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Racism in the Philippine Kapre Myth

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Ian is a proud full-blooded Filipino. He's also a visual artist who loves to incorporate Pinoy myth and folklore in his work.

Kapre by Dean Spencer

Kapre by Dean Spencer

Myths and Superstitions

In Filipino folklore, the Kapre is characterized as a tree giant or troll, often seen as a dark tall being (about 7-9 ft) that is very hairy and muscular. They are said to dwell in big trees like acacias, mangoes, bamboo, and banyan (known in the Philippines as balete). They like sitting under these trees or on their branches to smoke. It is also believed that abundant fireflies in woody areas are the embers from the Kapre's lit cigars or tobacco pipes.

Kapres are believed to be nocturnal and omnivorous, sometimes described as filthy, gorilla-like black humanoids. They are often compared to other Cryptozoic creatures, such as the North American Bigfoot, the Tibetan Yeti, or Abominable Snowman.

They relish in playful pranks by frequently confusing people, causing short-term memory loss or hiding household items. Enchanted by the Kapre, wandering travelers become disoriented and lose their way in the mountains or the woods that are part of their domain.

Some Kapres are believed to be wise, while others are rated brutelike. Even when some attest that there is no such thing as a good Kapre, they are not necessarily known to be evil or violent in general. The Kapre may only turn vengeful when the tree they are inhabiting is cut down because their demeanor is about protecting its habitat and knowledge of its care. In fact, they also have an odd desire of watching over farm animals and locals.

The Kapre is a huge black man, with legs as large as acacia trunks and eyes as big as plates. His skin is rough, dark, and hairy. He appears under a new moon and a soft shower. He smokes a big cigar that doesn't grow shorter.

— Dr. Maximo Ramos and Dani Reyes, The Creatures of Midnight

Signs of experiencing Kapre enchantment include observing rustling tree branches even when there's no wind, hearing loud laughter coming from an unseen being, witnessing smoke from the top of a tree, or seeing big red glaring eyes at night time.

The Kapre is said to wear the indigenous Northern Philippine loincloth known as bahag. Others believe they wear a belt that keeps them invisible at all times, except on Fridays. But other accounts mention them to be naked or have leaves covering their private parts.

The Kapre is supposed to hold a magical white quail egg-sized stone. Should any person happen to obtain this stone, the Kapre will become docile and can grant wishes. If one is a friend of the Kapre, that person will have the ability to see the huge entity.

A lot of people consider the Kapres as lustful creatures. They are feared to be notorious kidnappers of beautiful women, leading to the belief that they are mostly males. Some would even say the Kapre will consistently follow its "love interest" throughout life, even to the point of sexually assaulting the objects of their desire while they sleep.

But a Kapre's least known, but probably most horrendous feature is they have a very strong body odor that reeks of goat. This is thought to be caused by the Kapre moving on from smoking nigh-endable cigars to drinking beer.

The centennial balete tree in the palace of the president.

The centennial balete tree in the palace of the president.

Fame

Presidential Kapre

The most famous Kapre in the Philippines is Mr. Brown, rumored to live in the 100-year-old balete tree at the front entrance of the Malacañang Palace—the seat of power in the country. Mr. Brown (sometimes referred to by the staff as Mr. Jones) is generally considered a benevolent but harmless prankster.

The rumor probably started when one time, the balete tree was lit with thousands of flickering fireflies, captured from some distant towns and released as a grand ephemeral gesture of a present for a then First Lady. The tree was given heritage status by the late President Ninoy Aquino in 2011. Elmer Navarro, whose father was a household aide during the Marcos years, recalled that the Kapre was feared even by the military and added that sometimes you could see smoke wafting from the tree.

According to Eduardo Rozon—chief steward during the Marcos regime, the Kapre was known as Mr. Brown, perhaps confused with Father Brown—an American priest believed to be killed by the Japanese when they took over the palace and used it as headquarters during World War II.

There was a story of a cabbie who met Mr. Brown. Standing by the front of the palace one night, he got the scare of his life when he asked for a light and looked up to see the Kapre chomping on a cigar. He then ran to the servants' quarters, and they told him about the famous Kapre.

Author Nick Joaquin recounted a story told by the Marcos children: "On dark, muggy nights, security men were sometimes startled to see their fellow guards frantically running about the grounds as though being chased by some invisible demon. The victims claimed later the gigantic Kapre had wakened them then had gone about gleefully dropping ashes from his enormous cigar on their heads."

Revolutionary Kapre

The controversial first president of the republic, Emilio Aguinaldo, was also said to have a Kapre as a friend, who protected him. It is believed that the Kapre lived under a bridge near Aguinaldo’s mansion in Kawit, Cavite. The Kapre itself was the personal guardian of the Aguinaldo dwelling. It once prevented Spanish soldiers from crossing the bridge by deflecting their bullets right back at them.

Supposedly, this being gave Aguinaldo military advice and an anting-anting amulet in the form of a small white stone which made the general un-killable on the battlefield and could have also given him his long 94-year life. Adding more to the hearsay, witnesses allegedly saw Aguinaldo spit out a small white stone just before he expired on his deathbed.

But it is believed by many that this Kapre is actually David Fagen, an African-American soldier who defected to the Filipino Revolutionary Army during the Philippine-American War.

Captain David Fagen

Captain David Fagen

Fagen served in the 24th Regiment of the U.S. Army and was one of only four African-American soldiers at that time. He switched sides due to racism in the American Institutions and the disparity in treatment between white and black soldiers. The derogatory views on the Filipino occupational resistance—who were frequently referred to as "niggers" and "gugus" by common white American forces could have also contributed to his defection.

His capture became an obsession to the U.S. military and the American public that they put a bounty on him, offering it to anyone who could bring them his head. By the end of 1901, a bounty hunter turned in a partially decomposed alleged severed head of David Fagen. The Filipino crowd did not buy this story because aside from the fact that there was no substantial evidence confirming his death, numerous people still saw him in many parts of the country after his supposed end.

Captain Fagen's heroism and success in the battle for the defense of the Filipinos earned him the respect and love of many, especially the indigenous Aeta community who gave him the nickname "Pugot"—a mythical and friendly supernatural being.

Pugot Mamu by GaDmon

Pugot Mamu by GaDmon

Variants and Predecessors

In Bicol, the Kapre is called Buring Catanda and believed to be engkantos with a distinct black skin. But the Kapre took ownership of the attributes of an earlier nocturnal shape-shifting spirit called Pugot. It sometimes utilized the form of a cat with fiery eyes, a minute later appearing as a hog or a large dog, then it would turn into an enormous dark creature and finally disappear as a ball of fire. Its power of rapid transformation made it a more or less formidable opponent.

They are scary and frightening at first look, but not particularly harmful. They were also known as protectors of the jungles and as defenders of the indigenous inhabitants. The creature usually resides either in dark places or abandoned houses. However, they especially like to dwell in large fruit trees such as the caimito (Star Apple), duhat (Java plum), santol (Cotton fruit), and tamarind—making them a forest spirit or goblin.

Ilocano Pugot

The earliest Pugot of the Ilocos region is believed to be the spirits of ancestral aborigines who guard treasures. It can assume various shapes but it usually appears as a black, gigantic headless being.

Aside from its shapeshifting abilities, the Pugot can also move at great speeds and feeds on snakes and insects that it finds among the trees by thrusting food through its neck stump.

Although terrifying, the Pugot is otherwise relatively harmless. However, the later evolution of the creature is said to be fond of women's underwear and steals them while they are being dried on a clothesline.

Pampangueño Pugut

In the pre-colonial mythology from Pampanga province, the Pugut are these big and tall beings who live in large trees, as well as deserted buildings. They appear human-like, but gigantic in size. They were described as having dark skin, long hair, and sharp jagged teeth. They also have big noses and huge hands.

There's also the Pugot Mamu—a flesh-and-bone monster with a large gaping carnivorous hole where the neck and shoulders should be. This headless mythical fiend has an insatiable appetite for young children and would feed them in its "mouth". While the Tagalog Uko are ape-like creatures in Luzon that abduct and eat children; they live in caves where they take their victims.

But according to the oldest surviving Kapampangan dictionary, "Vocabulario De La Lengua Pampanga" by the friar Diego Bergaño; the original meaning of Pugut is someone from the Black race.

Visayan Agta

Various Aeta groups in Northern and Central Luzon are known as Pugot, the colloquial term for people with darker complexions and believed capable of assuming varying sizes—from a man tiny as a newborn babe to a giant the size of a large acacia tree. This is also evident in the fact that a synonym for the Kapre in the Eastern Visayas is Agtà—another name for the Aeta people.

The belief in the Agta originally came from the Leyte province which then extended into Masbate, Bohol, and Cebu. The Agta of the Visayas is said to live in mangroves and swampy places instead of large trees in the jungle. The creature was black and twice as tall as an ordinary man and it can usually be seen in a standing position.

The Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology defines the Agta as a species of energy vampires. They can always be found wherever the fishing is good and lives solely on the life energy of fish. As the fish are caught and killed, the Agta absorbs the life energy as it escapes. The Agta is normally invisible and can only be seen if the person bends over backward far enough so they can see between their legs.

In Waray regions, the Agta is also known as Bawu (an Austronesian term which means 'smelly') or Unggo (derived from unggoy, meaning 'monkey or ape')—reported as a large and frightful hairy giant spirit who wanders alone at night and orders fishermen not to fish in the dark from 8:00 p.m.- 4:00 a.m. Sometimes it is also called Onglo, who lives in dark nipa swamps and uses his huge ‘hard as stone’ elbows and knees to break shellfish. They say you can tell he is eating when you hear clam shells breaking.

While the Ungloc of Western Visayas is described as having pointed teeth and lives in mountain caves. The Ungloc can talk and understands human language but is stupid enough to be fooled by a child. When it succeeds in catching a child, it will bring the victim to its domain and—through magic—will turn the hapless youngster into a coconut for later consumption.

Agta by Eric Gonzales

Agta by Eric Gonzales

Evolution

Headhunting

In the modern sense, a Pugot is generally understood as a headless ghost (usually of a former priest). Maximo Ramos writes in “The Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology” that the term pugot denotes either 'the black one', 'the decapitated one', or 'one with hands cut off.'

It is well known that headhunting was a common practice among the several highland tribes of Northern Luzon such as the Ifugao and the Igorot before the custom was largely suppressed by the American Constabulary authorities in the Philippines in the 1930s. Scholars agree that the primary function of headhunting was ceremonial and stemmed from the belief that the head contained "soul matter" or "life force" that could be harnessed through its capture.

Among the mountain tribes of the Philippines, matters of murder were usually settled through revenge. Thus, elaborate vengeance rituals were held as part of the funeral rites of the dead. They believed that the souls of men buried by this ceremony are forced to wander about, for a time at least, among the war gods and great evil deities of the Sky World (Daya) and the Upper World (Kahunian).

It is far from being an honor to have one’s head taken, and considered as the greatest of all misfortunes, particularly by the Ifugao. Perhaps the Pugot was originally thought to be the spirits of the dishonored and decapitated bodies that were not claimed by their relatives and given proper burial rites.

Later, the Ifugao killing of Catholic priests in the late 19th century was incorporated into the myth. The murder was a response to earlier attacks during the resistance to Spanish colonization, which tried to convince them to pay tax, give tribute, and be baptized.

Kapre by Carlo Vergara

Kapre by Carlo Vergara

The N-Word

The term Kapre comes from the Arabic kafir, meaning a 'non-believer', 'infidel', 'rejector or denier of Islam', sharing similar earlier pre-Islamic root ك-ف-ر K-F-R (meaning 'to cover seeds with earth or soil') as the Hebrew words kipper and kofer.

While the variant kaffir (also spelled kaffer or kafri), is an ethnic slur used to refer to Black Africans in South Africa. In the Quran, kuhfr or kufr means 'denial of truth', 'to be thankless, faithless', or 'ingratitude'.

It was later used by early Arabs and the Moors to describe non-believers, atheists, or idolists, particularly referring to non-Muslim Indians like the Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs in South Asia who were mostly dark-skinned.

Muslims in Africa used the term to refer to non-Muslim African slaves, sold to European and Asian merchants in the 15th century. But the Islamic population of the Philippines did not use the term at all.

Another variant—cafre, was adopted by the Spanish and Portuguese to describe people from South Africa and later brought to the Philippines by the Spanish who had previous contact with the Moors. They used it to describe the indigenous Negrito ethnic groups (meaning 'small Negroes') with dark skin and features similar to Black Africans.

The term cafre was also used for Papuan slaves brought to the Philippines by the Portuguese before slavery was abolished by Spain. The slaves brought to Acapulco and Manila were referred to as Negroes, while the slaves brought from Africa through India and Malaysia were both referred to as Negroes and Cafres.

Spanish literature written in the Philippines shows that the word cafre had evolved into a term describing 'an uncivilized or uncouth behavior.' In the Filipino alphabet, C and F don't exist. So it was replaced with K and P, turning the cafre into the kapre. This descriptive word became the general term for the Pugot and any similar creature.

Cigar Smoking

As it was in many Spanish colonies of the 16th to 19th centuries, tobacco was introduced in the Philippines from the New World by the Augustinians for cultivation. The ruling families of Spain were the originators of the Spanish government's tobacco monopoly and officially extended it to the Philippines, established by Governor-General José Basco y Vargas on March 1, 1782.

It was considered a luxury reserved only for the upper-class. Tobacco was cultivated under strict government control in the provinces, which was then brought to Manila and made into cigars in government-owned factories to be shipped out for export as a major commodity in the galleon trade.

The monopoly generated such animosity among the locals and farmers as they were at the mercy of government agents who cheated on its price. State-produced cigars became too expensive that tobacco was diverted to illegal production for the local market. In some areas, cigars were so valuable as to be used in place of currency.

In 1882, the monopoly was completely abolished, and tobacco eventually became available to anyone who could grow or buy it. Many families would share foot-long cigars, and smoking was encouraged by the government because they get big revenues from manufacturers. There was no age limit and everyone can smoke including children. It was in 1908 that the Kapre was reported to be smoking cigars and pipes for the first time by also indulging in this leisurely activity at the turn of the 20th century.

the-racism-in-the-philippine-kapre-myth

Slavery in the Philippines

When the Spanish took control of the Philippines, it was decreed illegal to hold Filipinos as slaves because they were under the subjection of King Phillip II. But this was heavily ignored and the Spaniards still seized and sold natives as domestic help in various parts of the country, as well as to foreign forces.

Conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi tried to abolish this practice, but it was soon replaced with the infamous West Indies Encomienda system of “debt-bondage”—a different form of slavery imposed by the inability to pay back outrageously high taxes.

The stricter punishments for Spaniards holding new Indio slaves resulted in the trend of illegally acquiring foreign ones—particularly Africans who were not under the king’s subjection, and therefore the new decrees did not apply to them. Spanish Christians who saw themselves as the superior race; considered it legitimate to enslave non-Christian captives from wars, and uproot existing social institutions by replacing them with what they believed was their superior structure.

In 1568, Spanish trade between Mexico and the Philippines introduced enslaved Africans in the country, constituting around one-third of the 1621 Intramuros population in Manila. By the mid-17th century, many of these slaves were revolting.

This led to an existing belief that the Kapre was an invention by the Spaniards to discourage Filipinos from helping escaped African slaves. There might be some truth to it, but this theory is now debunked because even some wealthy Filipino families acquired them. Others who knew well enough that Christians were anticipated to show sympathy to the people suffering made some masters free their slaves and apprenticed them so they could still work under their supervision once they were freed.

However, the Spaniards did actually create the term Cafre and the subsequent cautionary stories (like the sexual deviancy, rank smell, and cannibalism), in an attempt to explain the Aetas and to veer the Christianized natives away from them. Also, to establish bigotry among the indigenous themselves by underscoring lowland and highland differences.

An Agta tribesman.

An Agta tribesman.

Prejudice in Modern Times

The Negrito Distinction

Although the Negritos (which includes the Aeta and Dumagat of Luzon, Ati and Tumandok of Panay, Agta of Sierra Madre, Mamanwa of Mindanao, and about 30 other officially recognized ethnic groups) are the minority in the Philippines—totaling only an estimated 15,000 people out of a mostly Austronesian population of 105 million; they are in fact among the earliest inhabitants of the archipelago since the Paleolithic period around 49-50,000 years ago—preceding the ancestors of modern Filipino majority for about 45 thousand years.

Historically, they have always been nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Early Stone Age compared to their neighbors. Because of this massive technological gap, the Negritos were almost entirely wiped out, endangered, and threatened by the destruction of their environment as a result of logging and mining. Today they are found in various stages of deculturation, and most are involved in agriculture.

In reality, discrimination and poverty are often problems for those who assimilated to the majority of the population, which is why many of them are preferring to shun modern living. Because of Filipino stigmas demonizing the remaining natives and the large educational gap, the indigenous youth become an underclass and have a disproportionate chance of success. There is also a great pressure to switch to another language because it would provide a better future in the cities where they move to—leading to the disappearance of their unique cultural heritage.

A beauty brand's whitewashing ad.

A beauty brand's whitewashing ad.

Every time there’s a Filipino TV show and their characters include a Negrito or an Aeta, they become comic characters. And there’s also always this black girl who is not considered beautiful until her ‘blackness’ disappears.

— Maria Teresa Padilla, Executive Director of Anthropology Watch Organization

Colorism

For those who are not familiar with the term, it refers to the discrimination of individuals with darker skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. It is quite rampant in many Asian countries, including the Philippines.

Spain’s Philippine occupation for more than 300 years indoctrinated the idea that skin color determined societal status and value—more specifically, that having paler skin like that of the European colonizers was more favorable. In fact, the notion was so strongly ingrained in the population after this period, that even today, Filipinos with darker skin are usually assumed to be poor, low-income workers who take on manual labor jobs under the scorching sun for many hours of the day.

Even the former Vice President Jejomar Binay and his family have experienced this kind of judgemental attitude from some people who called him "nog nog", which is a short nickname for sunog—meaning 'burnt'. Many modern Filipinos also label the dark-skinned people as "baluga" ('half-breed'), or sometimes "pugot" (derogatory slang for 'headhunter') without properly understanding the real definitions of the terms they use against their own people.

Though it's mostly done out of fun, and not meant to insult anyone, it is still quite offensive. It wouldn't be called a 'slur' if one thinks first before saying anything, right?

The success of whitening products in the country further reinforces this classist mindset—whether subliminally or directly. In trying to emulate the rich and famous, many Filipinos would choose to lighten their skin just to be seen as an acceptable part of society.

the-racism-in-the-philippine-kapre-myth

Blackface

For as long as I can remember, the media depictions of the mythical Kapre is always donned in blackface because talented VFX artists and animators in the Philippines are not paid well enough to produce quality work. TV networks and production companies would instead opt for botched low-budget practical effects to save cost rather than give better pay. And we tolerate it because it's common.

Utilizing indigenous or dark-skinned actors for this role is out of the question because that too would be seen as an offensive stereotype. Insensitive portrayals of Indigenous peoples in the entertainment industry often get called out for presenting them as ignorant or comical. Even I can name several dark-skinned comedians in showbiz who were often the butt of some racist jokes and poked fun at for their dark complexions.

Norman King—the first Aeta to graduate from the University of the Philippines who became a viral sensation when he accepted his honors wearing the traditional bahag, was even portrayed by an actor wearing a blackface in a biographical drama series in 2018. But King himself consented to this because, for him, the representation of the Aeta's collective experiences is much more important.

Kapre by Totmoartsstudio2

Kapre by Totmoartsstudio2

Woke Culture

In essence, the Kapre is an extreme corruption of indigenous Filipinos' visual and cultural image that served as our own bogeyman. It was used to belittle the dark-skinned, most of whom resisted the abuses of colonialism and white imperialism. Modern Filipinos continued this biased custom by blaming the Kapre for all sorts of unexplained misfortunes in their lives and adding moral vices to its description.

Thankfully, newer artistic renditions of the Kapre have evolved from looking like the classic caricatures of giant black persons to appearing more of a tree spirit. Among the cited reasons for this change is creative freedom, and the youngsters being much more aware of its racist past, therefore giving importance to respectful representations of the people of color.

Today, we are also slowly seeing a change in our perceptions of beauty. Many are beginning to embrace their own ethnic backgrounds without seeking to change what comes naturally just to be accepted.

The modern mythical characterizations of the Kapre might have evolved from formerly racist portrayals of Negrito tribes and Black African slaves, but the Kapre myth does not revolve around its historical racist aspects because there are much bigger things to focus on. The gentle giant's imparted lessons on environmental awareness and the knowledge about the conservation of the tropical rainforest affect us all—no matter what color you are.

On the other hand, the valuing of our diversity—whether that's religion, sexuality, race, or skin color is just as significant as upholding the protection of our natural surroundings. In the end, the Kapre myth is simply a way to always keep ourselves in check, and be better examples for future generations.

References

  • KAPRE: The Tree Dweller/Philippine Mythology Documentary
  • Filipino Historian Kirby Araullo, youtube..com/user/TheKirbyNoodle
  • Legend of the Agta: The Eastern Visayan Tree-Dweller, aswangproject.com
  • The Successful Revival of Negrito Culture in the Philippines, rutufoundation.org
  • Mr. Brown lives in RP's Most Haunted House, Palace by Juliet Labog-Javellana, pressreader.com/philippine-daily-inquirer
  • This is The Problem with The Portrayal of IPs in TV shows, nolisoli.ph
  • The Legend of the Kapre: Racism in the Philippines by Yana Po, ismanilareview.net
  • Tobacco Industry in the Philippines, pinoykollektor.blogspot.com

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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