“Keta pu kekami
Dakal a baluga
Mayap la pa keka
Biasa lang mamana..”
-old Kapampangan folksong
Pampanga’s first known residents, the nomadic Aetas, are a sturdy race whose history is marked by perpetual struggles against fellow man and nature. Locally known as Balugas, Negritos or in other regions as Agtas, Itas, Aytas, the Aetas belong to the Austronesian-speaking group of Southeast Asia and Oceania. One theory states that they must have entered the archipelago through the Sunda shelf during the last glacial period via Palawan. The Aetas then distributed themselves until the far north of Luzon, Zambales and Pampanga. Early eruptions of Mount Pinatubo caused them to disperse northeast of Luzon like Bicol and Sorsogon. They also spread out to Panay, Negros and northeast Mindanao.
Aetas were greatly familiar with their environs, with expert knowledge of wild food plants and protein sources. It is no wonder then that they made such effective teachers to U.S. military personnel during their survival training guide. There is even a jungle survival video, filmed in July 1967 and produced by the Air Force Jungle Survival School in Clark Air Base, that shows Aetas instructing students in the art of building tent-type animal snares, starting a fire, cooking rice using split bamboo and eating food on leaves!
But even before the Americans arrived, the leadership qualities of Aetas were apparent and valued by our colonizers as they established their settlements in Pampanga’s new frontierlands. Garagan of Mabalacat is acknowledged as the first Aeta chieftain of the town in 1768. He married Laureana Tolentino, a Christianized native, who went on to become Mabalacat’s first female cabeza de barangay.
The creation of the Comandancia Politico-Militar in 1860, where the northwestern district of the province was detached to preserve order, was instigated due to disturbances attributed to Aetas. This may be faulting the Aetas too much, as they most likely were just protecting their hunting domains-- after all, they were here first, only to be driven away as lowlanders or “unats” (straight-haired people) made incursions into their forest outposts. In any case, hundreds of nameless Aetas were also recruited to fight the Spaniards during the Revolution.
In the last World War, Kudiaro Laxamana, an Aeta tribal chief born in the foothills of Mount Pinatubo, distinguished himself by becoming a guerrilla hero for his annihilation of 50 Japanese while harboring 10 U.S. airmen. He also served as a Vice President to Alfonso, King of Negritos, who himself was made an honorary U.S. Air Force Brigadier General. Laxamana’s exploits were finally honored with a posthumous award given on 28 January 1995 in Mabalacat.
In more recent times, pre-scient Aetas are credited for first reporting the pre-eruption rumblings of Mount Pinatubo. The government, acting upon these first-hand reports, proceeded to issue warnings thus, leading 3 million people to safety. Noteworthy too, is the way the Aeta tribe has continued to cope with and survive the far-reaching effects of the Pinatubo eruption that resulted in their displacement, loss of livelihood and deep-rooted culture.
Who can forget too the two Aeta saviors of U.S. Navy Lt. Scott Washburn who went missing during a Pinatubo expedition in June 2001? Patricio Gutierrez and Rafael Pan chanced upon the missing serviceman wandering in the vicinity of Sitio Sablis in Sapang Bato, and offered him a friendly refuge.
That same year, Wida Cosme made history by becoming the first Aeta to finish law school at the Harvardian College, City of San Fernando. This accomplished graduate, now employed in the legal department of Clark Development Corporation, is working to fund her bar exam review. The remarkable feat of this woman of color is a courageous story of how a member of an indigenous race surmounted prejudice, poverty and personal difficulties to pursue a better life through education, not just for herself, but also for her people.
It is hoped that the place of Aetas in Kapampangan history will be given a kinder, fairer and a more accurate treatment beyond their skill in shooting arrows and wielding spears, as perpetuated in folk songs of yore. Theirs is a continuing saga of survival and sacrifice, of resilience and resourcefulness, deserving not just recognition, but also our respect as fellow Kapampangans.