotion to the Virgin Mary. We have many Marian icons in our homes, hold novena prayers in her honour, and go on pilgrimages to places where the Church has said she had appeared.
Along with prayers and icons, this devotion is reflected in our legends and folklore: the many miracle stories attributed to Our Lady and the saints. One such story is the origin of the place name of Victorias, Negros Occidental, named after Nuestra Señora de las Victorias (Our Lady of Victories). This story is celebrated every year in the Kadalag-an (Victory) Festival held the week of 26th April in honour of Our Lady of Victories./1/
Now a city with some 90,000 souls, Victorias has a historical narrative dating back to the Spanish colonial times. It was then part of the settlement called Tukgawan, which before they were divided also included the adjacent town of Saravia (now called Enrique Magalona). The población located by the estuary between the South China Sea and the Malihaw River--so-called because of the abundance of the Malihaw trees growing there—was simply named Barrio Malihaw./2/ How Barrio Malihaw became Victorias is the subject of the stories of numerous apparitions of Our Lady in defense of the settlers as they were repeatedly attacked by the Moro pirates.
Victorias was made into a town in 1876. My grandmother who was from there was born barely 20 years later, and I remember when I was little, she told my brother and me why our town was named “Victorias.”
Because of the rich lands and fisheries by the banks of the river, Victorias attracted not only migrations from other areas, but also incursions of Moro pirates who intermittently raided the defenseless town. In one such raid, as the townsfolk hid or ran for their lives, lo and behold, there appeared a beautiful lady who came to their rescue. She was resplendent in her long, flowing white gown and, treading on water with a machete in hand, she slew every Moro in the expedition.
It seemed to me even at that time that it was a bit violent of Our Lady, showing different values from those espoused by the Catholic Church. Surely enough, I later heard other versions of the story.
According to an alternate chronicle, as the pirates approached the riverbank, they were accosted by a beautiful lady onboard a boat accompanied by a very big man holding a spear./3/ The lady swung her sword and the man struck one of the Moro boats with his spear, breaking it and scattering the pirates until they sailed away.
Still another story is a much more benign account. The raiders, stealthily wading ashore, subsequently barged into the area’s largest house. There, they encountered the Teniente del Barrio Gregorio Conlu and his wife Capitana Tutang. After robbing them of their valuables, the Moros retreated back to their vintas (outrigger boats), taking with them Capitana Tutang and her househelper Micay as hostages. At some distance from the coast, the pirates pushed Capitana Tutang and Micay overboard. Luckily, Capitana Tutang was a strong swimmer, so that even though Micay could not swim, she succeeded in taking both of them back to shore. Capitana Tutang’s story filled the town with awe and wonder. She was almost ready to give up, she recounted, when the waves calmed down and a dazzling light appeared. The light approached the two women, and only then could they see an extremely beautiful woman walking towards them. She smiled, holding out her hands, and slowly, she led them to safety. Then, the lady disappeared.
In thanksgiving, Capitana Tutang vowed she would install in her house and venerate the icon of Our Lady. This was duly purchased for her by the town priest, who had it shipped all the way from Barcelona, Spain. When it arrived, Capitana Tutang swore the figure was the exact image of the beautiful lady who had rescued them. Full of gratitude, the townsfolk then asked the governor for the name-change of their población and it was readily granted.
Perhaps, as in most legends, all these accounts, whilst different, are true. Like myths, legends exist in all societies. They may not ask mythic questions such as “where do I come from” or “what happens after I die,” but, unlike myths, they are perceived by both storytellers and listeners as to have possibly actually taken place during some indefinite past. Some excellent examples of legends are connected to the 6th century King Arthur of Camelot. They include tales of miracles and magic attached to a historical figure. Their importance are not so much the accuracy of the facts, but the symbolic truths behind them, and they survive over time because they are useful to the community, reflecting their beliefs and value systems, preserving their social norms and traditions.
But if they “actually happened,” why these variations? I still remember participating in the game of “Telephone” at school. There were about seven of us forming a line. Our teacher whispered a message to the first person, who then whispered it to the next, and so on, until the seventh person. When we were finished, our teacher asked each one to say out loud what we thought we had heard. Invariably, the class laughed as each one had a slightly different version, until that of the last one was a mangled rendition of the teacher’s original message. The same thing happens to stories as they are handed down from generation to generation.
Where then does history end and legend begin? Should stories stand or fall by their factual accuracy? When I was in graduate school, I content analysed a number of Philippine history textbooks used in Philippine schools from 1902-1972, searching for nationalistic biases. I found that even the so-called histories are not necessarily factually "correct": the mere selection of which facts, their corresponding interpretations, and the points of view used are dependent on who writes the accounts. Usually, histories of battles, for instance, are written from the point of view of the victors. I still feel amused each time I remember reading “Philippine Insurrection” in old history books and how they were later replaced by the “Philippine-American War.”
So much for the social sciences, how about the “hard” sciences of physics or chemistry and their “hard” facts? There is currently a lot of controversy between the facts of science and the metaphors of religion, or for some others, spirituality. The world is divided among those who believe in miracles and those who pooh-pooh them as mere superstition. Did Our Lady physically appear before Capitana Tutang and Micay?
To me, this is a meaningless question. In order to understand the world, both factual experimentation and mystical experiences have their own realities. I am a great believer in both science and religion: about truth and facts, each with its own validity. And I still don’t understand why many people think a belief in one necessarily precludes a belief in the other.
Notes: /1/ There are a number of stories related to Our Lady coming to the aid of Christians in battle, the most famous of which was the Battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman Empire on 07 October 1571. To commemorate this occasion, the church that I go to in London, for instance, is called Our Lady of Victories. The Pope later changed this name to Our Lady of the Rosary, still celebrated every 7th October; /2/ Barrio Malihaw by the riverbank was prone to floods so that Victorias town was relocated further inland with the current Daan Banwa (Old Town) on the original site of the barrio; /3/ The strong man with a spear was identified by the town’s priest as St Casimiro, or possibly Michael the Archangel.
Source: Chona Gosiaoco, Legend of Nuestra Señora de las Victorias. Her report on myths, legends, and folktales of Negros Occidental: As told to her by Juvy Pepello, President of Liga ng mga Barangay of Negros Occidental.
As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is truth in the mind of the believer.