by Ma. Lourdez Antenocruz
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Special Edition Press: The Philippine American Quarterly
Vol 2, No. 4, Fall 1994
Secrets and Heritage: The State of Filipino Martial Arts Today
By Ma. Lourdes Antenocruz
SAMAR ISLAND, MACTAN, 1521. It was supposed to have been an easy battle,
but it turned into a rout. Magellan, the Portuguese explorer, under service
God and Spain's quest for riches, found himself confronted by the Datu Lapu Lapu, whose island he had invaded. Seawater churned and dragged Magellan's armor-
encased body as he turned to attack the oncoming native king Lapu Lapu. Suddenly, Magellan felt the impact of Lapu Lapu's wooden scabbard against his neck,
then the bite of the kampilan sword hidden within, severing his head: Spanish arrogance cut down through the use of Kali, an ancient indigenous martial art. It was
the first demonstration to the western world of the archipelago’s rich indigenous martial arts tradition and systems.
Today, foreigners come by plane to the
Philippines, from countries like Spain, Germany, England, Australia and
the U.S. They come in search of the
remaining Filipino martial arts masters to learn from them, to share the knowledge back in their home countries, and to make a name for themselves.
For Americans, the Filipino martial arts
has become the hottest martial arts form to study. Big box-office Hollywood
movies starring Steven Seagal have
used it. Guro Danny Inosanto of the Inosanto Academy of martial arts in Los Angeles, a former student of Bruce Lee and an action film star in his own right, has
appeared in one of Seagal’s films, demonstrating the effective and lethal beauty of the Filipino martial arts. In addition, he has advised a certain branch of the U.S.
military on how to incorporate the Filipino martial arts into their training program.
Grandmaster Leo Gaje, of the Pekiti Tirsia
system of Filipino martial arts, originally from Negros Occidental, has
served as a consultant to the Oklahoma
Police Department, creating training programs for the effective use of steel batons. In July 1994 the University of Hawaii sponsored an Escrima demonstration as
part of their "Cultural Heritage" program. For many in the audience, the demonstration was their first experience in seeing the flowing grace and strength of Filipino
martial arts with the participation of local Filipino youth.
Outside of Hawaii, the interest and participation
of the Filipino martial arts has been mainly by non-Filipinos. The International
martial arts world has
recognized it as the biggest thing since karate hit the United States in the 50s and 60s. Guro Inosanto jokes that he can't seem to keep good students because they
all end up making movies.
Tuhon Billy McGrath is an instructor
of the Pekiti Tirsia System. McGrath has studied under Grandmaster Leo
Gaje for 19 years and has just been
promoted to Tuhon, which in Visayan means "Master." Pekiti Tirsia is Visayan for "small space using one third of the distance for close quarter fighting." At the age
of 33, he has attained the rank of "Master" even though one normally attains this rank after the age of 40, and after 20 years or more of study. Tuhon McGrath
explains that Grandmaster Gaje has expressed a personal need to pass on the tradition as soon as possible because he is getting older and anything could happen
during his travels throughout the Philippines. Tuhon McGrath recalls the time when Grandmaster Gaje used to hold classes at the Philippine Consulate and invite the
community during the mid-70s. He notes that mainly “younger people wanted to learn. The people who came after the 1972 immigration period looked down on the
Art, saying it was too violent, and they wanted their kids in college. They thought of it as something that respectable people just didn't do. You could hear them
talking to their kids. They (the students) would come and say 'You know my father says this is too violent, that I shouldn't do it. Or, this is the United States and he
said I didn't need it.'"
Guro Inosanto points out that "the Japanese
shared Karate with their youth. I can go to Japan and see the youth come
home with judo ghis and kendo
sticks." He also remembered when he first started to hold classes, among his students he taught "Japanese, Latino, Caucasian, but not too many Filipinos."
The stigma of the Filipino martial arts
as being too violent and something that nice, educated Filipino Americans
did not need to learn, could have come from
the perception that initially the practitioners of the Art were the manongs of the 20s and 30s who came to work the plantations of Hawaii, the fruit and vegetable
fields of California and the docks of New York City. Many of the Masters that Guru Inosanto studied with were these same manongs.
Bolo knife vs. samurai sword
One of Inosanto's former instructors,
Leo Giron, is a practicing escrimador in Stockton, California. In Giron's
book, Memories Ride the Ebb to Tide, he
recounts his experiences and adventures working in the Allied Intelligence Bureau under General Douglas MacArthur in Leyte as part of the first FilAm Battalion. He
was required to collect intelligence on the Japanese occupation forces and to lead patrols of guerrilla fighters in the jungle. With bolo knives and Filipino martial arts
knowledge, the Filipinos held their own against the samurai swords and techniques of the Japanese.
Perhaps another reason why the Filipino
martial arts were known, but at the same time hidden from most members
of the Filipino community in the United
States or even among Filipinos in the Philippines, was the tradition of keeping it within the family or among close friends. Guro Inosanto said that you had "to be
handpicked among the community to study the Art." This might have been in reaction to 300 years of Spanish occupation. To insure the survival of the Art, you had
to keep it close to the family and hidden away. Upon conquering and claiming most of the Philippines, the Spanish colonizers promptly banned the practice of the
native martial arts. Instead of using swords, the Filipinos adapted the use of sticks to their technique. Spanish daggers and the fighting technique of "scrimmage,"
which evolved into Escrima, were absorbed and studied for their most advanced and practical aspects. To continue practicing the techniques of the footwork and
hand movements so essential to its physical flow and speed, these were incorporated into dances to entertain the Spanish, who never dreamed that their happy
natives dancing in moro-moro style musical presentations, were in fact demonstrating traditional fighting forms.
Historical figures such as Jose Rizal
and the painter Juan Luna were among many of the nationalists who preserved
the Filipino martial arts by studying it and
incorporating it as part of the curriculum for their students.
Freedom fighter against the Spanish,
Gabriela Silang was also a student of the Filipino martial arts. Like the
historical pre-Hispanic warrior queens of old,
she led troops into battle, wielding her bolo knife with confidence. Grandmaster Floro Villabrille, one of the greatest practitioners in the history of Filipino martial
arts, and who survived the famous "death matches" in Honolulu, studied with a blind Muslim princess named Josephine. Guru Inosanto has trained his wife, daughter
and sister in the Art. He brought his wife Paula with him when he first began advising the U.S. military branch on incorporating Filipino martial arts in their training.
He remembers that the men expressed disbelief that he had brought his wife. As Guru Inosanto put it, "she showed them what she could do and there weren't any
more questions about her ability."
Maestra (Professor) Josephine Del Mar
of the Hawaii Escrima Academy, remembers the shock she felt as an adult
at her grandmother's death bed to not
only learn the secret of her family but also the impact of that heritage. Her grandmother passed on to her the secret that their family were descendants of Lapu Lapu.
Forced into hiding from the Spanish, they changed their name and separated from each other. She states, "I have always been an advocate of Filipino cultural
perpetuity and when I learned of my heritage in the Filipino martial art of Escrima/Kali, I vowed to do all I could toward the continuity of its philosophies and
mastery." She and her husband, Mike del Mar, who also heads his own school, the Del Mar system of Escrima, were at one time the only husband and wife
instructors in Escrima/Kali.
Maestro Del Mar came to the Art as a
result of abuse at the hands of neighborhood bullies. His father, Jesus
del Mar, Sr. who was a guerrilla fighter during
WWII and had studied the Doce Pares style in the Philippines, taught him to defend himself. To Del Mar, teaching and practicing the Art means that "one is able to
discover one's self worth as a Filipino."
As far as realizing the importance that
the Filipino martial arts has in maintaining Filipino culture in America,
most Filipino Americans have only a vague notion
or a biased idea of its contributions. Karate, Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu determine the values Filipinos have towards the acknowledgment of the Filipino martial
One young man in Texas, a friend of Tuhon
McGrath's, had seen articles about the Filipino martial arts. Intensely
curious and interested, he asked his father
about the Filipino martial arts. As Tuhon McGrath tells it, "the father dissuaded Rick (Relaria) saying, 'Naw, you go study something like Karate.' which Rick did.
His father died soon after. At the funeral, one of his father's friends came up to the casket and put in a piece of pipe and an ice-pick. Rick said, 'What the heck are
you doing that for?' The friend replied, I'm burying your father with his favorite weapons. Didn't you know he was a famous escrimador?"
Unlike the rest of the Philippines, the
only exceptions to using subterfuge in practicing the Filipino martial
art were the Muslims of the South, Mindanao. The
only area of the Philippines that the Spanish could not absorb or stand, was the South. Though rich with the promise of gold and other natural riches, the Spanish had
learned to leave the Muslims alone. The Muslim indigenous peoples of Mindanao openly went to war against the Spanish. Attempts over the 300 years of Spanish
rule to subjugate the Muslims only led to an increase in their fervor of launching "juramentados", holy wars against the Spanish. Out of these confrontations, the
Muslims of Mindanao were able to continue and refine their tradition of Kali. When the Philippines passed into the hands of the United States, the American marines
found themselves face to face with people who had no respect for a .38 gun. They would fire round after round into the oncoming Muslim, whose kris would just
keep flailing, killing any soldier or civilian in his path, until he finally would collapse. The .45 caliber revolver was issued to knock the attacking Muslims backwards
and keep them from hacking one more victim as they fell forward.
The Filipino martial arts beginnings
are shrouded in mystery. Practitioners I can tell you of the various legends
and philosophies, about what has variously
been called throughout the archipelago, Kali, Arnis and Escrima. Did Kali evolve from the worship of the Hindu goddess, Kali? As Guro Danny Inosanto tells it, the
great Grandmaster Floro Villabrille, one of his other major influences, stated that Ka comes from the word "kamut"-- hand. Li comes from the word "lihut," which
means hand motion, or, as Guro Inosanto emphasized in the deeper sense, "body motion, how we use the body or how we use the hand for protection. That was tile
interpretation given to me."
I Another view on the origins of the
Filipino martial arts, as researched by Alan Sachetti, president of Lion
Heart Productions, in New Jersey and a student
of Grandmaster Gaje, is that the native fighting arts used bladed weapons long before the arrival of the Spanish. Upon trading with the Chinese, elements of Kung Fu
were absorbed and became a tradition passed on from father to son. There were some dances that used Kali movements that he had seen in the Philippines, but he
is still in the process of researching it.
Allan Sachetti did not originally travel
to the Philippines in search of the Filipino martial arts. It found him.
Four years ago he was in the process of setting up
a business deal with government officials in mining. It turned out to be a scam or estafa. His entire savings which were invested into this business deal were stolen and
later his briefcase with all his papers. He found himself, an American with nothing in the big city of Manila. He survived by selling pantyhose in the marketplace and
he got to know the people of Tondo and the surrounding slums. He also underwent a profound personal change, he accepted Jesus Christ and became a born-again
Christian. Later that year, he recognized one of the crooks who had stolen his money. Walking up to the guy's car in the middle of traffic, Allan pulled him out and
slammed him. It was as he puts it, “having your heart filled with courage, a lion heart.” Soon after he met up the Grandmaster Leo Gaje who had heard the story of
this American, cheered by Filipinos, yet harbored no bitter feelings towards the Filipinos. Grandmaster, "You're still here? You haven't left? Why don't you come
and study with me?" Thereafter, he began training full-time with Grandmaster Leo Gaje and Grand Tuhon Jerson "Nene" P. Tortal, Grandmaster Gaje's uncle, and
other masters in Negros. His reason for having a company such as Lion Heart Productions is to offer the very best on training materials and combat weaponry in
martial arts. At this time the main focus is on Filipino martial arts.
The desire and understanding of what
the Filipino martial arts mean, more than a beautiful and physical manifestation
of defense-counter-offense or a
practical way of street combat, the approach taken by the various practitioners as to the "spiritual” aspect varies, belief in the Filipino martial arts. He begins each
class with an "oracion" or prayer without imposing a specific denominational format. It is all "Love of the Art. The total picture. Not so much the physical, because in
itself, Kali can be in a soft way or it can be in a hard way, depending on the practitioner, on the person who possesses the Art itself,"
Maestra Josephine Del Mar explains that
"Escrima is a spirit for our school and our system, It is the spirit of
Kali, which is the mother art. When they left the
Philippines they had to conform to another way of living. The Filipinos are great adapters and impersonators. But they survived. And this is the essence of Kali:
survival. The Filipinos were never completely conquered. They have been able to maintain this basic essence. This essence is the philosophy of escrima, that is what
makes the Filipino. You have to have that soul, that depth, that feeling and the philosophy is what keeps the art going, too. A lot of people don't realize that you
cannot just move the body without the thought behind it.”
"To me," Guru Inosanto said, "Culture
comes first before the martial arts aspect. Bruce Lee had often told me
that if he could make people aware of the
Chinese martial arts then they might appreciate something in the Chinese culture. And if they appreciated something in the Chinese culture then they might have an
appreciation of other cultures which are not Chinese." When he sends students out to tournaments or advises students traveling to the Philippines, he's more
interested in the fact that "the culture goes out. That's all we're trying to push for. That's the main thing for us."
To Allan Sachetti, the Filipino martial
arts are just "a physical activity. A life or death situation. It's not
a spiritual thing. If you want to pray go to church." He
has put Christ first in his life, because "I know if I put Christ first, he'll put me first. I let my instructors know that first off, I am a Christian. They're okay with that. I
don't care how good the instructor is or how famous. If it's not right, I will walk out."
When asked how the Masters in the Philippines
feel about the state of the Filipino martial arts in the United States,
Sachetti said, "They would like to be
recognized, to be acknowledged."