If angels are real, then this year they came to us in the form of the Aetas. “Angelos” is the Greek term for messenger.  And the Aetas have come with a simple message: think beyond yourselves.  By their sheer presence in the streets of Manila during these holidays, the Aetas have challenged us to rethink our notions of family, Church, community and nation.

The fate of the Aetas, this archipelago’s first modern settlers, is an issue that our society does not seem prepared to address.  This is why their presence in our midst is very disturbing to many.  Do we consider them a part of us?  Are they entitled to partake of the feasts that we have prepared for our family and friends?  Shall we ask them why they are not dressed for the party to which they have invited themselves?   When will the Church open its doors to them? Will the guards ever allow them inside the megamalls?  Is Philippines 2000 also for them?

We are sending them back to where they came from because we are not prepared to answer these questions.  In fact, we have almost forgotten that they still exist.  By creating an understaffed and underfunded office known as the Office for Northern Cultural Communities, the government thought the problem would go away.  But far from vanishing under the rug, the problem has welcomed itself into our sala.

Traditionally a very shy people, the Pinatubo Aetas  have been forced to come out in the open and travel as far north as Dagupan and as far south as Metro Manila since the eruption of the volcano. The explosion  completely devastated the natural base of their semi-nomadic existence, scattering them in various settlements all over Region III.

There are on record 12,557 Aeta families dislocated by the Pinatubo eruption. Only  about one-third of these, not surprisingly,  sought shelter in the resettlement sites run by the Mount Pinatubo Commission (MPC). The rest, almost 8 thousand families, are on their own.  The government has tracked them down in 145 provisional settlements located in 29 municipalities and 3 cities in 5 provinces of Region III.  Because they have opted to live outside the officially designated resettlement sites of the MPC, hardly any form of assistance has reached them.  However, the ONCC says it keeps in touch with them through their tribal councils, of which 106 are “governmentaccredited” — as if this mattered at all to their identity.

The Pinatubo Aetas constitute one of two major concentrations of Aetas in the country.  The other is found in the Panay-Negros area.  They have common origins.  The historian John Foreman suggests “they may have drifted northwards from New Guinea and have been carried by the strong currents through the San Bernardino Straits and round Punta Santiago until they reached the still waters in the neighborhood of Corregidor Island, while others were carried westwards to the tranquil Sulu Sea, and traveling thence northwards would have settled in the Island of Negros.”  This was about 6 to 8 thousand years ago.

While we have always associated the Aetas with mountain living, the truth is that they were originally coastline or river dwellers.  Later migrations however forced them to settle in the mountains.   There was a time when they held seigniorial rights over the new Malay immigrants, charging them taxes in kind for the use of the land.  But the new settlers simply outnumbered them after a while.  This marked the beginning of their irreversible minoritization.

Worried over their survival as a group, the American colonial government designated a reservation area covering 4,720 hectares located at the foot of Mt. Pinatubo for the exclusive use of the Aetas.  A Japanese anthropologist, Hiromu Shimizu, who came to study them in the 70s and 80s, believes the law creating the reservation still exists.  But since the 1960s a logging company has operated within the reservation, and lowlanders, both entrepreneurs and paupers, have massively intruded into this once  protected Aeta area.

It is clear that long before Pinatubo’s eruption,  the Aetas had lost their ancestral lands to successive waves of migrants.  Rampant social discrimination ensured their permanent marginalization. It is bizarre to contemplate the possibilities now.  But if we had a land titling system before the Spaniards came, and the Aetas had the foresight to title all the lands they marked and cleared long before our Malay ancestors arrived on these islands, the Aetas would be the richest landlords today.

It is a long way indeed from the slopes of Pinatubo to the slopes of the Balintawak cloverleaf where hundreds of Aeta families have camped for the season.  The descendants of the Malay settlers have now taken over the entire archipelago, and they have forgotten that once upon a time their forefathers paid land tax to the Aetas for the right to build their homes on this volcanic land.

All they ask today is to let them stay in the city till after the New Year.  But the police and government social workers have started to round them up to send them back to the mountains where they can live and die without assaulting our consciences.  The sight of them darkly huddled in front of our gleaming shopping centers and well-lit churches is just too powerful to behold.  They bring up the past.  They interrogate our values.  And their mute presence comes as a question: who owns this country?