The vulnerable fruit and the virgin-martyr

There was a town in Iloilo called “Katmon” before the Spaniards came. Now, the town is listed as “Santa Barbara” named after the virgin-martyr.

We were looking for the Katmon tree and its fruits when we visited, one afternoon last week, the town of Santa Barbara.

Towns and places are named after objects or resources plentiful in the place. Histories tell us that there were, indeed, numerous Katmon trees in the area. Colonization works on a strange, unknowable logic.

When patron saints were selected by the colonizing faith, there was always a reason for such act. The main justification was the inculcation of lessons about what the new religion offered.  San Isidro, for example, was an apt symbol of the values of hard work and spirituality. The agricultural economy rediscovered by the colonizers inspired the employment of a sainted farm worker.

How was the virgin-martyr selected for the town? Well, purity and virginity were two ideals that the Christians from a very uptight European country, perhaps, wanted to teach our women. Books like Barangay of William Henry Scott would make a nonhistorian blush at the findings that women, and women of the 16th-century “Philippines,” were conversant about sex gadgets. This, however, is a conjecture.

One afternoon last week, Raymund Salao drove me to Santa Barbara. There we met with Dennis Hubad. Raymund and Dennis are two of Iloilo’s prominent filmmakers. But, Santa Barbara holds a historical prominence, as well. In a country where historical records reek of the smell and perspective of Manila, we are always fastidious about who did something first after Manila. Santa Barbara holds the record of being the first town that raised the Philippine flag outside Manila, in Luzon.

For a small town, the church looms over a park, with the convent stretching away from its façade. A local museum under the auspice of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines is across from the religious center. This is exciting. Churches and historical museums swing like a perfect jazz music—the rhythms of the church and the museum run as counterpoint to each other. Some historical accounts, it is true, are captive listeners to the archives deposited in churches.

The brave national museum should be always ready to confront institutionalized religion for every anecdote about conversion of the natives; there should be the luxuriously trenchant narratives about millenarian movements and cargo cults. For every trumpet that shall sound for the second coming of the Messiah, if we may paraphrase Peter Worsley, are the bountiful harvest of rebels and heroes who become anointed as saints and divinities.

It must be said that, when it comes to colonial history, the conquistadores never had the monopoly of the Holy Spirit.

As with discussions about believing, we were fated that Saturday afternoon to meet the director of the Santa Barbara Museum. The door to the museum was open, prompting us to climb the stairs. In the hallway a man informed us the museum was closed and people were there on overtime to prepare for the fiesta of the town. The man also said he would check with the director whether we could go in. We could.

At the staircase landing was Arlene Magallon, the director who, indeed, cordially welcomed us. What is the plot about the virgin-martyr without the thought of the sour fruit, Katmon?

Arlene related to us a creative program she hatched and that was to plant once more Katmon trees all over the town. As practically, there were no more Katmon trees in the town, Arlene got some saplings from nurseries in Manila. The first time she planted them, most of the small trees did not survive. She sourced more young trees and planted them in that town.

In the museum, Arlene programmed a revisiting of those young men who died during martial law. They were also martyrs and, if an obscure woman when paganism was an outstanding category, the men and woman who died for freedom and human rights were as much martyrs without the anguish of purity.

In the church, under the convent, stood the patroness of the town. She is clad in blue and bright pink. Was she responsible for the disappearance of the Katmon?

My cursory research about this tree and its fruit, which was part of my childhood, yielded many information. Scientifically labeled as Dililla Philipinensis, the tree and its fruit as supposedly source of potency that can help one be cured of cough and other maladies. The bark and the sepals of the fruit are potions, and its roots are poison. The juice extracted from the fruit can address hyper—and hypoglycemia, the bane of diabetic with sugar count that rise and go down without reason.

The trees have not made a comeback in the town of Katmon. With that in mind, we cannot yet rally a return to the ancient name of the town. Outside the parish office, a miniature version of the martyr-saints sell for some P60. The colonizer wins over the subaltern, at this point.

And yet a question remains:  Is the virgin-martyr more miraculous than the vulnerable, sour fruit of Katmon?


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