It is a curious thing…, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who… have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well. ~J.K. Rowling, “King’s Cross,” Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 2007, spoken by the character Albus Dumbledore
The Harry Potter phenomenon came so easily into the hearts of the Filipino film lovers, once cited by The Guinness World of Records as the ‘largest movie-going public in the world.’
Much of the witch culture points and artifacts presented in the book and film series were very familiar to us. Here in Oriental Negros, such culture “powers” would be always identified as all coming from the island of Siquijor.
Actually, the island dwellers are not so happy of the “black magic” identity and this could be the reason why there is a huge billboard at the port welcome area informing tourists that what the island has are herbalists and not magicians or sorcerers.
But such tourism packaging “clean-up” will not change the minds of the people as the folk stories have cascaded from generations to generations beyond Siquijor’s shores. I find it an effort-in-futility to erase what had been a one dimension that attracted tourists from all over the world.
The magic of Siquijor island has been experienced by many who have been there to have this “spiritual” emersion. Many of my artist friends are drawn to the island for they found it to be a real destination of the spirits beyond and of local folks who have the “third eye” for seeing what is beyond and for bringing in the powers from nature and the magic world.
The latest visitor on July 26, a national culture icon, confirms it and he is no ordinary visitor as he is a practitioner himself and he is not afraid to be labeled a witch.
His profile on the web states: “Tony Perez is a creative writer, playwright, poet, lyricist, painter, portraitist, fiber artist, trainer and psychic journalist.” He is known as literary artist but in the international circles for psychic healing and understanding, this true-blue Atenean and a magna cum laude graduate in Religious Studies is an in-demand resource person for knowledge in “Developing Psychic Abilities,” “Living the Tarot”, “Introduction to Shamanism” and other related topics. It was indeed an honor to be his usher to the magic island.
His main purpose for visiting was related to his day job at the Public Affairs section of the United States Embassy. But he was set with a “pure” intention to be diverted to his other world as it was his first time in Siquijor. There were reasons not to go, heavy rains and wild wild waves brought in by the Signal No. 1 warning of the stormy Bicol and the refusal of our earlier contacts from the island to bring us to the black magic man. But Tony insisted. He told me “they want me to be there.” I just assumed that “they” were those who sent the winds that gave us rain. My reading of the heavy rain was positive and so, I agreed and arranged for our trip.
When we got to Siquijor Island, we were lucky as my suki easy-ride driver Fredito “Noynoy” Tamala was available. He is husband to Grace, my schoolmate at Silliman who is now a public school principal. Noynoy is not just a driver as he is also a bankable tourguide. When I whispered to him our intention, he told me the sad news that the oldest medicine man of Siquijor, Juan Ponce, died five days ago and that we arrived at the wrong time as it was the day of the funeral.
I asked him about Frank, the expert of the dancing paper dolls, and he said that this guro had given up the black magic career as it went contradictory to his being a healer.
I was worried that I would end up a failure as the point man for the curious white witch. I was wishing Ambrocia was still around, the renowned faith healer who died in 2002. I had a believe-it-or-not moment when local folks told me she was the last of the Siquijor wwhite witches. Her legend, as told, had its peak when then First Lady Imelda Marcos came to the island as she wanted the growth of scaly skin on her leg to be healed. It was Ambrocia who uncovered the root of the curse, an underwater being who was angered by the intrusion of the San Juanico Bridge, a Marcos project, into nature. It was said that Ambrocia’s oil healed the scaly skin as it vanished instantly with just one blow of the smoke coming from a heated concoction.
Tony noticed my frustration and he said we could just go directly to the main purpose of our visit. Then I told him about the death of Juan, the 99-year-old herbalist. His face suddenly was glowing and he instructed Nonoy to bring us to Juan’s home and he pushed us to hurry when he was told that the funeral was at 1 pm.
At Barangay San Antonio, Noynoy led us to a dirt road leading to the wooden house of Juan Ponce, Siquijor’s last warrior against any dark powers. Tony stopped as he noticed a white stone by the roadside, he got it and placed it inside his bag and said, “Someone told me to bring it home.” Juan’s last day gathered a good number of neighbors even with the heavy rain. I was told that after him, it would be hard to find one with such credibility and experience. He was the one who drew European tourists for healing as his oil, a special concoction from 300 herbs and cuts from various barks of exotic trees, was known to heal almost all kinds of ailments.
Out of the six sons of Juan, only Alejandro and his wife Anecita are seriously considering to continue his legacy of herbal healing.
Juan Ponce was born on June 24, 1912. He started as an herbalist at the age of 18. His career as an herbalist was marked with countless successes in the war against mambabarang (necromancy) who had sent severe misfortune to many innocent victims.
Tony asked Anecita to show him Juan’s anitos. These were made from wood that came from the tree believed to drive away bad spirits. These little white cuts were sculptured in shapes of the crucifix, the rose, the star and the long-haired man resembling The Savior. Tony managed to acquire them at P500 each. The amulets made of coconut shells which are said to be rare finds as these shells were totally smooth and don’t have “eyes.” Each was sold at P1,000.
Tony wanted one more thing from Juan’s career world, he asked for anything that the old man used everyday. Anecita brought in a shirt but Tony felt it was too much. I asked if the old man had a cane and Anecita smiled as she nodded but explained that it might be hard to find it. Tony’s excitement led Anecita to ask his sons to go and search for the wooden cane. The older son came back with the black wooden cane with a handle that was a natural curve of this branch of molave — truly a precious piece that reminded me of Harry Potter’s wand. I did not ask how much was paid for it. I knew that it was priceless for it came from Siquijor’s last warrior.
“This is an incredible journey!” was Tony’s word as we moved out from the house. I reminded him to pay respect to the old man. He went to see the coffin and offered prayers. He knelt down and brought out his own amulet, an amethyst, the violet queen of the quartzes framed by four gold lightnings. He placed this gemstone, believed to stop the coming of the storm, on top of Juan’s wooden coffin as he continued to pray. The women who were there for the prayer for the dead, seemed not disturbed by Tony’s theatrical homage as they continued with the repeated lines of “…Hail Mary, full of Grace….”
With Tony’s harvest from the household of the warrior, will there be hope for Juan’s legacy of power to continue? Maybe. I witnessed this: before we walked back to Nonoy’s leading, Anecita had asked for Tony to empower her and Tony said, “I already did.”
Out of the magical journey, we went to make the walk through at Coco Grove — his assignment from the US Embassy. The owner Mike Butler was so kind to have the lunch we ordered as part of his welcome for us. I told Mike about the death of Juan Ponce and he confirmed his fame as a good number of Coco Grove’s guests had come to seek Juan’s healing and this included a cancer patient from Germany.
Tony was indeed so lucky to have inherited the precious artifacts. We had to cut short our stay at paraiso Coco Grove, the best resort in Siquijor and the island’s No. 1 food destination, to catch the 3 pm trip back to Dumaguete.
We went inside the old church as we waited for the fastcraft. Tony was again kneeling in prayer in this old sanctuary. I went out to pick an ancient-looking coral stone and I gave it to him as souvenir. He told me, “I will take it as this stone is asking to be brought home.”
As we moved out from the Church, he raised Juan Ponce’s cane to direction of the gloomy sky. The heaven seemed to welcome Juan with the pouring of the rain.