The Evolution of Oral Tradition

The Virgin Mary. Fairbanks, Alaska. Photograph by Marney Photography.


There have been articles written throughout the years how the death of the oral tradition has been linked to the death of a cultural identity.  In Alaska, there have been movements to preserve many of the Alaskan native languages.  We have museums that archive and preserve recordings of our Alaskan elders–some have long ago passed, and the recordings are often played at an exhibition of the beautiful Alaskan Native art works.

When I was growing up, my grandmother spoke to me in different languages. The language that she defaults to the most is Chabacano known to many linguists as Philippine Creole Spanish.  The Philippine hero Jose Rizal was known to have been fluent in PCS. Sadly, the last time I did the research (when I was originally working towards a Masters in Linguistics) there are only 5000 or so people left who speak PCS fluently–included in those 5000 were my aunts, my grandmother, my great aunts and my mother. PCS is now considered a dying language. I still have the ability to understand PCS when spoken to me, however, years of not speaking the language have left me with only the ability to speak it choppily–replacing words I cannot access with English, or Tagalog.

As a child, my grandmother used to tell my sisters and I stories, and she used to tell some of them in Chabacano.  The only way I can preserve them now is through translating them into English. It’s as if this is the only way to preserve the stories along with the memory of my grandmother.

One story continues to live in my memory, and if I focus enough I can even hear her voice.  For now, though, the best that I can do is include her stories in my own writing.

This is my version of the evolution of oral tradition: a story within a story.


From “A Reason for Being” Chapter 6: The Revolution of the Black Sheeps

 Cavite City, Philippines. 1978.

Fe looked at her granddaughters all sitting on the linoleum floor, waiting for her story.  Every night, after she watched them pray to St. Pillar, she told them her stories.  Fe’s stories were filled with the magical world about little children on adventures, the Virgin Mary, and sometimes—wicked garden gnomes.  In each story, Fe always included a life lesson that she hoped her granddaughters would understand and believed all her grandchildren should adhere by.  They are lessons that Fe was taught growing up, which she passed on to her children.  However, much to her disappointment, her children grew up not following her wisdom and life lessons.  Tonight, she would tell her granddaughters her favorite story, the one about the devoted mother, and her miraculous daughter.

Fe watched her four granddaughters say their prayers to St. Pillar and they all sat around Fe’s favorite chair excited and eager for the evening’s story:

            This was what I remember very much a long a time ago.  There in the bamboo house on four legs lived a husband and a wife.  The wife wanted to have a daughter.  And she tried with her husband and tried some more.  But, no luck.  She went to church every Sunday to pray to the Virgin Mary and St. Pilar to give her a daughter.  One day, she went to church by herself.  She got on her knees and prayed the rosary while she crawled in the middle of the church on her bare knees.  She did not care that she was hurting very bad.  Her knees hurt because that church floor is hard! Ang sakit!  When she got in front of the Virgin Mary, she heard a voice.  The voice said, “I will give you a daughter, but you must promise that she will never step a foot on soil.  You must protect her at all times and make sure that she will not tempted to come down and touch the soil.  The wife went home and told her husband.  Three months passed and she found out that she was going to have baby.  She was very happy.  The baby was born and it was a daughter.  The wife took very good care of her daughter and told her of the promise she made to the Virgin Mary and Saint Pilar. 

            As years went by, the baby grew up to become a little girl.  She spent her days in the bamboo house.  She sometimes sat at the window watching all the other children play outside.  They looked at her and asked her “Come down and play with us!” And, she always responded “I can’t, I’m sick.”  Her mother told her she cannot step foot on the soil, and she could not explain this to the children, so she simply told them she was ill.  The children finally realized that the little girl was always sick, and they stopped asking for her to come outside.  The little girl became lonely, and lonelier as she grew into a young woman.

            One day she was looking out from her window and a young man stopped by.  He saw the most beautiful girl.  She had long jet-black hair and nice smooth skin.  He said hello and they started talking.  Every day that stupid boy would come by to talk to the girl.  Every day the she would talk back.  Her mother found out about this and told her daughter to remember the promise she made to the Virgin Mary and St. Pillar.  Her daughter nodded. 

            Then, on one sunny day where the sun was burning everyone’s backs on the field, and the air was thick, the stupid young boy came back again and this time he told her that he loves her and they should run away together.  The daughter was upset that her mother would not let her see him.  She thought ‘maybe, I can go see him just for one second.’  The daughter ran down the bamboo stairs of the house with four bamboo legs.  When her toe touched the dirt, they heard a loud sound.  Everyone in the town looked around and they saw the river rose up and up and up.  The wife ran from the garden and she told her daughter to come up to the house quickly.  The daughter did not want to listen and she ran to the young stupid boy.  She hugged him.  The mother yelled at her to run upstairs. And then the river came down with great force and it broke the houses and killed a lot of people.  The bamboo house with four bamboo legs was strong, her mother said.  The daughter looked down and she could not see her mother.  She kept yelling ‘Nanay! Nanay!” But her mother did not come.  The mother was washed away in the river along with her husband and that stupid young boy.  The young girl lived in the bamboo house all by herself so she can remember what happened when she didn’t listen to her mother.”

She looked at her granddaughters, and in particular the eldest, Jeng, who had a confused look on her face.

         “Jeng, do you understand the meaning of the story?”

           Jeng looked at her younger sisters and Fe knew that she was pondering her answer, but instead she asked, “Why would the Virgin Mary punish the girl for love?”

Fe sighed as she looked at her granddaughter, whose young face had yet to paint her own years of wisdom, and knew that the girl would have a tough road ahead of her.


Featured Image: The Immaculate Conception Church. Fairbanks, Alaska. Photograph by Marney Photography.

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