This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis
by Charlie Samuya Veric (Manila)
If I was going to die, I would die on the island where I was born. So I flew to Aklan, a province on the Northwest side of Panay Island in Central Philippines, a few days before the entire island of Luzon, including the capital Manila, was put on lockdown on 16 March 2020 due to Covid 19. A week before, four positive cases had been confirmed on March 8, suggesting that a local transmission was afoot which ended the month-long lull of zero contagion since January 30 when a Chinese national who arrived from Wuhan became the country’s index case. On the days leading to my departure, Manila was rife with rumors of an imminent lockdown. Mass panic was setting in.
Not wanting to get trapped in a condominium, I packed my bags and hopped onto the next plane to my island. Four days after my arrival, President Rodrigo Duterte imposed a strict quarantine on the National Capital Region, including the rest of Luzon. A week later, the Governor of Aklan issued a similar order. Schools were suspended, businesses were closed, and public transportation was halted. The borders with the other provinces were sealed, each town scrambling to set up security checkpoints to prevent local movement. In the neighboring town of Tangalan, a dump truck unloaded gravel on the road to block the passage into our town.
A nightly curfew was imposed; liquor was banned. Everyone wore a mask. On the streets, heavily armed police officers guarded the public market during the day. At night, they patrolled the town. Back in Manila weeks later, Duterte directed Roy Cimatu, a former military officer, to evaluate the surge of cases in the Central Visayan city of Cebu where a disturbing spike was emerging. Cimatu is the current secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, a presidential appointee with no real competence in the environment, much less in disease control. The presidential order came on 22 June 2020, the 100th day of one of the longest lockdowns in the world. The curve had yet to flatten even then, the cases nationwide still rising.
The militarization of the pandemic is, indeed, consistent with Duterte’s strongman rule whose Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases relies more on retired military generals rather than on medical professionals. In fact, the pandemic has not only provided cover for the widespread militarization of civilian spaces in the Philippines, but also given a logical conclusion to the extra judicial killings that defined the regime prior to the pandemic. A surveillance regime—a virtual martial law—has become the official approach to the pandemic in the country wherein militarization is the new norm and the law is weaponized not so much to fight the pandemic but, rather, to silence government critics and entrench the political interests of the regime and its allies.
Despite the militarized situation, however, there remain pockets of resistance to the regime’s strongman posturing. In response to the liquor ban early on, a black market had emerged wherein drinkers either depended on close personal networks to replenish their stash or sought out small grocery stores in the barrio where the police presence was low. To skirt the prohibition on mass gathering, gamblers congregated in backyards, hiding behind pig pens to play cards. When the cash emergency subsidy was distributed to the poorest households, a tupada or cockfight was held in a remote village. Upon hearing of it, the police swooped down on the makeshift cockpit, sending the gamers into the rice paddies where they fled.
Through it all, punctuating the comings and goings of the town in a pandemic, the loudspeakers played the oratio imperata in Hiligaynon, one of the local languages, the recorded voice of the priest floating from the church belfry to call the town to prayer for protection from the virus.
I wish to call attention to what may be termed the vernacular will to life in a carceral regime in the context of a pandemic. Namely, I wish to highlight the lifeforce buried in everyday acts of drinking, gambling, cockfighting, or praying wherein repressive social forces, be they the police or religious authorities, come to enable world-making possibilities for ordinary lives in paradoxical ways. What is everyday life like under a militarized pandemic where the brute force of the state is deployed to contain an outbreak? What lifeworld is generated against the backdrop of authoritarian control? What holds us together when our lives are quarantined? I will answer these questions by looking at the practice of mass listening that defines everyday life in a militarized hometown during the pandemic. I refer particularly to the oratio imperata. A Roman Catholic tradition, the oratio imperata is led by the priest during a time of great need or calamity. Heralded by tolling bells, the prayer against Covid 19 begins with a declaration of distress and a recognition of the fatal harm of the virus. It commits the agencies and specialists to the grace of God that they may be guided in their search for a cure. Short and supplicatory, it ends with a prayer to Mary and the Litany of the Saints as the background music fades. In its wake, the silence returns, interrupted here and there by the sound of birds, human voices, and throttling motorcycles.
In my town, the recorded prayer takes place at 12 in the afternoon and at 8 in the evening, the latter followed by the saying of the rosary, also in Hiligaynon. Like drinking, gambling, and cockfighting, praying is part of the everyday soundscape of the town during the pandemic. So, too, it contains within it the dual character of life-making wherein authority and resistance are fused in its everyday performance. Drawing on Charles Hirschkind’s (2006) notion of the ethical soundscape, I will suggest that mass listening to the oratio imperata reveals a vernacular lifeworld that the pandemic makes more visible, one whose conflicts and possibilities are inscribed in the language that gives form to its expression. Looking at this practice, we shall see how the constriction of freedom in the context of a militarized quarantine produces an expansion of the sense of vernacular identity at the most molecular level, a process that may be termed carceral biopoetics, after Nicole Fleetwood’s (2020) notion of carceral aesthetics about which more will be said later.
One of its four provinces, Aklan sits on the northwest side of Panay Island. The landmass is part of a chain of islands representing Central Philippines, an archipelagic formation that has helped in limiting the viral transmission. Rivers, mountains, plains, and seas define the contours of the province, a landscape that changes with the seasons from dry to wet, brown to green. It is designated as a first class province, owing to the tourism revenues it derives from Boracay, a tropical paradise known the world over. But Aklan’s economy is basically agricultural, whose farmers are increasingly ageing, creating a dim prospect for farming as the new generation of its children turn their backs on the land and seek out better pastures as skilled labor, mostly abroad. The pandemic brings this migrant condition to the fore. On June 23, the Provincial Health Office declared Aklan to be Covid-free, all its confirmed patients having recovered from the illness. But the groundswell of Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) returning home from the four corners of the globe is feared to trigger a new wave of infections.
Ibajay, my coastal hometown which has a sizeable population of OFWs, counts among the 17 municipalities of the province. A long winding river cuts through its territory, flowing from the lush mountains that border the province of Antique to the west, down to its mouth that opens into the Sibuyan Sea. With a population of about 50,000, Ibajay is classified as a third class municipality, its economy built mostly on farming and fishing. In short, it is a rural place, a peasant society despite the trappings of global tourism.
Thus, the importance of using the local language in the oratio imperata whose audience’s consciousness is still rooted in a peasant worldview. The church is not alone in this recognition. Not to be left behind, the local government in the early days of the pandemic translated Covid-related policies from English into Akeanon, the language indigenous to the province, to spread crucial information. The move highlighted the value of the vernacular language in reaching the farthest parts of the town, where English is hardly spoken. The popularity of the vernacular can be gleaned, too, from the culture of listening in the province. Much of the population depends, for example, on the vernacular radio for news and entertainment where the hosts refer to their listeners as kaibahan or igmanghod, meaning fellow or relative, a language that reflects the peasant worldview of familial ties and commitments. If the language shapes the radio, so does the opposite. The radio shapes the way the language is sensed. Namely, the use of the local language signifies the oral culture that marks the local community.
The oral culture and preponderance of radio listening are important markers of a peasant society where literacy is woefully low. In this sense, listening to the spoken vernacular word becomes not simply a class marker, but also an index of one’s existential place. My father and mother, both self-made individuals who never set foot in college, wake up, for instance, to the sound of our language on the radio, a medium that connects them to the outside world. In a quarantine that prohibits senior citizens and anyone below 21 from leaving their homes under pain of being arrested, radio literally becomes my parents’ only connection to a steadily disintegrating world. English channels on cable TV mean nothing to them. The world they understand is the world created by the familiar lilt and birdsong that fill their room when their favorite radio show is on. In this community of vernacular listeners, everyone is a fellow, a relative. The village is good for as long as the language is heard. The vernacular sound consequently helps to create a milieu of the domestic and the domesticated. In her study of the radio in the Central Visayan province of Samar, Rocini Tenasas (2020, p. 244) calls this milieu the regional audiotopia wherein the technologically mediated sound of the vernacular embodies “the expression of memory and nostalgic affect of the imagined sounded community.”
The choice to translate the oratio imperata from English and Filipino, the national language, into Hiligaynon speaks to such an important context. True to the spirit of translation as transportation, the sound of a familiar tongue transports the listeners into a memory world that remains as language, as sound, and perhaps most important, as feeling. Through the familiar sound of the native tongue, the prayer helps the listener to create an idea of place that approaches home. Language enables a world that holds itself, whose center remains in the face of a deadly pandemic. Such is the life-making power of language that is heard; it creates for its listeners a sense of deep place—a vernacular belonging.
In the recorded prayer, this process of place-making happens when it invokes the Litany of the Saints:
Santa Maria Mananabang sang mga Kristiyano, Ig-ampo mo kami. San Rafael Arkanghel, Ig-ampo mo kami. San Roque, Ig-ampo mo kami. San Lorenzo Ruiz, Ig-ampo mo kami. San Pedro Calungsod, Ig-ampo mo kami. Señor Santo Niño de Ibajay, Ig-ampo mo kami. Mary Help of Christians, Pray for us. Saint Raphael Archangel, Pray for us. Saint Roch, Pray for us. Saint Lorenzo Ruiz, Pray for us. Saint Pedro Calungsod, Pray for us. Holy Child Jesus of Ibajay, Pray for us.
The motherly protection that Mary signifies is reinforced by the appeal to the protection of angels, on one hand, and the intervention of Saint Roch, the 14th century Italian confessor considered to be the protector against the plague, on the other. At first glance, the litany may seem trite but it actually represents an equal opportunity of sorts in the imagination of the local church. In colonial religious representation that persists to this day, the first three saints are white, with European features. But the last three names bring the prayer closer to the vernacular lifeworld with its appeal to native icons: Saint Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino to be canonized in the post-Vatican II period, and Saint Pedro Calungsod, the second Filipino to enter the holy pantheon of the Roman Catholic Church. To complete the process of localization, the prayer ends with the Santo Niño of Ibajay whose image the town venerates every year in a vibrant festival of drums and paganistic revelry. The Litany of the Saints accordingly begins with the universal and ends with the most particular. Seen this way, the vernacularization of the language of the church gets complemented by the vernacularization of its iconology. What the oratio imperata does is nothing short of decolonizing the Roman Catholic Church, diversifying the skin tone and linguistic scope of the celestial hierarchies with the inclusion of native subjects and their language. Both gestures, the use of the local language and the introduction of native personalities, serve to entrench the process of vernacular world-making in the context of a pandemic as it happens on the margins of a postcolony.
Yet it would be wrong to fall prey to the ruses of the native language as it is heard from a loudspeaker. For the native tongue also carries within it the histories of struggle with its relatives. A sibling rivalry, a clash of native tongues, if you will, simmers beneath the veneer of affirmative action for vernacularity. As must be clear, Hiligaynon, though a local language, is not the everyday language of Aklan. It belongs to the older, bigger, and richer province of Iloilo that occupies the southeast portion of Panay Island. Hiligaynon in the oratio imperata accordingly excludes the indigenous language of Aklan—Akeanon. In a word, the language in the oratio imperata is practically foreign to Aklan. The recorded prayer makes this “foreignness” evident from the get go. “O Dios nga amon Amay, kami nagapalapit sa imo sa among kinahanglanon,” its opening goes. Amay (father) and the prevalence of the “la” sounds in the opening sentence, as in nagapalapit (approach) and kinahanglanon (need), are not indigenous elements of Akeanon. Instead, locals use tatay to refer to a father, a word that is also found in other major Philippine languages such as Tagalog. Moreover, in place of the “la” sound, there is the “ea,” as in nagapaeapit or kinahangeanon. In fact, the “ea” sound, which is so difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce, is often used in Akeanon tongue twisters.
The intraislandic marginalization of Akeanon appears to be widespread. Consider how the vernacular missal that is read in all churches in the province is also in Hiligaynon. Such exclusion goes much deeper, affecting not only the church but also the local government. Deprived of its language within the church, Aklan is also prevented by its government from having its laws in a language that is legible to the majority of its populace. A legacy of American colonialism, the writing of laws and government policies in English remains largely unchallenged even today.
Such colonial legacies are compounded by the juniority of the province wherein the old prejudices and inequities—of Spanish colonialism that left behind the Catholic faith and of American colonialism that cemented linguistic imperialism—are carried over into the new postcolonial dispensation. To wit, Aklan is the youngest among the four provinces on Panay Island. Formerly a far section of Capiz, Aklan was founded in 1956, a decade after the Filipino nation achieved its formal independence from the United States in 1946. In contrast, Iloilo has been around since 1566 following the Spanish conquest of the Philippines, Antique since 1780, and Capiz since 1901. As the youngest province, Aklan occupies a minor position in the political, economic, and cultural hierarchies of the island. If anyone needs to renew a government-issued license, for example, one has to go all the way to Iloilo where the regional offices are located. In many ways, the marginal fate of Aklan and the cultural subordination it engenders mirror the trajectory of the Filipino postcolonial state. Like the nation, the province grapples with decolonization as a matter of historical correction. But what Aklan also shows is that within decolonizing acts are conflicts and tensions among vernacular cultures where the imbalances of power lead to the erasure of more marginal communities, a phenomenon that manifests itself in the silences and exclusions of the oratio imperata against Covid 19.
What to make of this linguistic and cultural erasure? The answer lies in the unique character of the pandemic, the social relations it engenders, and the work it does for the experience of vernacular life. Let me explain by way of conclusion. One of the early consequences of the pandemic was the lockdown of cities that eventually spread across the archipelago in varying degrees of militarization. In the process, many were able to come home while others were stranded. Stranded or not, however, the experience for most was one of virtual incarceration, a period of domestic detention that enabled deep moments of interiority, for good or ill. There was so much time to think, that is, to look inward. One subject of inward contemplation for me was language. As an observer of human behavior, and as a practicing poet myself, I found myself returning to familiar linguistic features of my hometown that heretofore seemed all too common to hold in my imagination. In the light of the pandemic, however, my inborn language, which I learned long before Filipino and English made sense to me but one I never got to use beyond simple speech, clarified itself to me. Without the militarized quarantine, I would not have seen its symbolic work, as well as its intraregional dynamics, more clearly. Hence, the carcerality of a quarantined town in a militarized pandemic revealed before my eyes the prisonhouse of vernacular tongues—namely, their longstanding rows, rivalries, and repressions. As I have tried to show, nowhere was this more evident than in the performance of the oratio imperata. The use of the vernacular to create an ethical soundscape—calling the town to prayer and localizing the pantheon of saints—could be interpreted as the decolonization of the local Catholic Church. But its affirmative gestures, such as the use of Hiligaynon, are also acts of erasures. Consider the marginalization of Akeanon, the town’s indigenous language, which denotes the cannibalization of one vernacular by another.
Using the oratio imperata as a case study, we can accordingly begin to think more broadly of the meaning of freedom, restraint, and contingency. That is, the recorded prayer helps us to grasp the dynamics of repression and agency—themes that become more real and, therefore, more urgent in the context of the Covid 19 pandemic. What is it like to live in a militarized pandemic? Is meaning possible in repression? What keeps us whole when things fall apart? In this essay that is part memoir and part ethnography, I have looked at a recorded prayer to provide a picture of an island that largely remains under the radar of national and global coverage of the Covid 19 pandemic. In a coastal town with little scientific knowledge of the pandemic, where the majority of the population are poor peasants, whose information comes mostly from the local radio, the loudspeakers fill the air with sounds that provide stability—a moment of distillation and contemplation—even as they quietly conceal a more native tongue. This process of repression and emergence is of a piece with the everyday routine of militarization during the quarantine and the spurts of rebellion it engenders in vernacular acts of drinking, gambling, cockfighting, and, yes, praying. As I have tried to show, the oratio imperata against the virus exemplifies the productive tension between repression and emergence. Performed in the context of a military-led quarantine, the recorded prayer denotes the authority of the church, which is not unlike the repressive authority of the Duterte regime whose appeal to the rhetoric of locality is a ruse for the repressions it exacts.
But listening to the prayer also becomes not simply a moment of epiphany, but also an opportunity to grasp how seemingly decolonizing deeds can reproduce inequalities. In short, the prayer shows how vernacular languages prey on each other. I take this opportunity for critical reflection to mean the possibility of freedom in a carceral condition, a circumstance that may be termed carceral biopoetics wherein the constriction of spaces both real and imagined becomes an opening for alternative forms of imagination. Following Fleetwood’s notion of carceral aesthetics in which black prisoners in America draw on their lives to produce art, I hope to have described in this brief essay an aspect of what I call biopoetics—how life in a town creatively asserts itself in the face of repression and silencing. Highlighting the Greek notion of poiesis, biopoetics names the improvisatory insistence on the possibility of life and freedom where they are directly under threat of being obliterated. In contrast to Foucauldian biopolitics where life is an object of control, biopoetics names the creative vernacular responses to a regime of mass discipline where everyday acts like praying are not simply social signs of the eternal recurring but, rather, are opportunities for the revelation of disarticulated freedoms.
One June morning when I was about to conclude this essay, the sound of beating drums interrupted the quiet. A group of musicians was on a tricycle, going around the streets to announce the feast of the town’s patron saint as dawn was breaking. There was no sign yet of a flattened curve despite the world’s longest lockdown, but in Ibajay the fiesta was coming. At noon, the oratio imperata would play again.
Fleetwood, Nicole. (2020) Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Hirschkind, Charles. (2006) The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press.
Tenasas, Rocini. (2020) Radio Waray Siday: The Making of Regional Aurality, Sense, and Affect. Ph.D. Dissertation. Ateneo de Manila University.
Charlie Samuya Veric holds a doctorate in American Studies from Yale University where he was awarded the John Hay Whitney Fellowship. A former fellow of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study and the bestselling author of Histories, Boyhood, and The Love of a Certain Age, he is an Associate Professor of English at the Ateneo de Manila University. His newest book, Children of the Postcolony: Filipino Intellectuals and Decolonization, 1946-1972, is forthcoming in the third quarter of 2020 from the Ateneo de Manila University Press.