If you read the news, the chief exports from the Philippines seem to be Manny Pacquaio and sensational headlines about President Duterte. Look a little deeper and you’ll find sugar, coconuts, pineapple, airplane parts, and computer chips, but look all the way underground and you’ll find Arnis, a deadly martial art outlawed hundreds of years ago by the Spanish interests that used to occupy the islands.
The Philippines were a prized possession of the Spanish Empire – an agricultural goldmine close to India and China; a global trade hub and one of Spain’s most valuable colonies. The welfare of Filipinos was not of particular concern to the Spanish that controlled the Philippines, and Arnis was borne as a response to this inherent juxtaposition.
Determined to resist the tyranny their Spanish oppressors, the native Filipinos developed a practical fighting system that turned everyday objects into weapons. Ultimately, they were no match for the better equipped forces that controlled the islands, and the Spanish, fearing a population trained to kill using improvised weapons, outlawed Arnis and forbade Filipinos from practicing it.
But it survived, disguised through dance. Instead of using swords and knives, practitioners of Arnis began to train using sticks, pretending their choreography did not have lethal origins. You can’t outlaw trees, and the movements and techniques learned by training with sticks translate to bladed weapons.
It survived for centuries underground, passed down from generation to generation. Now, in a time where cruel men in wooden boats no longer rule the world, Arnis need not be practiced in the shadows. But its history is not lost on those who study it.
When I started learning and understanding it, it took me back to my roots and I understood more about myself – where I was from, and the history of these warrior people.
No longer needed to fight off colonial overlords, the martial art still has modern-day applications. There’s a serenity derived from practice and repetition – the pursuit of unattainable perfection. Falling in love with the process. And if you happen to catch Ermar without his sword, he can kill you just as easily with a pen or a pool cue.