Island that refuses to die, thanks to Inday: Negros

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Filmmaker Jay Abello shoots a docu in an abandoned sugarcane field in Negros. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines—The eminent writer Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, a lady of discerning taste, wrote: “Each little shop held infinite treasures. I bought an evening bag of gray satin that was straight out of Paris. I have it still. It symbolizes for me the spirit of Negros.”

The Negros Trade Fair she visited was in its first year 28 years ago when what was supposed to be a two-seasons-a-year sugar cycle—tiempo muerto (dead season while waiting for the cane to reach maturity), and tiempo galing (milling season when there’s money for the rich and the sacadas, the workers, at least have jobs harvesting the cane)—became totally tiempo muerto.

World prices for sugar had fallen. Negros island’s land lay fallow, with nothing planted on tens of thousands of hectares.

A favorite niece in Silay called her aunt in Manila, lamenting that “Tita, we got poor na, we had to sell three cars.” Aunt, alarmed, asked:  “Do you have any cars left?” “Five na lang,” was the plaintive response.

True, cars, diamonds, family heirlooms were sold, but there was more where that came from.

But what of the sacadas, who were starving? Memory conjures up a photo that went around the world of little Joel Abong, malnourished to the point of near-death.

In reaction to tiempo muerto, a strange thing happened. Far removed from the Kahirup Balls and the anything-you-can-buy-I-can-buy-better, or have-better hacendero mind-set, the Negros doñas—Inday prefixes their names when referred to by the hired help—surprised.

They refused to see their island and its people die.

Wives of hacenderos for the most part, they grit their teeth,  came to Manila, learned a few tricks at Citem (Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions), the Department of Trade and Industry, the Design Center and elsewhere, about handicraft-making, quality innovation and design.

Returning to Negros, they worked side by side with farmers’ wives, teaching them how to fashion trays, bags, place mats and other clever items from indigenous material. Leaves, twigs, barks, grass, bamboo, all became source material.

Lanais and terraces of rich homes became workshops in the egalitarian effort to better the sacadas’ lot.

That was in 1985, when the first products of the women’s handiwork went on sale at the Negros Trade Fair in Makati, where Nakpil bought her treasured evening bag, and where the ladies themselves were tinderas (salesgirls).

From then on, the trade fairs became an annual event, undaunted even if in the early years, some of them returned home with nary a sale made.

People may also recall The Star of Hope, collapsible colorful Christmas lanterns which Daniel “Bitay” Lacson, yet to become governor the following year, sold virtually door-to-door to corporate friends in Makati.  By the time Bitay was through, he had sold 200,000 of the thick craft paper Stars.

“We also designed a T-shirt in different colors that was a big hit,” Doreen Alicia Gamboa Peña, this year’s chair of the Negros Trade Fair, recalls. “It was a little boy munching on sugar cane, reading ‘Ako Taga Negros Occidental.’

“Sad to say, the Intellectual Property Rights code was not in place then. A lot of people copied the concept.” The women of Negros had originated the era of T-shirt messaging.

The menfolk looked dubiously upon what their wives were initiating, Peña says. “They said ‘Oh, those are hobbies. Good luck,’” as if to say the women couldn’t make money on their handiwork. The fellows have stopped scoffing at the early attempts at entrepreneurship, helping instead wherever they can.

A huge typhoon in 1988 blowing down the sacadas’ flimsy huts only strengthened the women’s communal resolve. They broadened their offerings, attended seminars, sought (and found) export markets. Incorporating themselves into the all-female Association of Negros Producers (ANP), a nonstock, nonprofit group, members were offered enterprise loans (P150,000 tops) and training, marketing and consultancy services to micro- and small-scale enterprises.

By the turn of the century, their offerings—a wide-ranging cornucopia of ceramics, handmade paper, lamps, children’s dresses, furniture, dainty (but of sturdy cotton) white Granny nightgowns, piña barong Tagalogs, even mouthwatering camias cookies—had long since been refined to top quality, sheer sophistication and elegance.

Livelihood coverage of ANP’s 85 members includes a multipurpose cooperative offering opportunities not only to farmers’ wives, but also to out-of-school youth, and the unemployed.

Exports boom and wane depending on the global economy, but Manileños look forward to the annual Negros Trade Fairs where they know they will get good buys. And the food offerings! Think only that foodie Doreen Gamboa Fernandez’s origins were in a Silay kitchen, and Margarita Araneta Fores’ in Manapla.

“Evolving Lifestyles,” this year’s fair’s theme, will be mounted at Glorietta Activity Center from Sept. 25 to 29.

Negros, long a bastion of conservatism, and its raised-eyebrow companion piece (women stay home, keep each other company at the mahjong table), has since turned egalitarian, thanks to women—rich and poor alike—who worked for their island to live.

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