M is for the Two Marias and the Dress One Of Them Inspired


Maria is a very common name in the Philippines.  Growing up, many of my classmates’ names began with Maria.  Maria Christina, Maria Victoria, Maria Rosario are a few examples – though I knew them all of them by their shortened names – Maricris, Marivic, and Marirose, respectively.

The use of “Maria” in this case is probably attributed to the Virgin Mary.  However, for my take of the letter M in the A to Z Challenge, the Marias I’ll be writing about are of two feminine ideals who are poles apart – one of pre-Hispanic myth and the other the colonized version of the ideal Filipina woman.

Maria Makiling by Heredion Lovino

The first Maria is Maria Makiling, a diwata or forest nymph named for the dormant volcano that she guards in Luzon, where approximately 2,048 species of plants thrive, including a plethora of birds, reptiles and other fauna. These days, the mountain and its surrounding forest are part of a nature preserve under the care of the University of the Philippines Los Baños.

Mount Makiling in the background Photo by Julia  Sumangil on Flickr
Mount Makiling in the background
Photo by Julia Sumangil on Flickr

It is often said that Mount Makiling resembles the profile of a woman, said to be Maria herself….The mountain’s various peaks are said to be Maria’s face and two breasts, respectively, and her hair cascades downwards a gentle slope away from her body.

via Maria Makiling – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Maria Makiling has been the subject of many oral traditional stories, passed on long before the Spaniards came, and after.  She lives in a hut either in the village or in the forest, and sometimes people may know where to find her when they need help, though in other stories, they don’t know where she lives and she appears to them when she wishes, helping the ones in need.  Men who disappear in the forest are believed to have been entranced by Maria Makiling, marry her and live happily ever after – though most other stories end up with her being heartbroken after being replaced with an earthly woman, and thus retreating into the mountain, never to be seen again.

When stories depict her as making a choice between one man or another, she always chooses the simple and humble Filipino.  Even when given the choice of a Spaniard or a mestizo to rival the affections of a simple indio, Maria Makiling would always choose the indio, foregoing even riches offered by the colonizers and their mixed  race children.

Descriptions of Maria Makiling are fairly consistent. She is a breathtakingly beautiful young woman who never ages… having “light olive skin, long shining black hair, and twinkling eyes.”

….She is also closely associated with the white mist that often surrounds the mountain. While in just a few stories either her skin or hair is white, in most tales, it is her radiant clothing which makes people who have seen her think that perhaps they just saw a wisp of cloud through the trees and mistook it for Maria.

via Maria Makiling – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Photo by Paolo Dala on Flickr
Mud springs at Mount Makiling Photo by Paolo Dala on Flickr

The second Maria is Maria Clara, and one that is probably more well known because of the traditional dress her character inspired – an ensemble composed of four pieces:  the camisa (blouse), the saya (wide skirt often constructed from panels), the panuelo (stiff covering adorning the neck) and the tapis (knee length overskirt that hugs the hips).  The modern version of this dress is called the “terno.”


Maria Clara was a character in Jose Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tangere.  A mestiza of Spanish and Filipino descent (though her parents were both indios), she was engaged to marry the protagonist, Crisostomo Ibarra.

“She was white, perhaps too white.  Her eyes, which were almost always cast down, when she raised them testified to the purest of souls, and when she smiled, revealing her small, white teeth, one might be tempted to say that a rose is merely a plant, and ivory just an elephant’s tusk.  Among the transparent lace around her white and sculpted neck fluttered, as the Tagalogs say, the sparkling eyes of a necklace made up of precious stones….

….Maria Clara was spared her father’s tiny eyes.  Hers were large, like her mother’s, black, shaded by long lashes, lively and sparkling when she was at play, sad, deep and thoughtful when she was not smiling.  As a child, her curly hair was almost blond, her nose very straight in profile, and neither thin nor flat. She had her mother’s small, graceful mouth and lively, dimpled cheeks, her skin was as fine as onion skin and as white as cotton, according to her overexcited relations, who found the single trace of Captain Tiago’s  paternity in Maria Clara’s small and well-formed ears. 

Aunt Isabel attributed these semi-European features to Doña Pia’s prenatal moods.”

– Via Noli Me Tangere, Jose Rizal [translated by Harold Augenraum]

The “ideal” image, promoted by no less than Jose Rizal, is that of Maria Clara, a demure, self-effacing beauty whose place was on the pedestal of male honor. Rizal describes this “ideal” of the Philippine woman with words such as these: “an Oriental decoration,” “her eyes. . . always downcast,” “a pure soul.” (chapter 5, Noli Me Tangere).

via Philippine Heroines of the Revolution.

Such description of this idealized version of the Filipino woman has galled many people, and was the one of the two things that stood out to me when I first read this book (translated by someone other than Augenraum) in high school.   As much as wishing to be among the most beautiful woman in the town, there was no way I was going to allow myself to become an “Oriental decoration” to achieve it, so if I had to be the un-idealized version of a Filipino woman, then so be it.

…feminists have judged Rizal’s image of a woman, even regarding his novels and their influence as the “greatest misfortune that has befallen the Filipina in the last one hundred years.”

via Firefly, an anthology of Filipino women’s literature in Finnish.

Many historians have since mused over the impact of Rizal’s Maria Clara, the idealized beauty and submission of her character, and the ever changing roles of women in Filipino society which placed them, ironically enough, during in pre-hispanic times, as equals in society.

“Though remarkably beautiful, idolized by all, and sacrificially loyal to Ibarra, Maria Clara, with her lack of compassion, naivéte, and empty rehearsal of Spanish religiosity is the precursor to the Filipinas whose blind submission Rizal will dismiss….She is vacuous, selfish, and uninterested in helping the many impoverished indios who suffer countless abuses at the hands of the friars and the ruling upper classes.”

Via Transpacific Femininities: The Making of the Modern Filipina, by Denise Cruz

The second thing that stood out to me in Rizal’s narrative and depiction of his idealized creature is this:

The epilogue focuses on Maria Clara as the iconic suffering figure of the dangerous process of erasure:  “De Maria Clara no se volvió a saber nada más” (354: We do not know about Maria Clara), for in the convent of Santa Clara, “nadie nos ha querido decir una sola palabra”

Excerpt from Transpacific Feminities: The Making of the Modern Filipina, by Denise Cruz

– Via Transpacific Femininities: The Making of the Modern Filipina, by Denise Cruz

 So there you have it, the two Marias that have haunted me since I first learned of them – the diwata of the mountain, Maria Makiling, and the haunting and tragic figure of Maria Clara, the idealized vision of the Filipino woman.

Which one of them resonates more to you, I wonder?

Blogging A to Z Challenge


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