Saturday, June 4, 2011



Her ancient culture in danger of extinction, an Aeta child
in the Philippines wishes for the survival of her race and the
return of her people to Mount Pinatubo

June 6, 1996.
My sentimental journey back to Mount Pinatubo after a long absence from the Philippines, was a more difficult trek than I had imagined. The once verdant forest that I remembered in my youth had been transformed to a lunar landscape with peaks of frozen lahar, and razor-edged cliffs rising vertically at a hundred feet.

Cradled in the bosom of Mount Pinatubo, Tita and I relaxed against a decapitated tree near a hot spring. Despite the lingering picture of devastation, the sulfuric smell from steam vents, and my aching body, it felt great to set foot on the mountain again. Tita grew up on this mountain, but there was no visible sign of her village. It was submerged in volcanic ash and mud.

I met her while she peddled the streets of Angeles City. Her eyes, shy and probing, were big and round beneath the bushy eyebrows. She had kinky black hair, wide, depressed nose, and dark, thick lips. She stood a little over four feet--the average size for the Aeta, also called the Negrito (small black people).

Tita and I felt an immediate connection and rapport with each other. And it had nothing to do with my gifts that included the Reebok shoes she wore. There was a strange sense of familiarity that created a special bond of friendship between us. Perhaps Tita saw in my eyes the genuine compassion I had for her people. She had not been born when I was privileged to spend a lot of time in her village as a young girl growing up in the Philippines. I was about her age then, around eleven, and the adventurous daughter of a businessman and friend of the shy and elusive Aeta. Or, perhaps, it was because both our fathers died tragically. Her father perished during the volcano eruption. My father was abducted and murdered.

Tita pointed to a butterfly on a huge pumice rock surrounded by a patch of dainty purple flowers. Its seemingly changing colors and transparency shimmered in the sunlight as it fluttered its wings in a slow motion.

Stealthily, Tita tiptoed behind the butterfly. Before I could stop her, she had captured the exquisite creature by its wings. She beamed as she offered her captive to me. I disguised my horror with a smile and congratulated her. "Be careful," I pleaded. She surrendered the butterfly to me, which I enclosed in my hands like a rare black pearl in a shell.

How could I explain to a young mind the principles of freedom, and that, in essence, Tita was like the butterfly held against its will. The Aeta were exiled from their mountain--the only home they had known. With no adequate programs to help and relocate them, the Government scattered them in three provinces. Angeles became the tribes’ City of Refuge; mostly the streets. These people who lived off the land autonomously, without Government support or provisions had suddenly found themselves relying on handouts from a strange civilization they had managed to elude for centuries.

The Aeta were hunter-gatherers. Disarmed of their bows and arrows, they were lost and helpless in the fiercest jungle of all: modern civilization. They cowered and hid as though they were now the hunted instead of the hunters. Many returned to Pinatubo, but their mountain was not ready for them. Deprived of nourishment for their belly and their soul, the death toll continued to rise long after the volcano’s eruption.

I underestimated Tita’s sensitivity to something as philosophical as the spirit of freedom and survival. She listened intently. When I finished explaining my analogy and why no one had the right to unjustly hold any creature in captivity, a tear in her eye glistened against the ebony skin.

Slowly, I opened my hands to set the butterfly free. We watched a perfect pair of delicate wings spread and flutter and the butterfly began to fly and soar upward, floating on air, basking in the light and sunshine all around it. I saw the sparkles of light in Tita’s eyes . . .shining jewels that could illuminate an evening sky like stars.

My tribal friend and I shared many things, including dreams. Hers were subtler and culture specific, but just as rich, graphic and detailed in imagery as mine. She asked why people dreamed and what they were. I was unsure how to explain dreams to her. All I could say was that they were the manifestation of our thoughts and wishes.

I was curious what a young Aborigine girl like Tita dreamed about. I held her hand and looked directly into her eyes. "Dreams are wonderful. They make us close our eyes and smile and imagine getting something we want so bad. What do you dream about, Tita? What do you wish for in life?"

She gave me a perplexed look. I smiled and teased her. "That cute boy who’s always flirting with you . . . you like him a lot, don’t you?" She shrugged her shoulders and smiled shyly. "Do you think about marrying him someday?" I asked.

She burst into a giggle. She squirmed, looked at me under her long lashes and nodded.

"You see, that is a wish--a dream. And sometimes, dreams do come true. Now, tell me, Tita. If you can have just one wish, what would it be?"

She thought for a long time. When she spoke, her voice was low, her expression melancholy. She took a deep breath. "I wish that someday all my people will come back here on the mountain and we all live together again like we used to."

My chest swelled with emotion. I grabbed her and hugged her.

"Me, too." I said.

That night, I took Tita "home"--to a shack in town. The following day, she would roam the streets again to beg for money or food to help her family survive. One day at a time.


It is a sobering thought that this culture’s extermination continues to accelerate. Unless something is done to prevent this imminent extinction, someday, someone like me can only long to experience such a friendship as that which I was fortunate to share with Tita. There will be no written history from an illiterate race. Future generations that will visit Mount Pinatubo could only hope to feel the essence of the Aeta, and hear the voices of a lost race echoed in the streams, trees, rocks, and the wind.

(Author's Note: Eleven years since this was written, many of the Aeta tribesmen have returned to Mount Pinatubo. However, having tasted modern conveniences in the city, most younger Aetas chose to stay.  Many Aetas born in the city has not known how to an Aeta tribal child on Mount Pinatubo.  I will post a sequel to this article as soon as possible. Thank you for your interest.)


I am currently editing the narrative and captions for this article.  Please come back later.
Thank you for your interest.

Maria Panlilio

Basically, I established an annual essay contest for the Aeta tribal children of Mount Pinatubo on the Pampanga side.  First I spoke with the school administration about my one-woman project, which was highly received.  Then I spoke to the children and described to them the purpose, concept and rules of the contest.  Major prizes were given to the top three winners, but everybody who entered also received some kind of monetary award.  I was the primary financier of the project, with some support from my publishers. Annually thereafter, the project was continued by the schools with my guidance and financial support.




This is being edited at this time.
Please come back later.
Thank you.