In The Country Of Honest Men
￼Forget what you know of Filipino fiestas. You’ll find no flowers or saints here at the Masbate Rodeo; All you’ll find is a celebration of the rough, dusty, and honest life of the Filipino cowboy.
His name was Bangaw, and he was a cowboy from Boracay.
You always knew when he was coming, because around his neck, thick as his arm, was a collection of puka shell necklaces that jangled as he walked. He was my roommate when I first came to the Masbate Rodeo, in 2012. Bangaw was a judge that year, having presumably risen above the ranks of ordinary cowboy competitor himself. I don’t really know—Bangaw was an easygoing but quiet, secretive man, not the kind to really share his feelings. He was a true cowboy.
On an ordinary day, in an ordinary place, this would all be very, very funny. Filipino cowboys in Masbate. In full costume—boots, belts, shirts, hats and all. In a rodeo. Hilarious, right? But here it doesn’t just “make sense”; here, it just is. “Of course I know how to ride a horse, I grew up here,” a distressed local told a reporter. It’s not that they put this on entirely for show. We’re an agricultural country, after all, and Masbate alone has maybe 30 ranches and 54,000 heads of cattle, second only to Bukidnon. Nobody has a good count of the number of horses—suffice it to say that nobody turns their heads when someone rides through the center of town on a horse.
Filipino cowboys in Masbate, in full costume—boots, belts, shirts, hats and all. In a rodeo. Hilarious, right? But here it doesn’t just “make sense”; here it just is.
Last year, one of the bulls in the rodeo got loose, and rampaged through the streets. The poor thing eventually trapped itself in a shop. Not a china shop, but truly the next best thing: a mirror shop. That caused a minor commotion, but no one seemed to particularly mind or find the humor in that. It was just one of those things that is entirely within the realm of possibility when you live around so many cattle
The thing that first-time watchers inevitably comment on is how ridiculous it is to see the great American Wild West recreated in provincial Philippines, or how slavishly they follow the cowboy clichés. But that observation is itself a cliché, and an inaccurate one: The American cowboy of the Wild West is himself descended from (or ripped off from) the Mexican vaqueros, who were in turn transplanted Spanish cowboys. The Filipino koboy has the same pedigree as his American counterpart—and perhaps even a more direct lineage to the original vaqueros.
Obviously, the Americans have gotten the upper hand when it’s come to shaping the idea of the cowboy in modern pop culture, and that has, admittedly, shaped the Masbate cowboy. For example, contestants are forbidden to compete if they’re not “in costume”—which means denim jeans, a “cowboy” shirt, and of course the eponymous hat. That’s not peculiar to the Philippines, though: Go to any rodeo elsewhere in the world, especially in South America, and you’re likely to find essentially the same template for both the manner of dress and of the rodeo itself. Our koboys are part of a culture that transcends any one country.
Contestants are forbidden to compete if they’re not “in costume”, which means denim jeans, a “cowboy” shirt, and of course the eponymous hat.
The rodeo itself isn’t a show rodeo, the kind that they might have in certain places in the US, for example. The competitions here are for skills that they really practice in ranches and farms: roping, cattle wrestling, and the peculiarly Filipino carambola, a free-for-all where the cowboys try to chase down a runaway steer. The closest thing to a show rodeo event they have is the bull riding competition, which is every bit as exciting as it sounds (made doubly so by the entry of the rodeo’s first-ever female competitor).
It’s men like Kap who shine at these events. Kap—he’s a barangay captain where he’s from, in the hilly cattle country of Bukidnon—is a cowboy’s cowboy, if there were such a thing. The mustache, the swagger, the stern strength, all there. He’d look like a cartoon of cowboy if it weren’t for the skills that have also made him somewhat of a legend in the rodeo. He leads the Libona team, which holds the fastest times in everything; to say that they dominate the rodeo seems to be an understatement.
There was, for example, the four-man carambola this year. Kap chased down that steer, put his bare hands on its horns, and hangs on. There were other men who had managed to get hold of the animal before him, but they’d all been carried off, kicked, dragged around, stomped, and crushed till they let go. Not Kap: He held on and weighed down the charging steer, slowing it down enough to have his teammates converge around the animal and take it down. Kap is That Guy.
That Guy in the rodeo is different from That Guy that we must know in the cities. Kap is a legend here, and both kids and men look up to him because he’s a proud man, not an arrogant one. Here’s a guy who prays over the other cowboys before every event, and makes his team’s breakfast every morning. He accepts his awards with a huge smile on his face, and then walks away from the rowdy celebrations afterwards. And for this, crowds part to make way for him and his team. That’s what counts as badass around here.
Now, the rest of the events are great fun, though they’re mostly the you-have-to-be-there sort of fun. The fun in chasing down a calf isn’t easily described—and it really isn’t the same without the crowd’s very real excitement hanging in the air, or the noise of a thousand spectators thickening the blood with adrenaline. It doesn’t sound like it’s much fun to be in a dusty cattle town for days, where you’re likely to be ankle-deep in cow shit with every other step.
Okay, “fun” might not be the right word here. The rodeo isn’t a pastime; it’s serious business for many of these people. The rodeo is a demonstration of the skills a person needs if he were to make hardscrabble but honest living with his bare hands. There’s no way to get by on your charm at this game—you can’t talk your way out of a bull charging at you with his horns out. You can’t pay a horse not to throw you off its back. And so, when a cowboy succeeds at a task, it’s impossible to match the ennobling value of that achievement. For cowboys and their way of life, the rodeo is the Academy Awards,the NCAA, the World Cup, and the Nobel Prize all rolled into one. The seriousness with which they approach the rodeo is contagious, and we outsiders are here for the rodeo because, for the length of time that we’re there, we feel as if this is our rodeo, too. We’re here because, even if we’ve never ridden a horse, let alone broken a wild bronco, we’re welcome to borrow the dignity of the act. We’re here because we feel a little taller in our boots, a little prouder of who we are. At the rodeo, we’re all honest men.
A Man Called Horsefly.