In defense of the Aeta


There is a problem when we accept teledramas as truth, such as episodes of Maalaala Mo Kaya (MMK). Created for television as feel-good TV, they tend to present deodorized and oversimplified stories of victory over poverty and insurmountable odds. As such, they gloss over many important aspects of the continuing struggle of marginalized people like peasants or indigenous people. The reality is that most people born into poverty can struggle their entire life and yet still die dirt-poor. At the very least, teledramas like MMK present idealized stories of people’s personal histories. It can even be argued that what they present are fantasies.

For the past few days, my Facebook feed has been on fire with friends’ reactions to an MMK episode involving the life of Norman King and his father, Roman King. Many people know Norman as the first Aeta who graduated from the University of the Philippines-Manila, thus earning the admiration of many people. I know Norman as a school mate and acquaintance.

Two of my friends who expressed their criticism of the episode are involved in community organizing. One is a peasant organizer and advocate based in Central Luzon whose work involves close coordination with the Aeta community in Pampanga. The second is a writer who had the chance to immerse with the Aetas recently. Both say that the Kings’ life story was heavily revised. Roman King was portrayed as a benevolent leader, someone who was brave enough to defend their tribal community from a company who wanted to build a geothermal plant within their ancestral domain. He was portrayed as an admirable chieftain who had nothing but the tribe’s best interests at heart.

After the episode aired, the Central Luzon Aeta Association (CLAA), a regional organization of Aeta people in Central Luzon issued a statement condemning the controversial revisions of Roman King’s life in the MMK episode. CLAA asserted that contrary to MMK’s depiction of Roman King as their community’s heroic Aeta leader, he was instead a tribal “dealer” who sold off pieces of their ancestral lands to both foreign and local investors. Among the alleged and (they say) well-known misdeeds of King was signing the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) allowing the construction of the Puning Hot Spring high-class resort in Porac, Pampanga. It led to the displacement of dozens of Aeta families. Built on a huge chunk of ancestral land, the Hot Spring was portrayed on national television as a success for Aetas since it would supposedly generate employment. In reality, however, it pushed them deeper into poverty.

A few days after, Norman posted a Facebook status warning people about CLAA’s statement. Among his arguments, and those of others that have come to his defense, three key points must be discussed with more depth: (1) there was a strong accusation that those who question MMK’s depiction of the Kings’ lives, and consequently, those who support CLAA are trying to tear their communities apart, either out of envy or boredom; (2) that non-indigenous peoples who are genuine indigenous people (IP) advocates cannot and should not interfere with Aeta disputes and proceedings, because they are not from their communities and do not know their customary laws; and (3) that CLAA should name the Aetas who accuse the Kings of betrayal, and that if they cannot, then the organization must be fabricating lies.

Echoes of this kind of thinking reverberate in social media, and even beyond it. But where do these perspectives and sentiments come from? And what are their deeper implications? As both an IP advocate and a part of the middle-class, I struggle to unpack this issue and define what being a genuine IP advocate means to me.

What we are seeing in the sentiments from Norman King’s Facebook post is a form of cultural fundamentalism. Prof. Aya Ragragio, my favorite anthropology professor, noticed a similar trend affecting some Mindanao communities. Konrad Kottak described “fundamentalism” as an anti-modernist movement “wherein fundamentalists perceive a dilution, or even corruption, of their beliefs and way of life within the modern mainstream, leading them to seek a return to “an earlier, purer” way of life.” Prof. Ragragio draws an example of this in the tendency of tribal leaders in connivance with the Philippine army to insist on the principle of “kanya-kanya”; or the idea that no tribe or village (or support group) must meddle with the affairs of their neighbors. This type of thinking promoted by the State implies that there is only one way of being a “true” Aeta, or Lumad, or an IP: that you must adhere to your tribe’s laws and way of life at all times, and resist the intervention of people outside your community. Any deviation from this would mean that your tribe is being controlled, contaminated, or manipulated, as in the case of the State narrative against the Lumad during their Lakbayan ng Pambansang Minorya caravan to Manila.

Another alarming notion that emerges insinuates that CLAA and its supporters who challenge MMK’s accounting of their lives are causing a harmful division among their tribe. This signifies how people still see indigenous communities in this day and age: a monolith. But this impression that all Aetas think alike, or that the Aeta community has just one shared view of what is right and good for their community is not only insulting, but also essentializing. As advocates, there is a need to accept the anthropological fact that even within tribal communities, contradictions and disagreements exist. To fully and genuinely understand indigenous peoples, we need to realize first that they are not unchanging communities of peoples. They are a vibrant, dynamic, complex peoples whose tribal customs are not always “pristine” or fixed.

Another insult to indigenous peoples’ struggles would be the perspective that IPs are forever unerring and faultless and are immune to the promise of wealth and power. In Mindanao, AFP-powered paramilitary groups brag of Lumad members among their ranks. Some even admitted to killing their own relatives. And as recently exposed by CLAA, displaced Aeta communities in Pampanga have pointed their fingers at Roman King and his cohorts as land brokers of their very own ancestral domain.

Lastly, in our attempt to challenge what genuine IP advocacy means, there is a need for reflexivity when we talk about the case of Norman King. While we celebrate his achievements with him, we must also remember the thousands of indigenous children who have not lucked out on scholarships and financial aid to pursue education. Singular achievements must be recognized for what they are. But our bigger dream is for a time to come when indigenous students finishing college is no longer unique or a newsworthy event – because this becomes the norm.

The elephant in the room is that by and large, state provision and support for free and quality education for indigenous children remains an unrealized dream for most. It has to be said that IPs do not need our charity and token advocacy; they have long asserted and fought for their right to ancestral domain and self-determination. Because of lack of schools, they built their own alternative schools, they organized themselves despite state terror and fascism. If we want to be genuine IP advocates, we need to listen. When they tell us their stories of struggle for quality education for all, we must listen. Of their resistance against big transnational mining and land-grabbing companies, we must listen. Even and especially when it means challenging our trite notions of indigenous culture; even and especially when it makes us uncomfortable; and even and especially when we realize that not all IP struggles fit the romanticized and idealized mold of MMK teledramas, we must listen.

To stand in solidarity with the indigenous peoples means challenging MMK-type of narratives, and disputing the establishment’s notion of IP advocacy.

Going back to MMK, and with my points on token advocacy, I think it should now be clear how the series of Saturday night stories that MMK rations propagate the problematic view of how hard work inevitably leads to success – for contractual workers, peasant farmers, urban poor, and indigenous peoples alike. It blatantly disregards the fact that there will always be socio-political realities and structures in place to keep the poor poor. It ignores the hard truth that even when our indigenous peoples break their backs working, and struggling, no MMK happy ending is ready for their taking.

Trailer for the Maalaala Mo Kaya episode, entitled “Equal Rights”: