Could the Baguio Barrel Man Actually Be a Product of Westernization?
It is, perhaps, unintentional yet fitting that one of Baguio City’s most popular souvenirs, the barrel man, carries the same name as a post in Spanish bullfighting. In the local context, it pertains to a craft produced in the Cordillera Region, a statuette that reveals a phallic surprise when its barrel is lifted. It’s become a popular memento among tourists. In bullfighting, a barrel man is an entertainer. He’s dressed like a bullfighter but his job is to draw laughs from the crowd when the bulls are not cooperating. In this sense, both barrel men have the same purpose—to amuse their audience.
Unlike the Spanish barrel man’s history, the local barrel man’s origins are quite hazy. They are traditionally made by Ifugao woodcarvers. GMA News released an informational segment this year called iJuander that traced back the origins of the barrel man to the woodcarvers stationed on Asin Road in Benguet. These craftsmen were called the “munpaot.” Many of their wares were transported to other parts of Benguet and sold in Baguio markets. In an interview with munpaot Roberto Pahitong, he says that even their tools are passed down to them by the predecessors. Few of these craftsmen remain and those that do seldom still produce the barrel man, which was traditionally made from Mahogany and took at most two days to carve. There was a decrease in demand for the traditional barrel man after smoother, more polished versions made from machines arrived from outside of Baguio and the munpaot couldn’t keep up with the production.
As for its design, U.P. Baguio’s chairman for the Program of Indigenous Cultures, Io Jularbal, says the barrel man was a byproduct of Westernization. He argues that before our foreign colonizers arrived, indigenous people freely roamed around with little to no clothing. There was no shame in it. It was only after the influence from the Americans that the barrel—another Western element—was introduced. The image of a man in a barrel was one that denotes poverty or socioeconomic failure, and that was what inspired the concept, according to Jularbal.
On another note, National Artist of the Philippines Kidlat Tahimik spent the ‘90s researching on the barrel man to later prepare for a live exhibit in 2000, according to a 2007 article released by the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The other more common belief that he stumbled upon was that the barrel man was a form of protest against the Westerners. When Baguio was an alternative base for the Americans in the 1900s, the Ifugao woodcarvers poked fun at their colonizers for displacing the Ibalois. As a social commentary on this, Kidlat Tahimik posed as a living barrel man for photos to send the message that our ancestor’s colonizers did corrupt the “native sensibility.”
While modern versions of the barrel man are still sold in the market today, it was banned back in the 1960s, when Mayor Luis Lardizabal forbade its distribution. Currently, it widely remains a popular souvenir item and no longer holds any cultural representation.