Thursday, May 28, 2009

"A Book of Her Own, Words and Images to Honor the Babaylan" by Leny Mendoza Strobel

A couple of months ago, while attending a book event at one of the tony restaurants in Ports O' Call in San Pedro, I bumped into Leny Strobel. I did not know her, but from the way she said my name ("Oh, Rene Villaroman from the PR Office"), I found out that she really did know me. We had worked with the same company-- San Miguel Corporation -- during the 70s until I left and became a freelance journalist in 1984.

"I worked with Dick Sotelo," she told me. I knew Dick Sotelo (Head of SMC's Human Resources Division), and probably everyone in San Miguel did. Leny said she was one of the correspondents of Kaunlaran, the SMC monthly employee magazine, where I was one of the assistant editors. My heart sank because, honestly, I did not have a recollection of her, but at the same time, I felt flattered that she had remembered me after more than 30 years. But it was downhill for me from that point on.

Leny had always wanted to be a journalist during the time that she was working as Dick Sotelo's executive assistant. I am sure there were hundred others like her in our company that wanted to fill our shoes and show that they had the writing gene in them. We thought then that we were the cream of the crop, at the top of our game in the corporate communications industry, which was partly true. The Kaunlaran is an award-winning employee publication, and at one time, some of its writers, including myself, have been honored by the Philippine Council of Industrial Communicators (PCIC) for our excellent feature articles.

But none of these honors and achievements could approximate, or even come close, to the body of work and various other feathers-in-the-cap that Leny had plucked after she had left SMC and immigrated to the US in 1983. Leny had parlayed her passion for writing and research into masters and doctoral degrees here. She had gotten married to a white American-- an earth scientist from Montana-- and as an assistant professor, she now teaches American Multicultural Studies at Sonoma State University in California.

I am bowled over by Leny's body of work, and in one of them, her book, titled "A Book of Her Own, Word and Images to Honor the Babaylan," Leny published a compilation of her writings in different forms: poems, essays, musings, journal entries, magazine articles, and letters to fellow writers and artists. It is lushly illustrated with ethnic line drawings and black-and-white photographs. In the book, you will find a list of her favorite writers, and questions asked of Filipinos by Americans. One particularly loathsome question she is asked is, "Did he buy you from a catalog?" or "Do you eat dogs?"

I did not purchase her book during the book event, but our encounter had triggered in me a desire to look deeper into her philosophies and core values. I was silently attracted to the babaylan principles and values. Ours was one of those serendipitous meetings that produced a productive collaboration rather than just a torrent of nostalgia.

The first thing that I asked Leny in the question-and-answer session that followed her 45-minute talk at the book event was the meaning of "babaylan." She explained that "babaylans" were shaman/medicine women who occupied revered positions in the ancient villages of the country. "Historians write that matriarchal societies ended at the beginning of the agricultural era 10,000 years ago," Dr. Strobel said in her speech. "Matriarchal societies are non-hierarchical, egalitarian and deemed the relationship to the universe and all species as sacred; with the rise and evolution of patriarchy, these feminine values and energies were repressed and exited into the narrow spaces of expression under the control of patriarchal institutions and systems."

After hearing her talk about some of her philosophies, and after reading her book, I can see a pattern in Leny's "search" for ways to shake off the remnants of colonization, and she continues that search even after she had immigrated to the US, while studying for her masters and doctoral degrees here, and even now, while moving around her milieu as an assistant professor married to a white man. In her present scheme of things, she still considers herself belonging to the "others" category, and in her book she talks about how she had tried to please some of her white friends early on by trying to mimic them, but admits that her earlier attempts at assimilation into the "white" world were failures.

Her book is also a testament to Leny's undiminished nationalism, advocacy, and reverence for the babaylan spirit and its associated values, among them "Kapwa" (fellow human), "Bathala Na" (God's will), "Loob" (inner self), "Dangal"(honor) and Pakikiramdam (enmity).

Leny talks about her strictly Methodist upbringing in a barrio in her native Pampanga, in Central Luzon. Pampanga is one of the thorns at the side of the Spanish administrators during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines, and that province's rebellious streak had coursed in her family's veins. Her grandfather was one of the first Methodist converts in her barrio, and he had kept that faith entrenched in his family, all the way down to Leny's generation, and farther down the line, I believe. She relates that being a Methodist in a predominantly Catholic province was quite a burden to carry, but they kept at it.

I am not much of a poetry reader, much less, a poetry writer. I had enjoyed and understood the depth of Leny's ideas when she laid them out in prose. The poems left me dangling, for lack of a better description. I felt that if she had written them in prose -- like her encounter with a Pinoy couple while jogging in her Sonoma County neighborhood -- the piece would have answered every question in my mind and filled in all the details about the encounter with the couple. But what the heck. Leny had to address a wider reader base with a multifarious reading preferences. I was trained as a journalist. I needed all the answers that a reporter could provide.

Leny Mendoza Strobel's "A Book of Her Own" is a chronicle of the author's early realization that it would be difficult for a citizen to fit in a given societal setting if he/she carries the confounding remnants of a colonized past, as in 300 years of Spanish, and 100 years of American occupation. But her early American assimilation experience, although quite personally disappointing, were no bars to the author's drive and commitment to defeat those demons and achieve her goal of decolonizing herself and as many of her Filipino and non-Filipino friends who had been immersed in a similar national experience. I know she will continue to sing the praises of the principles of the babaylan spirit and the values that it espoused.

At this point, it is safe to say that she has achieved decolonization nirvana? I do not believe so. But she is forging ahead.

"A Book of Her Own" is available at Philippine Expressions Bookshop, a Palos Verdes-based importer and distributor of books by Filipino and other authors writing about their roots and their Filipino experience.

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