“Tabi-Tabi Po” and “Bari-Bari Apo” and What They Mean

December 17th, 2009

Email This Blog Post Email This Blog Post Filed under: New Village Commons— Janice Sapigao @ 12:08 pm

Last Thursday, a visit to San Francisco’s 1:AM Gallery for an urban contemporary art exhibit called “Tabi Tabi Po” changed the way I imagined the spirits that roam the physical and mystical world of the Philippines. The group exhibition features different artists’ takes on the kinds of beings that live in fables and oral histories. From seeing former Philippines’ First Lady Imelda Marcos interpreted as a monster to enjoying a b-boy version of a dwarf, this exceptional exhibit displays the wonderment of stories passed on through generations. “Tabi Tabi Po” continues a cycle that allows experiential art and Filipino folkloric narratives to survive.

At the gallery, each step from one painting or multimedia piece to another invited me into these artists’ elucidations while reminding me of short stories my immigrant family members told. I grew up Filipina through my family’s connections to the motherland, the Philippines. My parents’ stories, my grandmother’s cooking, my ability to fluently understand my mother’s native tongue, Ilokano, and my cousins’ ghost stories heavily shaped the way I learned about my Filipina American (Pinay) culture and identity.

A mix of these ingredients – symbolizing land, language, food, and folklore – all culminated during a family dinner. My older cousin, Nolo, cordially visited my family whenever he could. He joined us for this one particular evening that I can never forget (as in, I’ve tried, but the memories won’t escape me). What was a joyous meal full of laughter and playing catch-up simply remained a night of storytelling. But with scary stories. One by one, my elder extended family members left the dinner table for bedtime while my cousin Nolo talked all about his then-recent trip to the Philippines. He described his firsthand encounters with, what I thought and soon after unlearned, were mythical characters native to Filipino folklore.

The family table quickly became compelling. My brother William, cousin Richard, and I uneasily listened to Nolo speak directly to my mother’s childhood musings and memories. My mother was the only adult figure left at the table with us cousins. Being the youngest there, they all chatted about things I knew little of – international airports, rural countrysides, and rice fields. While overhearing a boisterous conversation about how Nolo witnessed a Filipino pastime (but an illegal activity in the US) known as cockfighting, the lights went out!

Brownout!” my mother shouted before she lit a candle and brought it back to the dinner table. Similar to an electrical depletion known as a “Blackout,” this is what many Filipinos might say when the electricity goes out, as it usually does in the Philippines where erratic weather changes occur due to its tropical climate and susceptibility to heavy rains, typhoons, and monsoons. “Bari-bari apo,” I remember my mom softly say to herself. What did that mean? I understood most sayings, but I’d never heard this one.

All of the cousins sat around a large white candle. I was too afraid to leave the table and the light source. Because brownouts rarely take place in the States (as my family calls it), this flame was a novelty to me. As we peered into the light, we relished at the dripping candle wax and its root at the burning wick. I noticed that Nolo’s fascination soon turned into swift concentration.

“Wanna see some magic?” he asked.

“Yeah!” my cousins and I replied with our excited little voices.

Nolo lifted his pointer finger towards the light and deftly ran it in back-and-forth fashion through the flame.

An explosive chorus of “Whoa!” and “How do you do that?!” followed by “Can you do it to me, too?” affirmed Nolo’s feat. One by one, Nolo took William’s and Richard’s pointer fingers and guided them through the flame.  I refused. I was too afraid. Instead, I inquired about how Nolo learned to do this.

“I learned it in the Philippines. My cousins showed me. I was bored,” Nolo answered as he eyed my mother, who just walked into the room.

“Hey Auntie, have you ever seen a duwende?” Nolo wondered out loud.

“No, why! Did you see one in the Philippines?” my mother asked with wide eyes.

“No, but my sister did,” he explained. Nolo’s younger sister, my cousin May, apparently saw a dwarf spirit called duwende and fell ill with a fever the very next day. In Filipino folklore, duwende is a type of dwarf or elf spirit that can be very helpful or even hurtful if they are offended. They reside in trees, little houses, or mounds in the ground near peoples’ actual houses. They can be good or mischievous depending on how they are treated. My mother talked about how she was afraid to walk around at night in fear that she would step on one. “Yeah, you’re right,” Nolo confirmed. “I think she might have bothered or stepped on one when we walked outside in the dark.”

“That’s why you say Bari-Bari.” It’s a saying that someone would use in an attempt to pardon or excuse themselves from bothering any lingering spirits. For example, if you needed to relieve yourself in a forest or if you had to throw something out in the dirt, then you would say it. “Or, in Tagalog it’s Tabi-Tabi Po. But in Ilokano, you say Bari-Bari.” Okay, got it. Finally! I figured it out after all these years.

Initially, I thought of these creatures called duwende, aswang, manananggal, tikbalang, and kapre in cartoon format. There are unique renderings of these kinds of spirits in the “Tabi-Tabi Po” exhibition. I imagined in cartoon because 1) I was young, 2) it was easier for me to soften out potentially negative images that scared me, and 3) each creature I learned about at that time had a Westernized look-alike. I guess I learned to relate this way. I merely equated duwendes to the dwarves in Snow White. As I got older, I learned the Western characters and imagined an aswang to be like a vampire, pictured a manananggal like a ghost and a witch put together, can easily see a tikbalang as a centaur, and a kapre as a Filipino version of America’s infamous Bigfoot.

These characters in these stories were never a matter of fiction for me. Growing up Filipina American has, in a way, conditioned me to be afraid of these apparitions. In a country and culture where our interactions with anything of the ghostly kind is relegated to annual party celebrations like Halloween, television series of unsolved crime mysteries, and the occasional Hollywood blockbuster film like “Paranormal Activity,” it is no wonder why many people decide the fictitious to be wrong or unreal. I am working on unlearning my habit to worry hard. We are given many reasons and instances in which the mythical are cruel or demonic. Many people fear the unknown and the unseen alike because of the chance that other things exist beyond us. We fear ghosts because they might haunt us or the spaces we occupy. We fear not knowing because we might be left unprepared or unable to react quickly enough. We fear. We seldom ask to co-exist.

Seeing “Tabi-Tabi Po” allowed me to make further connections and sense about how necessary it is to be in tune with my environment – whether or not I know what’s around. Featured artist Bru said, “You have to be in touch with spirits. You have to care about your environment. And when you lose touch, when you live in the city for so long, it’s just all cement. And lights. You lose part of yourself.”

Tabi-Tabi Po was featured in San Francisco’s 1:AM Gallery from November 13th, 2009 to December 12th, 2009. Supplementary information about the exhibit and the hosting space can be found on their websites, featured at the beginning of this blog entry. The above photos were taken from 1:AM SF’s Flickr account. In order of appearance, the photos selected for this blog are:

“A Giant in the Mental” by Christopher De Leon
“Malakat Waves” by Angry Woebots
“Nuno Sa Punso” by Dianne Que

Janice Lobo Sapigao is a new intern with New Village Press in Oakland, CA. She is a blogger, writer, poet, playwright, and all-around arts enthusiast. She recently graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a B.A. in Ethnic Studies and a minor in Urban Studies & Planning.

During her time in Southern California, she fell into many activist circles where she was able to join Kamalayan Kollective, a  political, people-centered, feminist organization that seeks to raise critical consciousness about issues that affect the Pinay/Pinoy, Pilipina/o, Pilipina/o American communities and other marginalized and underserved communities. She has worked with organizations such as UCSD Kaibigang Pilipino as a scriptwriter, GABRIELA Network as an actress in the play “Export Quality,” and the UCSD Campus Community Centers as a former CUDLI intern and a Joy De La Cruz Art & Activism intern. Her writing has led her to feature in and work with UC Berkeley’s Maganda Magazine, with Los Angeles-based BakitWhy.com, and with the UCSD Comprehensive Research Center in Health Disparities.

Aside from interning with New Village Press, Janice is currently living in San Jose, CA after academically interning with Book-in-a-Day in Washington, D.C. and studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is also working on a manuscript for her first book of poetry, short stories, and writings. She is looking forward to a lively career in community building through literary arts, no matter what, by any means necessary.

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