Breaking the Diorama

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

I can be like some traveler of the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle . . . or I can be a modern traveler, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality. I lose on both counts and more seriously than may at first appear, for, while I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment.

 —Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

My mother was using her excited voice that morning, the one that jumps two octaves higher and that she reserves for outlet sales and flower shows.

“Girls, we’re invited to a ritual sacrifice tonight!” she announced to my sisters and me.

My sisters stared blankly at her. “What kind of sacrifices?” I asked. “Human sacrifices?”

“No, Corina,” she sighed. “Animal.” It’s difficult sometimes, introducing her children to their Filipino heritage.

Ritual sacrifices had never been part of our trips to the Philippines. Visits to the mountain resort town of Baguio had usually involved lounging around our grandparents’ condo, waiting for my mother while she bargained at the open-air market with native merchants for wooden bowls and hand-woven textiles. High up in the Cordillera mountains, Baguio was where my mother’s family went to escape Manila’s sticky tropical heat, trading city traffic and stressful jobs for breezier weather and relaxed afternoons.

I had lived the first 21 years of my life never hearing of this Tito Dwight, the tribesman who had invited us to the Ifugao sacrifice nearby. My mother’s bargaining excursions were the closest interactions my family had with the nearby native tribes. It might seem weird, not knowing you had a living relative still connected to an indigenous mountain tribe—not knowing you had a Tito Dwight, period—but Filipino Catholic families are enormous, and I lose track of everyone after the initial branch of first cousins. As accomplished as my mother was at explaining family relations, even she struggled to pinpoint Tito Dwight’s connection.

 “I think Tito Dwight is actually my nephew? The son of a first or second cousin? His mother is Ifugao.”

She paused. “Don’t call them ‘Igorot,’” she said, a derogatory term for native people. “They prefer to be called ‘the mountain people.’”


Until then, everything I knew about ritual sacrifices had come from watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Even though my twenty-one-year-old self could ascertain that the Temple of Doom sacrifice was a gawking-at-the-natives fantasy, a polytheistic house of horrors for titillation down to the still-beating heart ripped from some poor sucker’s chest, I had no idea what an actual animal sacrifice in 1997 might look like. I clung to the belief that it must happen in a remote location, visible only through a thicket of bushes or steroidally large undergrowth. A ritual sacrifice must be stumbled upon; it can’t be hanging out like a lemonade stand.

The sacrifice was to take place at my aunt and uncle’s home, only about an hour by car from my grandparents’ condo. I fell asleep and don’t remember much of the drive, but I thought we were close to the famous Ifugao rice terraces. The rice terraces are an ancient, breathtakingly beautiful form of irrigation, a way of funneling water from the rainforests at the mountaintop to the crops below. Carved into the mountains by the Ifugao some two thousand years ago, using nothing but hand tools, the terraces look like lime-green steps to the sky. We arrived at nightfall, however, so the terraces wouldn’t have been in full view, if visible at all.

I woke up just as we pulled into the driveway of my aunt and uncle’s house, a modest two-story dwelling that could have been yanked from any suburb in middle America. Stepping out of the car, I recall spotting a satellite dish peeking out from the back roof. Was this the right place?

Tito Dwight’s wife, Tita Tess, greeted us at the door with a welcoming smile. She had what I think of as the older Filipina mom physique: slightly stout and plump and soft, but never quite obese, just a little round about the middle in a way that is good for hugging. She spoke with the sweet, lilting voice of the Filipina mommy, the voice my gravelly alto mother somehow never cultivated.

Tita Tess led us into the house, through a remarkably ordinary living room. The entire setup could have been ordered from a Macy’s catalog. I cannot remember the exact details—maybe an open-plan living room with a few of those American-style, butt-sinking sofas, the kind I wished we had back home in Texas instead of the hard rattan Filipino couch frames my mother insisted upon as comfortable living room furniture. On nights when my aunt and uncle weren’t hosting ritual sacrifices in their backyard, it appeared they watched American sitcoms via satellite.

Tita Tess didn’t introduce us to Heritage, their eight-year-old grandson and the guest of honor for the sacrifice, who had already gone to bed. The sacrifice was part of the kolot, a coming-of-age rite to introduce a young boy between ages five and twelve into manhood and into the kadangyan, the Ifugao elite class. Heritage would be woken up later for the kolot’s main event, the ceremonial hair-trimming.

Washing my hands in the kitchen sink, I could swear I glimpsed a dead water buffalo in the yard, skinned from head to hoof to expose bloody, pulpy flesh. It was tied up by the legs and hanging from a huge stick. My memory jumps then—I followed the rest of my family through the back door, where my aunt ushered us onto the unfinished back patio.

 In the farthest area, I recall a sacrificial altar made of slabs of gray rock, an almost biblical rendering of an altar, what I imagine Abraham intended to sacrifice Isaac on. A second water buffalo, this one alive, was tied up near the altar. Closer to us, in an area to the right, a few pigs idled. Directly in front of us, a group of elders squatted in a circle, chanting in between chugs of rice wine. It’s amazing what you forget and what sticks with you so clearly: I remember how the elders squatted, not that awkward crouch you do to reach something on a low shelf in the fridge or to vacuum under the bed, but the enduring squat of rice planters who can hunch for hours, who have squatted for so long that it looks as natural as sitting. Engrossed in their soft chanting, the elders didn’t say much to me or my family.

In the middle of the elders’ circle lay a dead chicken. One elder squeezed the chicken’s body from the middle like a kitchen sponge, while another seized the body from the head. Apparently, you can squeeze the lifeblood out of an animal. A dark, viscous liquid dripped from the scrawny bird into a small white bowl.

Taking a sharp knife, one of them hacked the body in half in one slice.

“Woah, they cracked that chicken open like a walnut,” I whispered to my family.

My family knew nobody at the kolot; we stood there frozen, intruders huddled near the back door. What does one do at a ritual sacrifice? It’s not like the usual party where you can offer to wash dishes or cut up an extra tomato.

After one of the elders removed the chicken’s intestines, the rest of the circle leaned in to examine the dark pink sacs. Speaking with my mother in rapid Tagalog, Tita Tess switched into English to translate to my father, my sisters, and me. “They are reading the entrails,” she explained. “If they are good, they will continue with the sacrifice.”

 “Take photos, girls,” my mother commanded. “Take photos!” To my mother, every family event requires documentation, be it high school graduation, European vacation, or animal sacrifice. Snapping away on our 30-millimeter automatic camera, my little sister Gabriella captured the elders chanting around the eviscerated chicken while Tita Tess filmed the proceedings on her handheld Sony digicam. No one loves a Kodak moment more than a Filipino parent.

The chicken-gut reading was “good,” Tita Tess informed us, so the sacrifice would continue—although I had no idea what constituted a good or bad reading. Nor do I remember exactly what excuse my father, sisters, and I gave her to gracefully back out of watching the pig slaughter. My mother remained downstairs with Tita Tess, but the rest of us escaped to an upstairs bedroom, cramming ourselves onto the queen-sized bed to half-watch what was on TV; I believe that night it was Scott Baio in Charles in Charge.

But since the windows were open, we could still hear the pigs dying over the sounds of Charles in Charge. The pigs sounded like they were in the bedroom with us, their squeals so incessant and loud and everywhere, almost like human cries. None of us wanted to walk close enough to the windows to shut them because you couldn’t close the window without looking down at the pigs first. I had wanted to return to college with great tales about the night, but I didn’t want a real sacrifice after all—I wanted the Hollywood version where the blood looked like canned tomato sauce and I could leave the theater for free Diet Coke refills.

 “Ehh,” my father said over the squeals, “your grandmother used to slaughter goats in the backyard all the time growing up in Pennsylvania. When they were growing up, they had goats, you know, and she used to kill them all the time, no big thing, and she was just a little girl.”

It was an odd time for a pissing match.

“Really, Dad?” I said, walking over to take a peek, the quickest peek a human being could possibly ever take. They were charging the pigs with sharpened wooden sticks. “You want to get a closer look?”

“No, no, not really.” 

I scuttled back to the bed. We watched TV for a couple more minutes, listening to the sounds of the dying pigs until we couldn’t take it any longer, then headed downstairs and told our mother it was time to leave. My little sister snapped a few more photos of the slain pigs on our way out.

 After our trip, when the photos came back from the developer, they would look like documentation of a family vacation gone awry: pictures of my mother, father, sisters, and me posing with relatives in their homes, dressed up in our holiday finery—then a jump to the elders surrounding a gutted chicken and a few stabbed pigs lying prone on the ground, the blood dark around their wounds.


For years I wanted to write about this night. I liked the idea of experiencing something that didn’t fall in line with the average American family vacation, and I liked that this wasn’t another account by anthropologists exploring strange cultures, or an ersatz tribal reenactment that comes with a $29.95 buffet and free native-made souvenir. This was family, my mother’s cousin and his wife, and we were invited.

My memory of the event was poor, though, and as the years went on, I remembered even less. I asked my little sister to send me any photos she had, and the image of the squatting elders she sent was entirely different from what I had thought they looked like. I was convinced that they had been wearing wanno, the traditional Ifugao G-string that’s similar to the garb of a sumo wrestler, with a length of hand-woven textile wrapped around the waist and the ends hanging loose in the front and back. The picture my sister took, however, showed the elders in tee shirts, jeans, and sneakers—add some fanny packs, and they could have been grandpas in Disneyland. Also, neither of my sisters remembered the altar, the tied-up, skinned water buffalo outside the kitchen window, or Charles in Charge.

While I’m good enough at memorizing facts from books, I am frequently embarrassed by what I forget so quickly about an event I witnessed firsthand. I suppose I shouldn’t be—studies have shown how malleable our memories are, how susceptible to outside influence. Memory is not a fadeless photo preserved under glass but a document drafted in pencil and subject to endless change. One can alter a subject’s eyewitness memory by feeding them misinformation, and with a suggestive word or image make them believe they’ve witnessed a different event or scenario.

In Claude Lévi-Strauss’s account of native Brazilian tribes in the 1950s, Tristes Tropiques, the anthropologist described how some writers visiting indigenous peoples tried to make their experiences sound more “authentic” by glossing over certain modern-era details, like the motorboat services that hauled travelers into the heart of a supposedly virgin territory. “For us to be willing to accept them,” Lévi-Strauss wrote, “memories have to be sorted and sifted; through a degree of manipulation which, in the sincerest writers, takes place below the level of consciousness, actual experience is replaced by stereotypes.” It’s possible my memory embellished or added details to what I saw, that the greater outside influence in this case might have been my own desire to tell a more fantastic tale. Perhaps I’d unwittingly exaggerated both ends of the spectrum for greater contrast, making the sacrifice gorier and the house more mundane. Though not quite Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, my diorama of sacrificial altars and elders in G-strings borrowed more than a little from museum exhibits and the Bible.

These were only the parts of the night I’d witnessed—my family and I left early, and I was still curious about what had taken place after we left. Through a closer aunt on my mother’s side, I was able to track down Tita Tess on Facebook. I emailed her and asked for more details about the sacrifice, what I wished I had asked her twenty years ago. She replied a few days later, laying out a full description of the night:

Initially, early in the evening, two chickens were offered to our ancestors who acted as intercessors to the highest level of gods who according to the Ifugao belief should be pleased with burnt animal offerings. At this point, the mumbaki [the high priest] and elders started to chant and pray . . . Invocations to the spirits of the ancestors and to the gods were focused on the protection of Heritage from harm, illness and his success . . . that Heritage will be shielded from evil intentions and will be victorious over the wiles of the evil ones . . . [and] the safety of Heritage in all his travels and that all confrontations will always end up in his favor . . . [and] to bless the house of celebrant, to protect it from destruction, fire and storms.

Victorious over the wiles of the evil ones? Confrontations ending up in his favor? I read on.

 At dawn, a cow and three pigs were successively butchered and cut up ceremoniously to be offered to the highest god of the Skyworld and to other gods to grant Heritage the favors the priest prayed for. The mumbaki examined the bile of the chickens and announced that the bile was favorable and that the god was pleased with the animal offerings and so the Kolot proper commenced. Selected parts of the animals were set aside to be cooked and to be served to the guests; and the choice cuts were set aside to be brought home by the close relatives and the mumbaki including the elders who assisted him.

The relatives and guests were called for the final rites to witness the kolot proper. At this stage the mumbaki with selected elders/warriors grabbed the sleeping little boy, Heritage, from his bed and ran outside and around the house with their spears towards a banana trunk. They threw their spears to the banana stalk to signify courage and precision. Then the mumbaki cut the hair of Heritage, placed it on the head of the cow and hung the head above the front door.


We live in an age where “once in a lifetime experience” has become little more than advertising-speak, but for once, the phrase was true. I tried to imagine what Heritage’s hair looked like on the head of a dead cow, hanging from their front door, but there are some things you really must see in person. What was it like for the eight-year-old to be woken up in the middle of the night to spear a banana tree, how much was explained to him, and how much could he understand? Depending on the context given, this could have been utterly frightening, perplexing, or the greatest night he’d ever known.

I had other questions for my aunt, but she stopped answering my emails after a while. Maybe she became distracted or busy with something else, maybe I’d overstepped my bounds. But learning what had taken place after we left just made me want to know more; the whole thing became a little like peeling an onion. Tita Tess had mentioned a mumbaki: who was this mumbaki dude? What were the wiles of evil ones? What were these invocations, and what spirits or ancestors were they invoking?

I tried to fill in the gaps by conducting research and by questioning others. I’d come across several articles about the Ifugao written by an anthropologist named Jesus T. Peralta, a consultant for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts in the Philippines. I called the commission’s office to try and reach him.

 Because rituals vary between village and ritualist, Peralta’s description of the kolot differed from Tita Tess’s. After the hair-cutting, Peralta told me over the phone, one of the Ifugao men takes the boy down from the house on his shoulders, and sitting him on a mortar, gives him a raw chicken leg to eat as a sign of his new bravery. (This is more of a gesture than a true test; the raw chicken leg is replaced at the last minute by a cooked one.) To demonstrate his manhood, the boy then throws his spear at the banana trunk, which is a very difficult task—at the one Peralta witnessed, the boy missed several times. “It’s a ritual act,” Peralta explained. “Since they cannot spear people anymore, they spear the trunks of trees.”

Though it seemed like a long time when we were listening to it upstairs that night, the pig killing itself is actually very quick, claimed Peralta. They make a slit and insert a wooden stake to pierce the heart, so the blood stays in the heart of the animal and the puncture kills the animal almost immediately.

As far as what gods they were praying to that night, I would never know. There are more than fifteen hundred Ifugao deities, Peralta told me, and which ones are invoked during rituals varies depending on the ritualist. Ifugao culture and its system of rituals are extraordinarily complex, singlehandedly laying waste the myth of the simple savage. My research piled on more layers: According to Manuel B. Dalawan’s book, the Oral Literature of the Ifugao, there are four types of oral literature in Ifugao culture (the narrative, the chant, the song, and the rhyme), and the first three have subtypes. There are ritual chants and nonritual chants, and then there are folk songs and ballads, and also myths, which are different from folktales or legends. There are twelve different rice rites, seven prestige rites, and six well-being rites, with variations between localities and subgroups. In Harold C. Conklin’s work, the Ethnographic Atlas of Ifugao: A Study of Environment, Culture, and Society in Northern Luzon, the Ifugao agricultural calendar is partitioned into two phases of four seasons and fifteen periods, with twenty-two stages of events and twenty-three associated rituals.

My Christian self wanted to read a book that didn’t exist, summing up a religion and culture that had never been fully recorded. I wanted a history text like the ones I had grown up with, even though I’d started questioning those references more with each passing year. I wanted to have stayed through the night, and to have remembered more of what I had actually been there to witness. In the absence of this, I wanted someone to tell me what to believe in three hundred pages or less—a desire that made me feel painfully, embarrassingly, American.

“You think of the Ifugao as only one people,” Peralta told me. “It is not true. There are two major subgroups of Ifugao. The one that you witnessed is Tuwali. The other is Ayangan Ifugao. Tuwali is from the rice terraces; Ayangan is farther north . . . Even among the Ifugao, the language they speak differs . . . If you ask the meaning of one term from one Ifugao, if you ask another Ifugao, he might have another meaning for that.” Unearthing this kind of story was like diving into a black hole of oral traditions, a limitless universe of gods. And how many Ifugao were left to tell the tale? You could keep peeling back these layers for a lifetime or two.

All these years I’d been cursing my faulty memory and the fact that my family had left early, believing that if I knew more of this story, I would have more of a right to tell it. A right to it, period. Now that twenty years have passed, I felt I could approach this story with a sensitivity I didn’t have back in college. This would not be a narrow, exploitative breach into a world I am not really a part of; I have not taken advantage of my relatives’ generosity; I am not another gawker at the World’s Fair Igorot Village, nor in relaying this story have I constructed another one. I told myself all of this, though I am not sure how much is true.

When I think of the typical American family vacation photo, I envision grinning fathers, mothers, and kids posed around a picnic table or hugging a waving Mickey Mouse. Our sacrifice photos were overexposed, with no clear focus and too many bodies in the way to grasp what was going on. They were the kind of vacation photos that one second-guesses showing friends over dinner, the photos that never make it into the album or slideshow—and that, I realize now, is why I liked them. Who doesn’t want documentation that they have experienced something rare, something that doesn’t fall in line with expectation? Part of this was about exploring and claiming a heritage that sounded so much more interesting than my American one. But if I had remembered more, if I had stayed through the night, would I have become closer to my uncle and aunt? Or would I just have a more polished anecdote to tell, as those colonial explorers had—in this case, a modernized version with Charles in Charge and skinned cows that I could take back home as a souvenir?

I’d boldly assumed blood relation gave me more purchase, but I’m not sure it does, not always. Perhaps I’d reached a slightly greater comprehension of this world through research, but I don’t know if book learning can be a real substitute, either. I have now spent years trying to learn about a ritual event that I myself couldn’t sit through—which makes me the very definition of an outsider, if ever there was one. We can ask questions of others, we can open books to read about other worlds, we can see where our family trees connect, but I’m not sure to what extent this can create true intimacy with home or country. I cannot have it both ways—the outsider with the insider status—but then, this is what we talk about sometimes when we talk about the diaspora.

I keep returning to this issue of identifying with the other, a sort of damned-either-way scenario where such identification presumes and is contingent upon a degree of separation from the very beginning. In wanting to write about the sacrifice because of its novelty, I had already separated that world from my own. My aunt and uncle were little more than strangers to me, down to the way I described them, or failed to, and proof that I still saw this experience as separate from my life. I am not sure my mother ever did.


 “Hey, they invited us to lunch today,” my mother informed us the morning after the kolot. The rest of us were silent. We knew what was on the menu.

Eventually, I piped up. “I don’t know, Mom, I saw that chicken the day before and it clucked at me.”

“Yeah, Glo,” my father said. “Enough already.”

My mother shrugged. She would have gone. It was that simple, and it always had been. We were invited, and they were family. She was hungry and ready to eat.


We never met Heritage, although I saw a photo of him on another aunt’s Facebook page, taken years after the sacrifice. He was probably in his early twenties by then. Wearing the heavy, woven wanno and headdress of the Ifugao male, he stood with a view of the rice terraces behind him, raising his fist triumphantly to the sky. The caption read “Our Heritage,” but I couldn’t tell if it was referring to him or to all of us.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020