KASAMA Vol. 24 No. 3 / July-August-September 2010 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

May your spirit fly to the bosom of Apo Namalyari

Sr. Menggay of the Aetas
by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

Thursday, 12 August 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION

“May your spirit fly to the bosom of Apo Namalyari,” a sobbing Aeta leader wearing only a G-string said at the funeral Mass for Sr. Carmen ‘Menggay’ Balazo last week, on August 5. We were gathered at the convent chapel of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) in Carmona, Cavite. Present were Sr. Menggay’s fellow FMM nuns, her immediate family, friends and representatives of the Aeta community who came all the way from Zambales.

After the Mass we all proceeded to the FMM convent in Tagaytay City. Sr. Menggay was laid to rest directly in the ground in the FMMs’ beautiful burial place on the ridge which has a breathtaking view of Taal lake and volcano. The sun broke through the dark clouds as we bade Sr. Menggay goodbye, sang and threw flowers at her moist grave. Everything around was suddenly bright and green and the lake beyond turned misty blue.

And I thought of another volcano, Mount Pinatubo in Zambales, at the foot of which Sr. Menggay and her fellow FMMs spent years living and working among the Aetas. I knew their work. I had gone there in the 1980s when they began, and followed them after the 1991 world-class volcanic eruption that set them off on a historic exodus. But I am going ahead of the story.

Born 71 years ago in Misamis Occidental, Sr. Menggay passed away on August 3, after a year-long battle with a lung ailment. She was ready to go. As the story went, the day before she died, she raised her arms and exclaimed several times, “Now, Lord!” And then conceded, “Tomorrow na lang.” (How we laughed over that.) Tomorrow did come and she was taken into the bosom of her God whom the Aetas reverently call Apo Namalyari.

I came to know Sr. Menggay during the martial law years. A bunch of us greenhorn activists (religious and lay) frequented the FMM convent in Pandacan where she was based and later became superior. Now I can say that the place was a hub for praying, reflecting, eating and, uh, plotting.

While fixing my files of photos and negatives last weekend, I found photos of Sr. Menggay. Sharp black-and-white and graphic colored ones that I took show her standing beside a naked corpse of an activist who was killed at a rally in September 1985. We were present at the autopsy.

Eruption & Exodus Sr. Menggay who happened to be in Manila at that time called me in the dead of night to accompany her to the morgue. In the absence of the victim’s family, Sr. Menggay took charge. I was with her in choosing the coffin. In the afternoon, the victim’s next of kin arrived from the province. After snapping a photo of Sr. Menggay comforting the grieving relatives, I ran outside, slumped on the sidewalk and sobbed.

At that time, Sr. Menggay had already begun working among the Aetas. I visited the new FMM community in Sitio Yamot in Poonbato, Botolan, Zambales, in 1982. There was no water source in the area. Water had to be brought from the town and everyone took a bath only every three days. I observed the organizing and adult education work among the Aetas and wrote about it in a magazine.

I did go back after a couple of years (to surreptitiously document and write about the US-RP war games in the area with an Aeta as guide). This time the community had water and was abloom with orchids. The nuns’ cogon-thatched house had become bigger and the Aetas’ homes stood neatly in a row. That was the last time I would see the place. In June 1991 Yamot was buried in volcanic ash and the village was no more. But Lakas (Lubos na Alyansa ng mga Katutubong Ayta ng Sambales), which Sr. Menggay helped organize, would live on. Lakas could be considered Sr. Menggay’s legacy.

Sr. Menggay and the FMMs journeyed with the Aeta-Lakas community as they searched for the “promised land.” I wrote a feature on their search (“Somewhere, a buried village will rise again,” July 7, 1991) for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine.

The book “Eruption and Exodus: Mt. Pinatubo and the Aytas of Zambales” is about the Aetas’ journey before, during and after the volcanic eruption. Sr. Menggay shot the photos, Sr. Emma Fondevilla wrote the text, Lorna K. Tirol copy edited. My August 1991 column piece, “Yamot is in the Heart,” served as foreword. To show their appreciation, Sr. Menggay and the Aetas brought me sack loads of Pinatubo pumice stones for my garden and a copy of the book with dozens of Aeta signatures.

Let me say, and Sr. Menggay would attest to this, that it was the Aetas, along with Sr. Emma (a scientist who was then also working among the Aetas, and now the superior of the FMM Philippine Province) that first alerted the incredulous scientific community about the rumbling of Mt. Pinatubo which had been dormant for 600 years. It was first in the Inquirer.

Sr. Menggay transcended ideologies, religious affiliations and cultures. After Lakas had become deeply rooted among the Aetas Sr. Menggay and the FMMs moved on. She traveled to far places and readily shared her experiences with the indigenous peoples of the Asia-Pacific region, sometimes taking Aeta leaders along. She was also involved in interreligious dialogue.

Sr. Menggay is truly a daughter of the Church, a follower of St. Francis, a disciple of Blessed Mary of the Passion (1839-1904), the courageous French nun who laid the foundation of the Franciscan congregation in the wilderness of India. Like her FMM sisters who were martyred in China during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion (canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000), she did not shirk danger and remained true to her missionary calling, passionate and compassionate till the end.

The Aetas will always be in her heaven-heart and she in theirs.

Ma. Ceres P. Doyo may be contacted at or

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