We call them mamaratbat. I first heard the term from a classmate when I was in fourth grade. He used the term to refer to a great grandmother whose ‘service’ was sought whenever there was lamay (wake) or tapos (death anniversary) of a dead family member. Her job was to recite the rosary together with an accompanying group of mangaradi (old women who pray) in front of the coffin or the altar adorned with a crucifix or a portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or of Mother Mary, candles, a vase of freshly cut flowers and leaves, and a small plate containing salt –all surrounding a framed photograph of the deceased family member. The pangadi (praying) can go on for two hours. For these two hours, the lead mamaratbat will unceasingly recite all the prayers while holding rosary beads on one hand and fanning herself with an abaca fan held by the other hand.
I was first exposed to this ritual in 2007 when my grandfather died. For nine days, a group of mangaradi daily visited our house to say prayers for my grandfather. They would arrive at the house at eight in the morning and after the ritual would be served with sandwiches and salabat (ginger tea) in the family’s dinner table. In 2012, I was able to witness again the said ritual when my grandmother died.
There are a few veteran mamaratbat who lead groups of old ladies in selected occasions in our town known for its famous bells ‘stolen’ by the Americans in the 1901 Philippine-American War. Some worry that when the mamaratbats die no one expert enough can replace them. They are always invited to pray in funerals, wakes, and are always tasked to lead the prayers in processions during the Lenten season.
But not known to everyone, a mamaratbat had bravely fought, together with other Balangigan-ons, the American forces in our town in the dawn of September 28, 1901 using her rosary beads as ‘weapon’. During re-enactments of the said encounter, I remember that her character was always played by the tallest and most agile girl in the cast for she needed to run the whole circumference, which measures 200 meters, of the school oval where the play was held.
Casiana Nacionales, or known as Apoy Sana to most Balangigan-ons, was the only woman who took part in the attack of the Balangigan-ons against the Americans in the famous Balangiga Conflict of 1901, as confirmed in Rolanda Borrinaga’s book: The Balangiga Conflict Revisited. According to the people of Balangiga, Apoy Sana participated in the plotting of the attack to the foreigners. Part of the plot was her coming out of the church and waving her rosary beads upon hearing the ringing of the bells. I’ve always remembered this scene from the annual reenactment of the event in our town witnessed by tourists from other parts of the country and abroad. I used to push my body through the crowd until I got hold of the wire fence used to surround the oval where the actors performed. A strange feeling would rush from my stomach to my throat as the story nears the climax –the battle itself. The audience would stand in awe and my eyes would beam with amazement or perhaps pride as Apoy Sana, dressed in black kimono and saya and wearing a veil, comes out from the church waving her big wooden rosary beads while the church bells are ringing. This, accordingly, signalled the attack of the Balangigan-ons, who were armed with bolos and other blade weapons, against the American soldiers who just woke from their sleep and are waiting for their breakfast to be served by the natives.
I have always carried this image of Apoy Sana with me while growing up. Amidst the riot of men butchering each other, here is this woman with her veil and skirt being blown by the wind, awkwardly running with a string of rosary beads she probably used in the series of pangadi (praying) she had led in a neighbor’s burial or a cousin’s wake being violently waved on top of her head.
Rosary beads. Prayer books. Kitchenware. Dirty laundry. Flowers. Make-up. For centuries women have been handed these things. While men were being handed the sword to conquer territories and the pen to write history, women were being trained to stay pure, to maintain a household, and to stay pretty. Unknown to many, there have been women who learned to use the roles and objects assigned to them by the patriarchal society to fight battles of their own and wars of their nations.
Just like the man, the woman has always been present in momentous turning points of world history. Though not as visible in history books as the man, she has always played a part in historical events –from their conception to execution. She may be a mamaratbat who is tasked to pray in the corner; but she also rises, runs to the battlefield armed with the faith she holds on to in times of adversity and the courage she needs to have when delivering a child, to fight for her children’s safety, her country’s liberty, and her own freedom.
She has always been a part of every defeat and every victory. She has always been a part of the making of this nation, and she will always be.