“Bamboo Capital of Iloilo” -An In-Depth Look at the Bamboo Strips Weavers of Maasin

Written by Resty John Tronco, B.S. in Computer Science IV.

Iloilo is a source of many different art forms. Each town boasts a variety of artwork and product unique only to their town. From the “hablon” of Miag-ao to the “batchoy” of LaPaz, these products comes in different kinds, shapes and sizes. Another example of this artistic products is the bamboo strips weaving or “pagrara kawayan” of Maasin.

Maasin is a town situated 30 kilometers from the city. It can be reached by a one hour ride in a jeepney from the Pavia People’s Terminal. The town of Maasin is known for its Tultugan Festival held annually during the town fiesta in December 30. This celebration is held in honor for the patron saint of Maasin, St. James the Great, and the kawayan livelihood in Maasin.

The town of Maasin is also dubbed as the “bamboo capital” of Iloilo.Products made out of bamboo or “kawayan” are a big part of the town’s economy and for the income of some people. Maasin is an agricultural town and aside from farming, the people found a way to utilize the bamboos, which are most of the time neglected because of its abundance, as a source of income. These tall grasses that can grow on their own are being cut and processed to be made into different products. These products ranges from toothpicks, chopsticks, even the bamboo charcoal and up to different variety of other products. With the abundance of bamboo in the town of Maasin, this was considered as the One Town One Product(OTOP) of the town.There is also one privately owned manufacturing plant specialized in producing bamboo products. It is currently focused on the production of barbecue sticks and toothpicks, with some also producing furniture and handicrafts.

One of the oldest and most common use of bamboo here in Maasin is for weaving. This practice was passed down from generation to generation of “manugrara” as they call themselves. Bamboo woven products mostly follow the same pattern in them depending the intended usage. These products can be made for practical uses or just for aesthetic purposes. Bamboo woven products for aesthetic displays are often added with design and colors. But during these times, most of the bamboo weavers choose the practical bamboo products in order to sell them because it has more customers compared to the bamboo products that are just for display purposes.The pattern that can be found in a bamboo woven product depends on its weaver. Bamboo weaving became a vital income to these people that some of them have supported their family with this means.This practice can be rarely seen in the town proper but on the far flung barangays, bamboo weaving is still present. They sometimes weave just for personal use or sometimes just to kill time but they also accept orders for extra income.One bamboo mat or “amakan/makan” can be finished in only a day depending how skilled the weaver is. Weaving bamboo strips may look easy because it only follows the in-out pattern for the basic ones but the harder task is on the gathering and processing the bamboo into strips. Gathering bamboo with just a bolo can sometimes be dangerous and stripping and thinning it into strips is very tiring. The weaving part also needs patience and having meticulousness in order to produce acleanly woven output. Learning how to weave bamboo strips is one thing but putting effort and time into it is another. One does not simply become a “manugrara” in just one simple weaving.

I personally went to one of these barangays to witness the weavers’ way of life. I went to Brgy. Bug-ot, Maasin. This barangay derived its name from the karay-a translation of short which is “bugot”. This barangay is five kilometers from the town proper and can be reached by riding a motorcycle or “habal-habal”. There I met Mrs. Miracle J.Sobrevega, also known as “ManayMacle/Makol”. In her late 30’s, she is a mother of one and is a “manugrara”. She learned bamboo weaving when she was in her elementary years because her mother and her grandmother was also a “manugrara”. Aside from farming, bamboo weaving is also a main source of income of her family ever since. Just by observing and helping out her mother, she gradually learned how to create bamboo woven products on her own. Most of her works are for home use but sometimes she also accepts orders. She mainly focuses on making “amakan” or weaved bamboo mats because it’s practical and easy to sell. These mats are mostly used for drying the rice grains to be ground later on. They are sometimes used as roof or walls for animal shelters or even for the simple “papag” or bahaykubo. She also creates baskets, “tabungos” or a huge rice grain storage, “kararaw” and many others. Making these products can somehow alleviate or help them provide for their daily needs according to Manay Macle. Surprisingly, when I asked her on what she thinks about her work as a form of art or does she consider her works as one, she replied, ”Art pa gid? Basta makwartahan ah!(Art? Only we can get money out of it! )”. She just laughed and said that she never thought of it that way or even that idea crossed her mind. She said that it was just a hobby and more importantly, a source of income but little did she knowthat what she thought of as just a livelihood is also a work of art. But after realizing that her works might be art, she just smiled and replied “Ay, huo galeh no, nami man ang pattern kag design (I agree, it has beautiful patterns and design in it!)!”.

In the monetary aspect of the bamboo weaving, Manay Macle may not be that happy after all. With the rise of plastics and tarpaulins, the bamboo woven products started to decline. One “amakan” can be sold just for only seven pesos(Php7.00) within the barangay and if you’re lucky enough to have an order by a customer from the town proper or anywhere else, this product can reach up to Php1000 depending on the size. As what Manay Macle says “Pa chamba chamba lang ah(It’s only by luck)”. But despite that, she still happily weaves bamboo products.

When I asked her why she continued to be a bamboo weaver even though she can choose another livelihood she just replied “Kay amuja gin tudlo sa amon sang una ni nanay kag lola kag isa pa, budlay mangita ubrakaywala man ko na katapos skwela(This is what our mother and grandmother taught me and it is hard to find a job because I was not able to finish my studies)”. But she still said that she is a proud bamboo weaver and ”pagrara” is a very dignified job and is way better than feeding your family money that came from doing illegal things. She doesn’t want to belittle bamboo weavers but she understood that this kind of work doesn’t really help one’s kind of life improve because of little attention it gets from the people therefore lessening the income potential. She also added that she really works hard because she doesn’t want her child not to finish his studies because of lack of finances. She said “Bisan gamay gamay lang na, makabulig man na guihapon ang pagrara.(Even if it little by little, weaving can still help ).”

She also introduced me to another manugrara in her barangay. They called him “Oting”. He was once the barangay captain of Bug-ot. But even so, he never forgot the practice of bamboo strips weaving. As he said,”Ngaa lipatan ko man na bi, dira ko nagdako sa pagrara kag tungod dira ko na pa eskwela sang ginikanan ko. Halin pa na sa mga katigulangan ta.(Why should I forget that? I grew up in that way of life and that’s how my parents used as means in order for me to go to school. And that is the practice ever since the time of our our grandparents.). He was really glad that someone had taken an interest in their way of life and work as a bamboo strips weaver. He somehow felt that this practice is gradually forgotten by the younger generation.

He showed me the processes of “rara” from the start. The cutting of the bamboos is called “paggama” and after this the bamboo is then split vertically into equal pieces. Then it is stripped and thinned to produce flexible yet strong bamboo strips. It almost take five bamboos to produce strips enough for one “amakan”. The “paggama” and cutting of the bamboo can take up to two days and sometimes the weaver must also be the “manuggama”.

Even with the abundance of the materials for bamboo weaving, Manay Macle, Oting, and other manugrara like them have a hard time competing with bigger manufacturers with the machinery and manpower. Aside from the distance they have to travel from their barangays to the town proper just to sell their products, the roads to the town is very hard and dangerous to navigate especially on rainy days. These kinds of problems discouraged people like Manay Macle and Oting to expose their work to other people and just be contented on what they have now. With the rise of modern technology, production of these kinds of products became easier and the traditional ways of the bamboo weavers are having a hard time to compete with these kinds of manufacturing plants and eventually the practice somehow forgotten and disregarded by the younger generation and was left only to the people on the outskirts of town. Even the local government somehow not doing enough for these artist/workers. The privately owned manufacturer of bamboo products is owned by Mayor Mariano Malones’ family. This business of his might be helpful to the lucky ones that are hired but for the majority of the small scale weavers who doesn’t have the capacity to go market their products, it is very unfair. Centralizing the production of bamboo products in one manufacturer may have its advantages but with this kind of way of doing things, the weavers like Manay Macle and Oting are deprived of the recognition and the monetary value of what they really deserve for their works.

Each of us has a role to play in order to preserve the culture we have even just by recognizing and supporting the people that are behind these works of art.We must not let modernization make us forget where we came from and our practices. Making use of modern technology to our advantage in order to inform others and promote our culture and arts, we can show to others that advancements in technology and preservation of our culture can go hand in hand. The slogan for the promotion of OPM might not be applicable only for OPM after all.Many other art forms/products are out there for waiting to for discovery and appreciation. #BeVocalSupportLocal

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