Interpretative insights abound in "The Death of Fray Salvador Montano, Conquistador of Negros," but the inscrutability of the Filipinos stand out the most. While the craftsmanship and gift of language are already laudable, the 2001 Palanca Award-winning story under study deserves more praises for its empowerment of the marginalized by their writing back into the mainstream. The story opens with Fray Salvador Montano’s mulling over the plagues that beset Pueblo Buyonan, and he decided that this horde of locusts and the previous pestilence of frog were caused by his mission village people’s having made love unconventionally like the abovementioned creatures. He summoned the natives that “there was only one position that God intended human beings to do it in,”(p.1) and so the people would confess to him about their sexual acrobatics in order to stop the plagues. Early on, Montano surmised that these people got the better of his predecessor, Fray Duertas, who “asked to be assigned elsewhere” (p.2) in order to escape the nightmare of such bizarre mating dance. Fray Montano’s initial moments at the island rendered him “frightened to see all the indios…lining the riverbank to welcome him.” (p.2) These 31,000-strong islanders must have overwhelmed him less because of their epic chanting but more because of the fact that these were the very people he was supposed to conquer. He was told that Spanish encantos already substituted their resident divinities and that their babaylan was proven fake, so he was just left to decimating the native’s laziness, drunkenness, and lust. Believing he was destined to live up to his name, Salvador Montano was all out to civilize the savage island. But the succeeding developments in the story proved that Montano’s first name and the illusory conquest of Negros were ironical. As a matter of fact, he failed to approximate his savior name, and it was he who was conquered by the natives, as was evident in the following turn of events: It happened that Montano and a native, the bamboo-walking Pedro Latay, had to consult their church’s whole design in Fray Duertas’ forbidden manuscript, a violation of the sixth commandment in order to find the source of bird droppings which kept the natives from fulfilling the third commandment. Their exposure to the obscene design of the church’s bedrock—“a tightly clenched fist [gripping] a quill (p.6)”—had Montano repeatedly warning Latay that the latter would burn to hell should he divulge what was called to mind as a masturbation scene. Plied by his fellow indios with tuba, Latay would have the drunken courage to belt out a composo (ballad) replete with phallic images until all of the island would sing sexually graphic songs in the long run. This served as Montano’s first setback, as he sought the advise of the convert babaylan Estrella about what to make of the bastos songs. She admonished the friar to “[l]et [the natives] sing their epics again” (p.9), to which he reluctantly acquiesced. The night saw the shaman “commenc[ing] her magical incantation” (p.10) of the epic of Labaw Donggon—an initial triumph of the native. Montano’s apparent lack of control of the natives had him half-heartedly agree to Estrella’s teaching of the epic chanting. The fact that he even consulted a rival in the people’s faith points to the shaman’s gaining of the upper hand over the priest. The baylan’s “smile of triumph” (p.9) was essentially that over the foiled universalizing tactic by Montano, as he, “sigh[ing] and conced[ing] defeat,” (p.9), realized the natives had to be taught their epic, their heritage. This case shows that the Filipinos are impenetrable despite the Spanish’ teaching of Gregorian and other sort of Western chants, for the natives will always return to their songs; they will always embrace their own as a way of reclaiming the identity the conquerors are trying to erase and swap their very culture with. The next setback for Montano did not take long; he followed his superior’s advice of writing a Hiligaina-Spanish dictionary for his flock to “know its catechism, the commandments, the teachings of the church…the seven deadly sins.” (p.4) The friar just continued his predecessor’s unfinished dictionary, “insert[ing] the words he needed to add to Fray Duertas’ work.” (p.12) However, one word led to another that Montano felt “the indios’ world [beginning] to manifest itself, and what had been its daunting unpredictability became simply a matter of singular inevitability.” (p.12) His list of words, which conjured what might be deemed offensive to the bishop’s taste, had him staying all fat and alone and inattentive of his church’s handful of spiritual needs that he grew so absorbed he had to masturbate in order to forget the natives’ sensuous words. In effect, he would forget the words listed the previous day that he just repeated them, “adding old words to even older words, so that there was no end to his lexicographic task.” (p.15) Toward the last days of his life, Montano realized that his writings faded away because of the evanescent ink he used and “all that would remain…were hundreds of blank sheets of paper.” (p.20) The very fact that Montano could not seem to complete the Hiligaina-Spanish dictionary because of words spawning into many other words tells the impossible task of straitjacketing the Filipinos, because there will always be something that escapes. The words resist enslavement within the pages of the dictionary; in the same manner, the Filipinos resist getting fitted into the disparaging cage of the conquerors. While the foreigners attempt to expunge the Filipinos’ legacy from the pages of history in order to have the people identify with the foreigners’ legacy, the empty pages symbolize the Filipinos’ readiness to rewrite history more than the people’s marginalization in it. The ultimate blow to the conquistador came moments before his death, when he, weeping, had Estrella come for the last of his breath. The unpunctuated long final sentence gave away everything, for Fray Salvador Montano succumbed to the consummated conquest of him by the natives, symbolized by the shaman’s application of the tranquilizing herbal concoction. “She lay beside him and cradled his head on her shoulder and he breathed in the sweet tangy scent of her hair oloroso agridulce and sampaguita these were the only words in his dictionary that he had tried desperately to efface from his memory because he knew they were the one the only true occasion fro sin but these were the only words that had clung to him as tenaciously as Fray Duertas’ goat breath and the servants’ briny smell and finally he gave in to the terror of Yawa the Consummator squatting on his chest pouring water into his nose and mouth but he could not struggle free because he could not move with Yahweh’s weight on his chest pouring water into his nose until at last he could no longer smell anything.” (p. 21) The eventual conquest of the supposed salvador of Negros manifests the ultimate inscrutability of the Filipinos. The natives had been pacified, taught foreign cultures, reduced to subservience and credulity, generally insulted, branded inferior and barbaric, shackled into varying degrees of bondage, etc, but the endurance of the Filipinos supersedes the overbearing attitude of the foreigners. The conquerors are brought to the realization that they can never foist to the natives what they consider is best or ideal, which is necessarily their very culture and not the Filipinos’ own—a chauvinistic and false consciousness. They are minimized into helpless subjects of the Filipinos’ concoction of own unpunctuated civilization, and will never win over an identity that has come to assert itself as unmistakably, unadulteratedly Filipino.
In Feast and Famine: Stories of Negros. Rosario Cruz Lucero. Quezon City: University of the Philippines, 2003.
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