Bea  |  She/Her

People from the River

Manila, Philippines
Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests

Session 2: November 29, 2022

My country, the Philippines, is made up of thousands of islands, but it was a river that bonded us together.

The Pasig River splits the metropolis in half and connects the sea to the lake within. And from her grew three kingdoms—one of which is Manila—and many other communities whose existence spans 500 to 1,000 years. The people here are called “people from the river,” or taga-ilog (which eventually became Tagalog). And it’s to these people that I owe my heritage, for I am a Tagalog as well. Even now, Tagalog is a predominant language in our archipelago. That means that this heritage has lived for at least 1,000 years, despite our country being a country “officially” for just 100 years. So there’s like—whoah. There’s a huge retention of our history in our language, in our identities.

And the Pasig River is a place of tranquility, of myths, of beauty. Right now, she is, of course, in the middle of a metropolis, so she’s full of concrete, full of shanty towns and buildings. But before, she used to hold sandy banks with mangroves and forests, with animals like deer, water buffalo called carabao, horses, birds, and many kinds of fish that you can eat. Women and children bathed in the river—none of which you can see any more. For example, there are no more carabao on the road. There are no more horses.

But for a long time, people told stories about the water and worshipped in the massive stone formations in the middle of the river. There’s one stone that’s shaped like a crocodile: it’s said that once there was a Chinese traveler on a boat when a live crocodile attacked. And the traveler blurted out a prayer to a Catholic saint—even though he was Chinese—and that turned the crocodile into stone! And that stone can still be seen when the waters dry up or run low. And then there’s also another legend that says that a woman lived in a cave by the river, throwing parties and throwing treasures in the river.

According to multiple cultures in this area, protectors of the river come in many forms, but all are women. The water goddess takes different shapes: like a golden crocodile, or a woman wearing blue. (They say that the name Manila is made up of two different words: mai, a term for women, and then nila, a term for blue. So basically the city is named after a woman in blue, and she is the protector of the city or of the river.) And we also have mermaids in the river. Unlike the usual European stories, in which mermaids are sea-based, our countries have mermaids in the river. So our myths are all based on women protecting our waters.

All of those are tales, but the truth is much more beautiful. Because our people, from thousands and hundreds of years ago, were proud and rich, with their commerce reaching the rest of Asia. They became famous among the thousands of islands that we have in the neighborhood. And the kingdom’s Rajah—so like the chieftain of the kingdom—had a palace filled with gold, jewelry, woolen fabrics. During this time, Spain actually noticed that his palace was almost as big as those in Spain. And the palace’s bamboo fort had cannons that moved—compared to the Spanish ships, which had to turn the entire boat just to tilt their cannons! So we had the high-tech, even though we were using indigenous technology. We had bamboo, and used materials and wood from the forests, and we also had stonesmiths and even silversmiths. That’s why we had cannons, too!

Because of these riches, thanks to the river, the Spanish heard about this place from down South. And the stories they heard led them to travel up to the mouth of the river in Manila. They conquered it, and then called the rest of the islands Filipinas. And that’s why we have the country Philippines right now. Eventually development transformed the riverside, and it was beautifully adorned with palaces, gardens, villages, and churches, with people of various nationalities. Thanks to the river, and European influences, Manila became a global city before airplanes even existed. Unfortunately, given how they regularly used the river since there were no concrete roads for centuries, eventually, the river suffered from neglect.

But right after that came the river’s rescue. Recently there have been like 20 years of continuous effort, so now the river is cleaner. It smells nice, and there are fish and many birds —although the fish are not really—what do you call this—you cannot eat them yet. The water is still quite dirty, but at least it doesn’t smell so bad! Unfortunately, not everyone values the river deeply still. Maybe that’s why it’s not as rejuvenated as what we want. But all these wonderful stories that I told you earlier aren’t common knowledge to us. Our identity as Filipinos is connected to this river, but we still are not using the river in the metropolis as vibrantly as we used to.

So I really long for a renewed connection of the cities and the people with this river, because the heart of these cities and of our country is the Pasig River.

And that’s all. Thank you.

Beatrice is an artist and activist based in the Philippines.