Barangay: From boat to vote

Photo by QuecyKeith (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by QuecyKeith (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

On Monday, October 28, millions of Filipinos all over the country cast their ballots in the triennial barangay elections. The barangay (abbreviated Brgy. or Bgy.) is the smallest administrative division in the Philippines, roughly equivalent to the concept of village, district or ward. Larger barangays can be further subdivided into smaller areas designated by the Tagalog term purok, and the Spanish word sitio.

The word barangay has been adopted into Philippine English from Tagalog, but its origins can be traced back to pre-colonial times. The modern term is derived from the Austronesian word balangay, which refers to a type of boat used by pre-Hispanic Filipino communities. Archaelogical evidence suggests that groups of balangays were used by early Filipinos to travel across Southeast Asia as early as the 10th century. Remnants of what could possibly be a balangay “mother boat” were recently unearthed in Butuan, in southern Philippines, providing even more tantalizing clues on Butuan’s role as a pan-Asian cultural hub, and on the seafaring traditions of our Malayo-Polynesian ancestors.

The original barangays were small coastal or riverine settlements consisting of 50 to 100 families, but some of them grew to become large, cosmopolitan principalities with trade links to the rest of Southeast Asia. These pre-colonial societies were headed by an aristocratic class called datu.

With the arrival of the Spanish, barangays were combined to form towns, headed by a town chief called by the Spanish-Tagalog hybrid expression cabeza de barangay, still in use today.

The word barangay fell into disuse during the American period, when it was replaced by the Spanish term barrio (abbreviated Bo.). The word’s resurgence in the 1970s is largely thanks to former President Ferdinand Marcos, who ordered that the name barangay be restored, and used the idealized vision of baranganic democracy as a key element in the participatory politics of his New Society.

The word survived Marcos’ overthrow in the 1986 EDSA revolution, and endures today as an integral part of our political system. Barangay elections are hard-fought contests. From a lexical perspective, barangay is extremely productive, giving rise to a wide range of expressions: barangay captain (another name for cabeza de barangay), barangay officials, barangay tanod (unarmed watchmen that act as barangay police), barangay council, barangay hall, barangay clearance, and of course, barangay elections.

Did you do right by your barangay and vote?

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