If you are from these parts, then you will only be too familiar with stories people tell about the “suno” (hitchhiker) who allegedly boards vehicles surreptitiously along that zigzag stretch of road in Cuenca at the foot of Mount Makulot. When I was a young boy back in the sixties, it was assumed that the uninvited passenger was Mariang Pula (Maria the Red), an “engkanto” who, it was generally believed, was the guardian of Mount Makulot in the same way that Mariang Makiling (Maria of Makiling) protected the famous mountain in Laguna.
Most Tagalog dictionaries will tell you that the word “engkanto” has been adopted from the Spanish “encanto,” which means a charm or a spell. Locally, however, the word can be understood colloquially as an elemental spirit, which is why my understanding of Mariang Pula has always been that she was a “diwata” or a fairy.
A 1922 document written by one Ananias L. Chavez1 shows just how folkloric stories can change over time as these are passed on from person to person. In this document, Chavez wrote about an “encanto” and Mariang Ilaya, but as two different entities. Both stories were supposedly documented as they were told by the elders of Cuenca, the small town at the foot of Mount Makulot.
The “encanto” was a believed to be a real man of the white (Caucasian) race who possessed magical powers and can change one thing into another and obtain anything that he wanted. He was believed to live in a hollow in the rocky side of the mountain facing the Tagaytay Ridge, an area that was barren which tapered down the mountain’s western side.
The trail leading to the hollow was “inaccessible to human feet,” but inside it there were two chambers, one on top of the other. The walls of the chambers were decorated with trellises of gold. At the center of one chamber was a statue of a bull made of gold. This served as a dining table and at the bull’s sides were pipes from which wine was served.
Fishermen casting their nets in the lake would swear that they would sometimes hear “the melodious sound of music near that place and hear distinctly the notes of the songs and the talking and laughter, and above all the noise of the plates…” There was also “the flavor of the cooked food which is smelled as if a real feast is held.”
Other fishermen swore to having heard the sounding of a horn, followed by that of horses running. From the lower chamber would emerge an illuminated chariot on which rode sometimes one and other times two white men dressed in the finest clothes. The chariot would glide over the top of the trees, into the lake and even onto the volcano.
Chavez also wrote about one Mariang Ilaya, but in a far different way from how I understood Mariang Pula to be. Her story began when Cuenca was still part of San Jose, at the time when most of Batangas still enjoyed the years of the coffee boom. Her home was near the foot of Mount Makulot.
She was a well-loved figure in the barrio and fondly called Mariang Matimtiman2. Her mother had already died, and she lived with her father, a rice and coffee farmer named Domingo Mapolon who was more popularly known as “Ingong Bituin.”
One day, before heading out to tend to the crops, Ingong “Bituin” bade his daughter not to forget to bring him food at lunchtime. At midday, she left their house and went to look for her father in the plantation. Along the way, “a man appeared with the appearance of her father and asked for her lunch.”
Believing that it was, indeed, her father, she laid the package of food before him. After dining, he asked her to follow him into the plantation to see the “promising crop for the next season.” She did, and the man who assumed her father’s appearance “turned around three times and left the place. Maria then followed him and followed him during the whole afternoon.”
Meanwhile, his real father, alarmed that his daughter had not yet arrived, returned home to look for her. Not finding his daughter, before long he had organized a search party with other people of the barrio joining in. Into the plantation the party went.
Chavez wrote, “It was believed that Maria was found in the branches of the trees but was very clever enough to leap from one branch to another that they could not catch her.” Unfortunately, Chavez’s storytelling left a lot to be desired. It failed to explain who or what the impostor was and what he really did to Maria.
He had also called Mariang Ilaya a witch without really explaining why or how she became one from being the obedient well-loved character that she erstwhile was. By deduction, we are left to assume that the impostor was either another witch or an “engkanto” who cast a spell on her.
Chavez concluded the story by saying that from that time on, Maria became known as Mariang Ilaya. “It was believed and still believed by some of the common people that at night she roams about the town of Cuenca wearing a red shirt. Some believed that when a piece of cloth went missing after being left outside the house, Mariang Ilaya had taken it with her.”
The “red shirt,” one suspects, is why Mariang Ilaya would subsequently become Mariang Pula, albeit how the story would switch from Maria being a witch to a “diwata” and guardian of Makulot is still something that waits to be discovered. Ditto how some would think that she was the entity in the “suno” phenomenon. One also suspects a connection with the story of Lipa’s Juanang Ilaya, who was similarly a witch, typically told to scare children into obedience.
Just as a food for thought, however, allow me to conclude this article with a story told by a friend, one who is not in the habit of telling cockamamie tales. This friend is from Lipa and had some business with two classmates in Cuenca one night back in 1999. Slowing near a street corner where there was a waiting shed to ask for directions from a couple inside the shed. The couple seemed totally aware that there was another woman inside the shed with them. The woman had bloodshot eyes and, you guessed it, was wearing red. She was staring at the group from Lipa and kept staring even after they had made a U-turn. Then, she disappeared in the wink of an eye.
Notes and references:1 “The Makolot Mountain and the Stories Relating to It, as Told by the Old People of Cuenca,” by Ananias L. Chavez, 1922, online at the Henry Otley-Beyer Collection of the National Library of the Philippines Digital Collections.
2 “Matimtiman” being constant or true, frugal or honest. TagalogTranslate.com.