Heights Ateneo — The Official Literary and Artistic Publication and Organization of the Ateneo de Manila University

Balak: Cebuano Poetry and Bridging the Gaps in a Multilingual Nation

Natania Shay Du | Apr 5, 2021

"Saan pumunta ang yawa na 'yon?”—President Rodrigo R. Duterte, SONA 2020

Yawa is an inside joke with profound meaning. Nagmalitung Yawa was a powerful binukot that slayed hundreds to protect her husband. She became the image of the Babaylans––the figurehead of women that held power equal to the men in a time that expected otherwise. The mention of her name became a threat to Spanish rule, so they burnt all traces of her along with the rest of precolonial Philippine society. And now, yawa is a curse word widely used by Bisaya-speakers all over the country.

The poetry of the word, as well as the poetry of the language the word comes from, are reduced to  puzzles no one but the speakers of the language care to solve. The long, divisive history between all of the Philippines’ regional tongues and cultures have taught us just that. The Bisaya have been stereotyped and represented in the media as laughable and uneducated—and thus, lower class—, and Tagalog-speakers have earned snobbish reputations from those coming from the provinces. This has translated to what is now the rest of the country’s view of the people and values from which these languages originate. 

Thus, balak, the term for Cebuano poetry, has been pushed aside in a country with Tagalog-driven narratives disguised in an all-encompassing Filipino, as well as a prejudiced view against those who deviate from the national norm. It becomes even more irrelevant when the same terms and curses used in Cebuano poetry have also been used to further widen the divide between the regions––especially by politicians from Bisaya-speaking regions who have recently become more prominent in the national scene.   

And yet, while balak has been suppressed by these larger narratives, it continues to be a mode of expression for many Cebuano writers. To explain this, Heights Ateneo interviewed researchers and writers of Cebuano literature to give insights on how balak has evolved and fits into the current national narrative. 

Pagpatin-aw sa way klaro

Making clear what is not

Cebuano literature, encompasseses literary works from Cebu, Eastern Negros, Siquijor, Bohol, Western Leyte, and northern, southeastern and northwestern parts of Mindanao. All these regions speak in dialects of Cebuano, rather than any of the other four major Visayan languages (Akeanon, Kinaray-a, Waray, and Hiligaynon). Cebuano is also called Bisaya or Visayan—however, this should not be confused with the aforementioned Visayan languages.

So: what about Cebuano poetry? Balak, which literally means to make a plan, is used as an all-encompassing term for poetry written in any Cebuano dialect. Balak is also characterized by the use of enigma or the metaphor called balaybalay or sambingay, which roughly equate to “parables” in English literature. 

The basic building blocks of Cebuano folk poetry, or balak sa karaan, included sanglitaan or panultihon (proverbs), tigmo (riddles), awit (folk songs), and garay (verses). In social gatherings, these building blocks would make up the lines of more complex and spontaneous forms of balak, which are then used in Cebuano social settings or rituals where one could express their poetic prowess for the purposes of either social standing or courtship. 

This past, as compared to the histories of other regional literatures in Visayas, is unbroken and fully developed because of the rich oral tradition that allowed most of it to survive even in the face of colonizations, wars, and political upheavals. However, this does not mean that balak, as a body of literature, was left completely unscathed.

Mga kaagi, mga pag-usab

What we went through, what changed

The deviation of balak from its traditional roots is a result of a lot of factors—but none as clear as the political evolution of the world surrounding the literary form. When reading traditional Cebuano poetry, one can identify the traits and principles of the pre-colonial Cebuano-speaking people—practicality and social cohesion over personal reflection. Thus, when Spanish colonization washed up on Philippine shores, these aspects of pragmatic and social communication amongst Cebuano societies were adapted to the social, political, and cultural norms enforced by the Spaniards. For instance, during the Spanish colonization, the written balak that was produced was largely in the form of prayers to the Virgin Mary. Instead of the parables and metaphors present through the sambingay or storytelling in the form of parables of Cebuano folk poetry, the balak of that time was focused on religiosity and praises.

Then came exposure to different values and practices from all over the world, as well as the rise of literature in publication and the academe. Balak from the 1900s to the 1960s and the pre-war era––an era of poetry called sugbuanong balak––was well-synthesized by Ton Daposala, Bisaya poet and author of book-length poetry collection “Basâ basa”. 

In his discussion of how characteristics of balak poetry have evolved over time and over exposure to the world, Daposala notes how Cebuano poetry before the contemporary period was marked by its unique experimentations with Western forms in Binisaya tongues. Contemporary balak, on the other hand, seems to have mostly homogenized with the literary movements in most parts of the world. 

“The balak in the contemporary period does not have too much distinction from any other forms since most poetry in Cebuano utilizes the open-form or free verse,” said Daposala, going deeper into the Western influences on contemporary balak. He adds to this by saying, “In the previous months, there was a discourse that erupted from the term ‘puhon’. What emerged from such discourse is the re-evaluation of our understanding in the plurality of our culture which cannot be grasped by loosely looking for its equivalence in English or Tagalog. If that is true in a Cebuano term such as “puhon” or “koan” or idioms such as “Abtik pa sa manatad” or “Ngitngit pa sa alkitran”, then how much more in poetry in Cebuano/balak?”

Some experts nuance this notion by going further down in history. When Tagalog became the basis for Filipino, the national language, the Cebuano literary body of work was suppressed. However, it also created a reaction that formed balak—and all other literary forms in the same language, such as the sugilanon (short story)—into what it is known for today. 

Merlie Alunan, an author and a multi-awarded poet based in Leyte, expounds on this and discusses how contemporary balak differs from other types of poetry, “[Unlike] the speakers and writers of the premier languages established by law (English and Filipino), Cebuano writers [did] not have the privilege of state support and are rather discriminated against. [This is seen in how] Cebuano literature, for the most part, [was] not part of the literature we study in school. For generations, all regional languages suffered this prejudice.” She emphasizes that Cebuano culture and literature today are especially unique because of their resistive nature––something she calls as the Visayan languages “on the march.”

“[All] readers, in fact, should read balak, and see its affinities with other poems produced all over the archipelago,” said Arlene Yandug, founding editor of the Kinaadman Journal and manager of Xavier University Press, giving similar cultural attributes and literary expressions as examples of these affinities. “However, since we are an archipelagic country...it’s equally good to see how our vernacular writings reflect the diversity in our thoughts and habits for as Merlie Alunan says, ‘Our thoughts and habits are evoked by our languages.’”

Paghilom ug pagsabot

Healing and understanding

“[Language] is like a cloak you can wear or take off as occasion demands.” —Merlie Alunan

Alunan is a staunch believer in the fact that language carries within it the little worlds of the cultures they belong to. Thus, the Philippines and all those concerned with its collective welfare are faced with the conundrum of having so many little worlds in so many little islands. And, as a multilingual nation, the solution is quite clear once we realize the importance of language and what it really means: that we must grow to accept that all of our regional languages are integral to our shared identity. Our history of misgivings must then be rectified in the light of this realization, even if it is not as simple as it seems.

Despite centuries of damage done to balak as a whole, the form has reconstructed itself in its own ways. From traditional poetry focusing on parables and courtship, to the evolution of the use of different forms and topics from all over the world, balak has endured. And it is in this endurance that we plot out the next steps of the linguistic and cultural recognition not only of Cebuanos, but as well as the regions that have gone through the same suppressive treatment.

Alunan encourages all Filipinos to learn Bisaya, saying “Only for those who think they are not obliged to learn any other Filipino language because they already speak the national language and who obliges the Bisaya to give up his language so they would understand him––alkanse mo. Kasabot mi ninyo pero kamo di kasabot namo. [––you’re on the losing end. We understand you, but you do not understand us.] Imagine what you're missing.

Daposala adds that the right way of immersing oneself in a culture is by encouraging Filipinos to look into personal accounts of those born and raised in the region, instead of travelling and holding onto meaningless mementos. Poetry would then be the perfect way to do this.A poem may not [even] consume hours of your time, [but] the experience is [still] full. If one wants to learn the language and the nuances of the speakers’ idiom, then a reader can find that in poetry,” he said.

According to Daposala, the language barrier should not even be too much of a problem, as there are accessible Cebuano-English dictionaries online. Additionally, the learning of Cebuano as a Filipino should not be difficult because of the similarities between the regional languages and the national one—and especially since Filipinos have shown mastery of English, which is a completely foreign tongue.

Is it challenging? Yes, in the same way, it was challenging for me and other non-Tagalog speakers to learn English and Tagalog,” shared Daposala. “Back in my days, my secondary and elementary alma mater would fine students ranging from a peso to a cinco for speaking ‘vernacular’. So if you don’t want to be a tourist or an alien [in] your own country, then read the literature of that particular ethno-linguistic group.”

Yandug also called on bigger institutions such as the academe, other government-supported institutions, and the publication industries to join in the promotion of “Philippine studies, local languages, literary productions from the regions, by way of curriculum design, publications, workshops, and advancing the reading culture”. She also suggests that the government diffuse book production from the overly crowded capital by supporting region-based publication industries. This adds to the benefit of, according to Yandug, “empowering local writers and publishers”.

Paghiusa, paglahi-lahi

Uniting, differentiating

With tensions between regions rising, exacerbated by political lines being drawn according to geographic location, the Philippines’ chance at a unified national identity lies in the individual experiences of its people. And while our national history is marred by many injustices against the regions in Manila’s “peripheries”, there may still be hope for a nation with such deep cultural and linguistic divides. It may take a cultural reset, as well as a great deal of individual and collective effort, to ensure that the Philippines can come up with a full and comprehensive picture of all of its islands and their individual needs. 

Albeit the burden is heavy, we have the rest of our history to take it one step at a time.

Written by

Natania Shay Du

Heights Online Staffer, 2020-2021

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Art by

Mia Tupas

Design Staffer, 2020-2021

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