In folklore, Mermaids have female heads and torsos, but are fish-like from the waist down. They are generally regarded as mythical and beautiful creatures with the power over the seas and hold the many mysteries of the deep. Tales of half-human, half-fish creatures are universal, with each country having their own versions and stories. Every culture and county has its own version of the mermaid and some variances exist about the nature of mermaids.
However, what is common among them is that these creatures are generally regarded as enchanting, beautiful, and immortal, even as they are mysterious and elusive.
(Waugh 76) On the novel `One Tribe’, Evelina Galang starts the story with the sudden death of Isabel Manalo’s unborn child. This tragic death turn stirred up much rumors, gossip and speculation in a small Midwestern suburb where Isabel. The nasty rumors continued unabated, which led Isabel to move to Virginia Beach to concentrate on teaching the Filipino Americans youths there about Filipino myth and history.
In the book One Tribe, the image of the mermaid has been intimately associated with the main character as she endeavors to lead a life of self-determination and actualization, even as she tries to break free from the roles that society imposes upon her. Isa thought that she would finally find acceptance in Virginia Beach as a teacher of history and mythology to the Filipino-American community. However, Isa soon finds out that, just like the Midwestern suburb she left behind, she is also perceived as an unwanted stranger in Virginia Beach; tolerated yes, but not totally accepted.
Isa finds herself in a right smack in the middle of an unruly community where gang violence and drive-by shootings are common place. Apart from the chaos around her, Isabel is also subject to varying levels of hostility and suspicion from the different groups in her community who continue to harbor some misgivings about her, primarily because of largely mysterious circumstances of her past. At the start of her teaching job, Isa has her first encounter with the mermaid as the symbol of Las Dalagas, a gang of school-age girls who are into hip-hop and slang language.
Isabel then uses the Mermaid to symbolize the girls’ freedom, their sexuality and the girls’ vulnerability to the destructive nature of the environment that shapes them. In the case of the girls of Las Dalagas, the mermaid symbolizes their independence and the ability to use their sexuality, beauty and talent in ways that are destructive to the people around them and to themselves as well. On the surface the girls of the Las Dalagas look exactly like any other girl, but on closer look, one will realize the depths of their capacity for misfit and menace, or their general disregard for rules.
Just like mermaids, these girls are free to roam the boundless sea. Isabel’s fixations with the mermaid as well as with the girls of Las Dalagas are manifestations of her own longing for freedom. One can vey well see that she years for the qualities that both the mermaid and the Las Dalagas have. One can find such longing for freedom in the following passages of the book One Tribe: She envied that they had friends who shared so much with them. In Virginia, children weren’t islands. They were oceans, bodies of water so large and so full, so tumultuous, that no one, not even the administration could ignore them.
(24) The fact that Isabel compares children with water means that she acknowledges that these young people are unlimited and full of possibilities, limited only by their daring to explore and their willingness to go as far as their dreams would take them. Isabel wants to go back to that time, when like a mermaid, she can travel and go where she wants to go and do what she wants to do, without regard for social norms and responsibilities. The freedom as exercised by the girls refers to their disregard for anything that tries to limit or pigeonhole them.
However, on the flip side, Isabel recognizes the destructive path that the girls are taking. Isabel realizes that it is a waste to use youth and beauty in ways that are harmful to the self and to others, like the mermaids who use their beauty and voice to lure sailors to the depths where they drown and die. That mermaids chose to use their physical attributes in damaging ways is nothing short of a tragedy. More than freedom, the mermaids are also representative of the girls’ sexuality as well as the destructive nature with which they use their sexuality.
Destructive nature is seen in the very participation of these girls in the gang. They use their skills, beauty and personality to break the law. Such dangerous sexuality can be seen in the following lines: This is the craziest thing she’s ever seen her sister do, but there she is, Miss Teenage Sampaguita. A white gown cascades down her body and billows at her feet. She has curled her black hair into tiny ringlets and gathered them up and stuffed them like posies on her ridiculous head. Bel squints into the lens. She focuses on her sister’s sash, a garish white satin banner with harlot-red lettering….
The reason why it is important to understand the symbolism of mermaids in the book “One Tribe”, is because Isabel Manalo attempts to discover her own unique self through the troubled teens while at the same time endorse some ideas of feminism as seen by the ability to troubled girls to effectively participate in a gang. The symbol of the mermaid is key to appreciating Galang’s book One Tribe. Isabel, the main character attempts to discover herself by looking at the lives of these troubled girls and how their struggles parallel her own.
By trying coming to understand the reasons behind their destructive behavior, Isabel slowly comes to a place of empathy, forgiveness, and acceptance of her own past. Like mermaids who are half-creatures, not fully human and not fully fish, Isabel feels like a stranger in her own skin. She longs to find her true purpose in life. Mermaids are known to yearn for land and live as humans do. Similarly, Isabel straddles two worlds, and she does not fully belong in the two. While Filipina by ancestry, the fact that Isabel lives and works in the United States makes her American.
On the other hand, the color of her skin and her Asian features make her Filipino. This situation makes it difficult for Isabel to find real acceptance in any of the two societies with which she has ties to. She is part of both, but does not fully belong to either of them. The author explores these various attributes of the mermaid and relates this to various aspects of the main character’s life. In some aspects, the mermaid is a destructive force in so far as the Las Dalagas are concerned. Their destructive nature is a function of the labels and stereotypes that is imposed upon them.
In the end it might be said that mermaids and the Las Dalagas are products of their environment. They are only acting according to how society expects them to act. On the other hand, mermaids symbolize Isabel’s search for her rightful place, where she will be accepted for her unique contributions as a human being without any regard for her history. One Tribe is one mermaid’s tale to find her place in the vast sea of life. This can be seen at the beginning of the book where Isabel taught the story of creation to her class:
The sea rose high and higher, crawling onto its knees and finally standing on its feet, spewing water up into the sky’s scowling, bitter face. The waves ripped the tissues of blue sky into tiny pieces. And then the sky threw paper rocks and cardboard boulders onto the floor. This surprised everyone, especially the sea, which calmed under the weight of the rocks. So the thrashing of water died, leaving the sky to herself. The rocks rooted themselves to the earth, settled their bodies among the seas and formed seven-thousand islands.
And the bird rested her wings among the rocks, settled on a hill and found herself a home at last. (12) Isabel’s story is our story. It is a tale of a mermaid who longs to be in another place even as she longs to be accepted in the sea that she has come to know as home. Whatever our life stories and histories may be, we at some point in our lives feel lost and uncertain of where we are going and what we want to be. Like mermaids, we too have been involved in some form of self-destructive behavior. But unlike mermaids, we are not tied to a life of uncertainty.
We have the power to live a meaningful and purposeful life. Indeed, after the turbulence and the maelstrom of living, there is a promise of calm seas to those who are willing to take on the many storms of life, and that is what Isabel and the mermaid is trying to tell us.
Galang, Evelina. One Tribe. New Issues Western Michigan University. 2006. Lewin, Ellen. Symbolism of the Mermaid Cult. Feminist Anthropology: A Reader. Blackwell Publishing. 2006. Waugh, Arthur. The Folklore of the Merfolk. Folklore. Vol. 71, No. 2. 1960.