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Hidden In The Heart

The betel-nut tradition once bound together Filipinos from the Cordilleras to Sulu (By: Rosa Maria Magno)

In the varicolored tapestry of Filipino culture, a thread which remains unbroken across space and through time is the betel-chew tradition. Consistently noted by casual observers and scholars alike, the custom of chewing the mixture of areca nut and lime wrapped in betel leaf has been traced to as early as 4500-5000 BP. Anthropologist F. Landa Jocano cites the shell lime holders found in ancient Palawan graveyards as proof that betel chewing was popular among the prehistoric inhabitants of the Philippines.

Although the tradition is fast dying among the Christian majority ( only a few old people in the rural areas still chew betel), and it is definitely dead among the westernized urban folk (having been replaced by the chewing gum and cigarettes), it is still very much alive among the rest of the Filipinos.

Cooling to the Heart

Aside from assuaging hunger pangs, betel-chewing is believed to strengthen the teeth and gums. The Spanish chronicler Pigafetta, describing the customs of the islanders in the 16th century , wrote that "it is very cooling to the heart, and if they ceased to use it they would die." The variety of uses of both the areca nut and the betel leaf which Eduardo Quisumbing cites in Medicinal Plants of the Philippines, shows the versatility and potency of these two ingredients in any of their various forms; but a number of known benefits are common to many groups.

For example, the juice of either the areca nut or the betel leaf, or both combined, is purgative, a deworming agent and a powerful sweat stimulant. The husk of the areca nut is used as dentifrice or toothbrush.

The root of the areca palm, shredded, mixed with water, then pounded until the juice is extracted, is used to poison food, drink or even the betel quid itself. In the accounts of their travels on the various parts of the Philippines, Antonio de Morga (in the 17th century) and Fray San Antonio, as well as Joaquin Martinez de Zuniga (in the 18th century), mentioned this curious use of the betel chew as vehicle for poison.

The young green shoots of the areca palm may be used to introduce abortion in early pregnancy. Crushed betel leaves applied to the breast can arrest the secretion of milk.

The crushed betel leaves act as antiseptic for cuts and wounds, and as poultice for boils. Applied to temples in case of headache they relieve pain.

The betel leaves when chewed are aphrodisiac, too.

Moreover betel chewing answers the aesthetic need of some tribes, like the T'boli, Yakan, Mandaya and Tiruray. They believe that stained teeth are a mark of beauty. (The T'bolis consider white teeth ugly- only ghosts and animals go around with teeth unstained.)

It also believed that the juice from the betel-chew juice drives away the aswang, (malicious mythical creatures and spirits). Maximo Ramos explains such power of the betel-chew juice and ascribes "the Filipino habit of promiscuously spitting in the public places" to the custom of "scaring of the aswang as he went about his daily chores or walk in the woods.

Ritual for the sick

Historian Zeus Salazar, in an essay tracing the present healers to the ancient babaylans (shamans), mentions the account by Castano about the Bikol's use of buyo leaves in rituals of aswang exorcism.

The use of betel chew in ancient religious rituals reported by Plascencia and observed in the Boxer Codex is still observed in some tribes today. Jocano notes the presence of eiher the areca nut alone, or the whole betel mixture, together with other objects of offering in Sulod ceremonies like batak ka daengan in which the guardian spirit of a child is propitiated, in the padapaen ceremony in which the spirits of the dead are called upon to protect the Sulod from sickness and other misfortune and the ritual that precedes harvest in which the farmer invites spirits to eat the food prepared for them, probably as a kind of thanksgiving.

Among the objects which the Kiangans offer to their wooden anito (god) figures are betel nuts. During bad harvests, epidemics or enemy attacks, they decorate the branches of the anito tree with coconut and bonga leaves.

In the Mansaka balilig ritual for the sick, the chief babaylan (priestess) takes her padi (dagger) and cuts a branch off the betel-nut tree that hangs over the altar. She dips the branch in pig's blood and anoints the sick by tracing a sign of the cross on the forehead. The Talaingod baylan shakes young flowers of the betel nut over the heads of the faithful in the healing ritual that appeases angry spirits.

During ceremonies for naming a Mansaku datu (chief), clusters of betel nut are used in the purification rites for the ceremonial dance. In Kalinga, Maranao, Bukidnon and Ilianon societies, the betel-nut chew plays a significant role in courting, in opening negotiations for marriage, as well as the marriage ceremony itself.

Not only does the betel chew serve the living in so many ways, it also of benefit to the dead, or was ( until modern ways of embalming were introduced). Pedro Chirino's account details how the natives would anoint the body of the dead and inject a betel juice through the mouth until it penetrated the whole body." Thus prepared, many bodies have been found uncorrupted after a lapse of many years." Symbolic meanings

In his study of betel chewing among the Hanunoos, Harold Conklin concludes that the material uses of the betel chew are of a less value than it's non material significance in the social texture. This is true not only in Hanunoo society but in most groups where the betel chew practice is strong and where the traditions assumes a lot of symbolic meanings.

An offer of betel chew to visitors (young or old, expected or not, friends or enemies) is a must in most betel-chewing societies. It is, first of all, a sign of hospitality. A household is expected to have always on hand a supply of areca nut, betel leaf and lime. One may run out of rice or corn, but betel chew- never!

What a coffee break constitutes in Westernized societies is a betel break in tradition-bound groups. It affords respite and provides occasion for light banter between periods of serious work.

In some groups the betel chew can be an ice-breaker. A person who would like to get acquainted with somebody may either offer or ask for it. Acceptance or rejection of friendship, or of love.

A betel exchange can be occasion for light intimacies between a boy or a girl, like touching fingers, or brushing hands, or for less shy attempts like holding hands. One can imagine bolder scenarios like offering a betel nut with the lips. Early travelers noted the uses of betel exchange. Father Joaquin Martinez de Zuniga describes how native women pass on their sapa (chewed betel) to men who do not show the least bit of repugnance in accepting it." Pierre de Pages reports that when a woman chooses to favor her admirers with a portion of her masticated betel he receives it as a pledge of peculiar complacency and friendship." Mallat also observed the same practice.

In Hanunoo society , up to the present (or at least until the 1950s when Conklin made his observation), courtship also involves the exchange of betel containers. Conklin reports that a woman weaves buri baskets which she hands to her suitor when the latter asks for a chew; the man in turn prepares special bamboo tubes (for lime or tobacco) on which he inscribes a personal message or song; she may answer such a love note with another betel exchange.

In Maranao society, the golden salapa (betel container larger than a lotoan) forms part of the symbol of authority. In a 1979 account of the coronation of the Ba'I Labi (literally, Noble Lady, it s the feminine equivalent of the title of Sultan or Datu) the salapa is brought along in the ceremonial procession , together with other symbols of the Noble Title, like the taganko (instrumental ensemble consisting of drums, gongs and cymbals), it is about a princess who is forced to and the danganen (ceremonial krises or daggers).

So important is betel chewing on both practical or symbolic levels that during celebrations in Maranao society, a special group of people is assigned just to take care of gathering a large number of lotoan and preparing the betel-chew ingredients. An abundance of betel chew in any festivity is expressive of a wish for good luck to both hosts and guests.

In days of mourning in Maranao society, the Ba'i a Labi is expected to perform the diyaga (night vigil), in which pembamaan (betel chew) plays a primary role. Before the chew ingredients are placed on the tabak (tray) they are first carried on a baor or kaban (chest) or apag (wooden basin).

More interesting , if not more important to the student of Philippine society and culture, is not so much the documents which describe the betel-chew tradition and the various rituals associated with it, but the realization of the continuity and consistency of the tradition among the different ethnic groups of the Philippines. And what is probably more exciting than either is the discovery of this tradition in folklore.

The Pangasinan Impanbilay nen Princesa Estela (The Life of Princess Estela) follows the awit (ballad) and korido tradition of weaving a story around European characters in European kingdom. Set in Naples it is about a princess who is forced to live in a forest because her father the King, upon being told by a sooth-sayer that this daughter would cause his death, orders her banishment from the kingdom. She is discovered by the prince from a neighboring land, who falls in love with her, brings his royal parents to see her, and finally marries her. This korido is like many others except for a quaint detail: the old woman who has taken care of the princess in the forest, offers the king and queen some gagalen (betel chew) in a display of hospitality. The incongruity of the betel chew in a European setting is striking and a perfect illustration of how a native culture inevitably emerges in a society's folk literature even when a foreign one is imposed on it.

The proverbial Filipino hospitality is also reflected in the following Ivatan folksong:

Anu kapipadaung ku na pitukanan /
vahay paru maypachinduk a dakuh / a
kavatuvatuyan nu vuwa sa umdaung / a
dalisayan da kanu a m'panenmama / nu
Anak nu kaydian, nu anak nu kaydian.
(Each time I look down from the ridge
of the hill whose house is this [that I see]
orderly and large on its front are rows of
areca nut palms with clinging betel vines,
and under , lime lies buried. Famous is
this house where to chew betel nut often
go to the people of the town, the people of
the town.)

The following Visayan song expresses the same sentiment:

Igsoon sa tabuk nayon / hapit anay sa

Amon, bisan waray bugas kan-on, / may

Buyo nga pagam-on. (Brothers who are

From the opposite shore / come visit with

us for a while, / though may we have no

rice to eat, / still we have buyo to chew.)

Note also the Hanunoo ambahan (chanted verse):

Aku nangus ragragan / kan sangilu

Nagutwas / kun 'imbas nanlunangan /

Hu bay ngapbay'an ngawan. (If per

Chance I should receive / a bit of your

fetid leaf / and a chewed out mass of

seed, / I'd be very pleased, indeed.)

The passage reflects not only the practice of offering betel chew but also the hos's customary apology for the "inferior quality of whatever he serves his guests. The T'bolis also "belittle" their offer as a sign of respect and politeness. The following lines from Pangasinan cancionan (musical joust) similarly suggest this respectful humility, although this time there is indeed nothing to offer, which is an unmistakable sign of poverty:

Nengneng yo layan ilay, amin mi so

andigapo / Angan gagalen labat ,

sigarilyo may tabako / Andi amta min

yoprece ed magalang yu campo /

Nibaloan yon asegep so pobren abong

Ko ( You see our life there is nothing

[to serve] / not even betel chew, cigarette

or tobacco. / We do not know what to

offer your respected group. / you made

the mistake of coming to our poor home.)

Folk imagination

The significance of the betel-chew tradition in the life of the Filipino are further seen in the number of riddles woven around the areca palm or the betel leaf or the whole betel-chew mixture gathered by Angeles Santos. Here are few examples;

May tatlong dalagang nagsimba , /

berde ang suot ng una, / puti ang

panalawa at ang pangatlo ay pula. /

Ngunit ng nagsilabas sila, pare-pareho

ng nakapula. (Three maidens went

to church, / the first dressed in green,

the second in white, and the third in

red, / but when they came out of the

church, all of them were in red.)

Tatlong hukom , kung wala ang

isa ay di makahatol. (There are three

judges. When one is absent, they

cannot pass judgement.)

Tatlong mag-aamigo, kung wala

ang isa'y hindi maka-ergo. (There

are three friends. When one is away

they cannot have fun.)

It is interesting to note that there are more Tagalog riddles (at least in the Angeles Santos collection) about rice or the coconut or bamboo. This is rather surprising since these are supposed to be more important in the existence and subsistence of the Filipinos. However one ceases to wonder at this as one realizes that the betel chew catches the folk imagination and fancy more than do any of the three objects of riddling because of its peculiar mixture of ingredients, and the resulting color which it leaves on the lips and teeth of the chewer.

Add to this is also the fact that one can play on the word bunga which refers to the tree (areca palm) or to its fruit or as well as to the word fruit itself. Consider the riddle: Bunga na'y namumunga pa. The pun is lost in translation and if translated, the word loses its sense. Consider : "It is a fruit yet, it bears fruit."

The Visayan riddles on the betel similarly focus on the colors and numbers of the ingredients as well as on the church metaphor. For instance:

May totolo nga kadaragan-an nga

nagsimba / Berde an bado han una ,

busag an ika-duha, / An ikatolo, pula /

Pero han pagkagawas na-obos hira pula.

The Pangasinan version does not only detail the colors but also alludes to a religious duty:

Taloran kamin sanaagi /

Nen tinmubong kamid simbaan /

Nandoroma so kolor mi / Nen

ompaway kami / Saksakey lay kolor mi.

(We are three sisters . when we

entered the church / we were dressed

in different colors. / When we came

out / we were dressed in one color.)

Another Pangasinan riddle is more fanciful:

Pusoy balolaki , gatas na marikit, /

Payak na andirit / No sikaran amiy

mantekep / Magmaliew iran

saksakey. (Heart of a young a man,

milk of a maiden, / wing of a

butterfly / when mixed together /

become one.)

In religious were tobacco is a forth ingredient in the betel-chew mixture, it is also reflected in the riddles, as in this Maguindanaon piece where the cave takes place of the church:

Pat-a ebpagaliya sa takub /

ona pamaliyo na magkakaliga.

(Four relatives went inside the cave. /

when they came out they were red.

A humorous Maguindanaon riddle has for its object the lime holder:

Polit -I aponengka-a / langaw na tau /

pedtidok. (Anus of your grandparent, /

everybody dips a finger into it.

Betel-stained teeth

An idea, phenomenon or concrete object has become part of the people's psyche when it is embodied in language. The Pangasinan expression, "agni agatgatay gagalen" (literally "a betel nut has not yet been chewed") means that time is too short, time being measured in terms of how long will it take to chew betel.

The Tagalog "parang tinalupang bunga" (like a peeled betel nut) refers to a person who lost everything, such as a man who has been stripped naked after a gambling loss.

The Kalinga describe a wide grin as the kind where the betel-stained teeth are exposed.

In Bukidnon, a beautiful maiden is described not only as a "ray of sun, a beam of sunlight" but also as "a dropped mama-on (betelchew). A woman who "consents to lime a man's betel" means she is willing to be his wife.

A secret love in Yakan society is referred to as "a betel nut well hidden in the heart."

The betel nut is also used to describe size. The Subanon's compare the gong's navel or boss with the mamin.

Among the legends mentioning the betel chew is the Tiruray story of Sinunggol (the sister of Sualla, the god of the Tirurays) who, in a fit of jealous anger, spat out her buyo, which means the first rat. The Yaka tale of the origin of Lantuan, a place between Isabela and Lamitan, tells of the days when there were no roads and people took three days to walk between these two places. They will strop midway to rest, eat and chew upa (Yakan for Betel). Because Lantuan means food as well as their container of their betel chew ingredients (derived from lotuan) the place of rest eventually came to be known by that name.

In a Bagobo myth, the hero Lumabat sets out one day for the sky-country where he sees many diwata (gods) chewing betel. One diwata spits out the isse on Lumabat's stomach and with one stroke opens the belly, taking out the intestines . Then Lumabat himself becomes a god who knows no hunger for now his intestines are gone.

The Hanunoo believe that the areca palm's guardian spirit-owner is Kakinangan who live with her husband Sumakwil at the source of the Bongabong River. Their legend says that on a visit to Panay, Kapinagan and Sumakwil refused payment in riches for having successfully performed a caesarean operation, but ask for areca seeds instead to take back to Mindoro. Kapinangan cultivated the first areca palm in Mindoro and was entrusted by the creator Maka'aku to be its owner-guardian.

Testing true love

The Bagobo version of the tale of "The Monkey and the Turtle"shows the extemt to which the betel-chew tradition has influenced the creative imagination of the people. In one episodes in the tale:

....the tortoise made a fire and

roasted the monkey. He cut off the

ears m, and they turned into buyo

leaves. He cut out the heart and it

turned into a betel nut. He took out

the brain and it became apog (lime).

He made the stomach into a basket.

Then he put into the basket the betel ,

the lime and the buyo and crawled away.

Soon...he offered this to the

monkeys and from a safe distance he

called to them, "All of you are eating

monkey just like your own body; you

are chewing one of your family."

Betel chewing is reflected in the epics to such an extent that one not familiar with the practice may find it strange that while food is hardly mentioned, betel chewing is referred to several times to the point of redundancy . For instance on the Suban-on epic, Ag Tobig nog Kaboklogan, the betel chew are alluded to in the epics. Liming the betel as a wifely duty is one such motif. When a man says that no one limes his betel, or he chews betel without lime, he implies that he is still unmarried. For example, in Sandayo, a Suban-on epic:

Domodianay said: / Loggi Sandayo, /

let us have a chew / but without lime. /

I am still unwed, / no woman have I wooed.

The marriage symbol borne by the betel is reflected in the following passages from the Ilianon epic Agyu:

Pamiguan replied / I gave you betel /

I gave you chew / to be truly spoused

to you / to be truly married to you.

In the Bukidnoon Battle of the Nalindangan, a warrior who sets out for battle soon after the wedding rites laments:

It is really very difficult / It is very

difficult / for I just have been wedded /

for I just got married / by the ceremonial

betel quid / by the decorated betel

nut / first before I traveled / first

before I left. / How difficult that she

would be a widow / how difficult

would that be / for my longed for

wife of unconsummated marriage.

Husband and wife are so bound together that even when they are separated by circumstances, their union is insured by the betel. In the Mandaya tale, The Sister of Pitong Pangkat Mariday, the heroine before going away after her husband's first wife maltreats her, chews betel nut and puts the wad in the betel pouch which she leaves in her husband's room. Each time she stops to rest in the forest on her way to her parents "home she chews betel and leaves the wad on the path, hoping that if her husband will look for her and chance upon these betel wads, he would chew them, this being a sign that he truly loves her and thus would not fail to find her. The wads are chewed , true love is tested and proven, and man and wife are reunited.

A measure of time

In the Manobo Ulaging, time is measured in terms of the number of times the betel-nut tree has shed its leaves:

It has been a long, long sleep. /

Indeed , it was a deep slumber. /

Just think and imagine / there

was planted when I went to sleep /

a sapling betel nut palm./ It has

grown while I slept. / Ten times it has

changed its leaves. / At the same time it

was grown / a young betel nut plant. /

When I went to sleep / nine limes it shed

its leaves / proof of the long period.

In the Ilocano epic Lam-ang the passage of time is indicated by the dry betel leaves on the tray:

For so long she pined for you /

the woman Sarindandan. Her eyes

have grown tired / keeping watch

from the front window / for your

appearance. / the betel leaves have

since dried / on the tray which held

them / in anticipation of your coming.

The following lines from the Manobo Agyu not only express the passage of time but also imply the betel's role in the boys" nourishment and growth:

And the young boys / and the young

men / gradually grew up / as they went

on chewing. / Slowly they grew big /

as they went on chewing.

The start of betel chewing for young girls signals their coming of age. The following lines from the Suban-on Guman of Dumalinao reflect this, as well as the belief that betel chewing enhances beauty and wisdom:

Bayalaga reached for her chewing

container / which shines like the sun , /

brilliant as the rising sun. / "Oh fair

daughter of ours / are you going

to chew now?" /The maiden answered:/

mother I'm not chewing yet. /

Bayslaga said: / I will give a name /

to my daughter, my child / for she is

of age now ? / this is your name: /

Pailalam to Bolak / the loveliest

of flowers. / Receive this chewing

box, / start the chewing habit./

The daughter received it: / chewing

was started / by Pailalam ni Bolak. /

Not desiring to spit out / the remaining

chewed materials, / for sweet and

satisfying it was, / increasing the

beauty, / increasing the wisdom, /

knowledge and beauty.

Various motifs

Repudiation through a refusal of betel chew crops up many times in epics and folktales . In the Ilocano epic, Lam-ang steel himself against the advances of Sarindandan. He will not fall prey to this woman's temptations , reserving his love only for Ines Canoyan. He thus rejects Sarindandan's proffered betel. In one of the scenes in Maranao Darangan prince Bantugan, perhaps not in the mood for love as he is sick and dying, declines the betel nut offer of Princess Timbang. In one of the Agyu episodes of Bukidnon, a woman with whom Agyu falls in love refuses to give betel to him, for she is already married.

But it is not always love which is spurned; friendship may also be rejected and battle or war may be initiated . Corollary to this is the reconciliation of enemies. A peace pact is sealed with warring parties chewing betel together. Thus, in Ifugao Hudhud the feud between Pumbakhayon and Aliguyon ends when:

The old man took out the betel nut, /

divided it between Aliguyon and

Pumbakhayon; / he also divided a cup

of wine into two parts, after they

chewed, / gave one part to Pumbakhayon /

gave the other part to Aliguyon.

Brotherhood is tested in the Kalinga Ullalim by a comparison of spittle:

Blanna of Dulawon / come thou

nearer here. / Let us, please, to give

each other a chew / that be certified

if be alike (the red spittle) / our

brotherhood's reality. / So he (Gitlam)

presented / the betel chew which is

his own / but he (Banna) just chewed

a betel nut already cut. / And then they

dandily spat.

The messenger motif is common to a number of epics and folk tales. In the Kalinga Ulalim, twice the buwa (betel nut) acts as a message-bearer: the first time the buwa invites the betrothed couple Dulao and Yau to feast in the Madogyaga where Dulaw is tricked into chewing a betel slice by Dulliyaw; the second time, the hero Banna sends a buwa to Magobya to keep the people from harming his rival, Dungdungan. In tha Tinggian folktale The Oranges of Gawigawen of Adasen, betel nuts are sent to invite people to a feast. As messengers in this stories, the betel nits are of course imbued with the gift of speech. Sometimes it is the betel container which talks, as in the Suban-on Ang Tobig nog Kaboklogan, where the laapan (betel container) chides the woman for betraying the hero Tomitib.

In the same Suban-on epic the betequid which Tomitib spits out becomes a horse on which he rides, with the aid of another magical object, the monsala (kerchief).

In the Manobo Ulagin betel-nut palms grow again as soon as they are cut; in the folktales The Maiden of Buhong Sky the betel nuts offered by the maiden to the Manobo hero Tuwaang increase in number which is considered as a good omen for the hero's mission.

In the Mansaka folk tale The Screaming Coconut, an enchanted snake turned into a handsome man on the seventh day after eating "the seven-times potent intoxicating Hama-on."

In a Bagobo myth the Tuglibiung and the Tuglay, the tuglay (old man) rubs isse (chewed betel) on the throat of the Buso (the story's villain). The isse becomes a sharp knife that severes Buso's head from its body.

While the Greek Zeus impregnates mortal women by assuming the form of a swan, a bull, or a ray of a sun, the Ifugao god Hinum-bian sires a son through a betel nut. In the tale Bal-litok, Hinum-bian falls in love with Bugan. He fills his putong (woven bag) with hapid (lime tube) and mama (betel), and hangs it on the woman's granary wall.. Bugan chews all the betel nuts from the god's putong and becomes pregnant. She gives birth to a boy who grows up with the fame of being " the son of Mama and Hapid" In the Kalinga Ulalim, Dinanaw meets a betel nut while swimming and soon after that finds out she is pregnant. The hero Banna is the offspring of Dinanaw and the mighty buwa!


The betel nut is central to Philippine folklore. The betel attend the Filipino at the different stages in his life cycle: during conception (as symbol of fertility); at birth as an indispensable object in birth ceremonies); during childhood (as a growth stimulant); upon entrance to adulthood ( in initiation rites); during courtship and marriage (as a sign of love and symbol of union); and death (both as an embalming fluid an as ritual object). But death is not final, it is not the end; it signals an other beginning. Thus, the resurrection motif.

In a Bagobo folk tale S'iring, a boy is killed by the S'ring, an ugly man who has long nails and curly hair, and who waylays little boys who wander alone into the forest. But when the S'ring hears the prayer of the boy's mother before the tambara (shrine) where a bowl of betel nuts is offered, he revives the dead boy by rubbing his body with chewed betel.

In the Suban-on ang Tobig nog Kaboklogan, when the hero Tomitib dies, a woman tries to revive him with betel chew. At first this does not succeed, but when the woman catches the spirit Tomitib in the melting pot and revives him with the aid of maman (betel) and a monsala (kerchief) and a prayer , Tomitib is finally brought back to life.

The resurrection theme is seen also in the Bukidnon epic Nalindangan. After the hero Agyu decides to tend the war between Imbununga and himself, his sister Matabugka revives the dead men by putting betel chew into their mouths. The dead rise up and peace reigns once more in the land.

No betel chewers

If the vigor of the betel-nut traditions felt in its centrality in oral literature, it's weakening hold and gradual death among Christian groups is reflected in the disappearance of the betel motifs in their written literature.

Whether they are Europeanized like Ibarra and his ilustrado friends, or still steeped in their race's customs like Elias, Filosofo Tasyo and Sisa, the characters in Jose Rizal's novels are not betel chewers , or at least not depicted as such. Nowhere in the pages of Noli Me Tangere or El Filibusterismo is there any mention of the tradition, except for one brief reference in chapter two of Fil , describing the boisterous students in the lower deck of the boat playing the Pasig River.

In the anti-Spanish, anti-American plots of the revolutionary zarzuelas (musicals) of the first decade of the 20th century, there is no room for the nganga (betel chew). That nobody thought of using this as a battle-cry for what is Filipino proves that the tradition has lost its hold in the upper and middle classes, especially among the educated younger generation.

Contrast on this with the attitude of the Muslim Dayang-dayang (as recounted by Eric Casino) , who upon retuning to his studies in the United States took her loto-an and begin his mama-on, more of a symbol of her return to tradition, than as mere satisfaction of his desire. For as a princess and leader, she should uphold the identity of her people.

This brings to mind John Kasaip Walova, a writer from Papua, New Guinea, who expresses his people's identity crisis (very much like ours) in his short story written in the 1970's entitled "Betel Nut is Bad Magic for Airplanes." The story is set at Jackson's airport. The story's narrator together with some fellow students are barred from the lobby by a uniform guard, "an educated native," because they are chewing betel nut. They refuse to move on the narrator exchanges heated words heats with the Australian boss of the guard. The students are arrested but soon released for lack of specific charges. The story ends with the police officer, at the narrator's request, ordering the same guard who arrested them to see that they are driven home. The meaningful last sentence shows them chewing betel nut all the way home.

In Lope K. Santos" Banaag at Sikat (1905) the absence of buyo chewers is glaring to one who consciously looks for trace of the betel tradition. In passages which are supposed to exhibit local customs, such as the vivid description of the summer of pilgrimage to Antipolo, Santos makes us listen to the sound of the waterfall, and the splash of the bathers, the giggles of the maidens and boisterous laughter of the young swains; we delight in the colors and styles of the pilgrim's clothes; our mouths water at the aroma of the food spread on the picnic mat; there is a cornucopia of food other than the customary suman (rice cake) and mango; we witness the overt and covert wooing scenes. But where is the buyo exchange among all these? The old chaperons are not even described as red-lipped, but sharp-tongued moral-keepers. They hold, not betel boxes, but coinpurses and rosary beads.

Again in the chapter describing the traditional practices during the wake dead, while we watch card games and vicariously participate in juegos de prenda, we calling for another card or an answer to a riddle, not one (not even among the old ones) asks for a betel nut.

It is not that the habit had already entirely disappeared by then. There were still many buyo chewers at the time, but mostly from the lower classes, while the characters of the novels are mainly from the middle and upper classes.

In another early Tagalog novel Anino ng Kahapon (1907) by Francisco Laksamana, the betel-chew habit is obliquely alluded to in the main action opens with the discovery of a guardia-civil's dead body by five ikmo sellers. But aside from this brief tangential encounter the betel disappears from view even as the characters become involved in teir survival and preservation of their ideals under Spanish tyranny.

In the works of Filipino writers in Spanish and English in the 1920s and 1930s the buyo habit is merely a flash of local color in a barrio setting. No longer a vibrant symbol of a living tradition it has become a flat leitmotif for the old, the quaint and the rural.

What then has led to the disappearance of the buyo tradition among the Filipino Christian societies? Hand in hand with the Sanitary Code forbade spitting in the public and imposed fines in ubiquitous spitters. So even though there is no law against betel chewing itself, the sanction against spitting discourage the habit.

Textbooks indirectly created prejudice against betel chewing . Imagine the effect on school children of lessons in cleanliness which underline the no-spit rule with threats of germs and fines, and which insist on the regular use of the toothbrush.

Add to this the strong-white-teeth message of advertisements, reinforced with the dazzling smiles of Hollywood actors. Then the coup de grace- the flooding of Philippine markets with American cigarettes and chewing gum.

So now the areca palm has become merely an ornamental plant. The betel vine is raised for occasional medicinal use. The areca nut and betel leaf have been divorced. And Christians have cut off a tradition which once bound them to their non-Westernized brothers and sisters in the Cordillera mountains, in Mindoro and Palawan forests, in the Muslim and pagan areas of Davao, Lanao, Bukidnon and Sulu.

*From Sulyap Kultura, a publication of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (1996).


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