What does it mean to be Waray?

(Anong meron sa mga Waray?)

Written by Ginger Ramirez

The name ‘Waray’ has always intrigued me. The natives of the Eastern Visayas region in the Philippines are traditionally called Waray and they hail from the six provinces of Eastern Samar, Northern Samar, Western Samar, Leyte, Southern Leyte and Biliran. In addition, Waray is also the name of their local dialect, most predominantly used in the island of Samar and Northeastern Leyte. What interests me is not necessarily that the name of their people is the same as the name of their language. I have always been intrigued about the fact that the word ‘waray’ in the local dialect of ‘waray’ actually means ‘none’ or ‘nothing’. It perplexed me how the label for their own identity meant ‘nothing’ in their own language. I surmised that this word reflected our deep history with foreign colonizers because I could not imagine how a people would choose such a word to define their own identity.

The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first set foot on an island at the southern tip of Samar in March 1521. This marked the beginning of the discovery of the Philippines by foreign explorers. Magellan and the rest of the Spaniards brought the Catholic religion and other influences from the western world to the Philippines and the Spanish ruled the country for over 300 years.


Offical signage outside the Church of Palapag, a town in Northern Samar, established by the Jesuits in 1605.

We studied history in school but I felt some part of this history come to life for the first time after I graduated from college. My first encounter with Northern Samar came when I was a volunteer for the Jesuit Volunteers Philippines (JVP) in 2005. Back then, I did feel some sense of this ‘nothing-ness’ among the people. I was witness to blatant inequalities propagated by people in position and I felt the powerlessness of those who regarded themselves as small and weak. It was surprising for me because it felt like I was still in Spanish colonial times – where people felt they could do nothing but accept their fate. I felt, however, that this sense of helplessness was not of their own doing. It was because someone else had taken away that power from them.

white cross

The white cross was placed in front of the church’s ruins in 1995 in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the institutionalization of Christianity in Samar.

But then and until today, I know that this ‘nothingness’ does not define the Warays. The Warays are often labeled as matapang/ may tapang (fierce, strong/ with strength) and are the kind of people you would not want to get into any fights with. I used to imagine this tapang  (strength) as people ready to enter a fight, people who will not back down, people who can be domineering or even aggressive at times.

There is even a classic folksong song entitled Waray Waray, about a woman who is ready to face any challenge and does not run away from threats. She is a muse who, despite being generous, does not get intimidated by anyone, even large burly guys. But while strength is often depicted by toughness, tapang can also be about bravery.

You can also see a version of the song sung by Elizabeth Ramsey, the Philippine’s ‘Original Queen of Comedy’ here. As the people who first defended the country against foreign colonizers, the Warays, to me, are like brave warriors who are ready to defend all that is important and valuable to them. They are the type of people who would go to the extremes only to protect their loved ones and their clan, even if it means sacrificing their own selves.

I observe this in daily scenes in the hospital, people doing all they can do for family members. Even among health professionals, I witnessed this bravery among those willing to leave lucrative careers abroad to come home and care for family members. While this is characteristic of Filipinos in general, I observe that the Warays go through this with more intensity, a people who are resolved to not let anything get in their way.


Strength, unity, bravery 

So, what does it mean to be Waray? Certainly, the Waray people are definitely far from “nothing.” Perhaps the many years of oppression since the 1600s led to the development of powerlessness for some, but it also allowed many more to grow in fierce strength and courage. They are a people filled with intense passion and determination, a drive to not back down against any struggle. They are the fearless warriors, the natives of the land of the brave.