Circumcision: Writhe of Passage

Local medical officials performing a circumcision in Tacurong, Cotabato (Source:

A few years ago, in marking a multicultural event in San Jose, California, the city promoters put up a welcome banner with greetings in the different languages spoken in the city. There was a sign in Spanish that said, Bienvenidos (Welcome). There were corresponding messages in Filipino, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

The commemoration committee members gave one another a pat on the back until a Filipino noted an embarrassing detail. The Filipino sign did not say, “Welcome, do come in. ” Instead it announced, “You are circumcised. ” Needless to say, the huge banner was taken down amid many redfaces.

The sign meant to say “Tuloy Po Kayo” (Do come in), but an Anglo sign-maker wrote instead, “Tuli Po Kayo!” This is understandable. In English pronunciation, the “li” in “tuli” could be mispronounced as “lie.”

Circumcision, in the Filipino traditional sense, is a rite of passage, a transition from boyhood to manhood. As in many traditional societies, a cohort of pre-puberty boys go through a ritualistic, symbolic change in status. This special experience—circumcision—is shared with undaunted courage yet with trepidation. Some attribute the practice to Judeo-Christian influence. But early Spanish chroniclers reported seeing Visayan men who were circumcised and wore penis-pins.

Let us relive that momentous summer day. School is out. Today is the auspicious event. The resident specialist rouses the young men. In Tagalog this specialist is known as magsusunat. Sunat is an archaic term for tuli. He is usually the village barber or town elder, addressed as—Mang. Mang Quintin (or Mang Herman as the case may be) has given the boys a thorough physical examination and declared them ripe for the ceremony: The young foreskin has grown to the critical length.

He sharpens the most important instrument—the long white gleaming sharp labaha (razor)—the one that opens from its sheath like a jackknife.

He leads the cohort of boys to the beach (or the river), and they all go skinny-dipping so that their skins would be supple and soft. On signal, they all leave the water. They huddle together, naked as the day they were born, teeth chattering in the early morning mist. Mang Quintin leads them to a clump of trees. They are safe from prying eyes since this is a secluded spot. Each of them carries a bagful of freshly picked guava greens. Mang Quintin orders, “Form a line and chew some guava leaves.” Each chews a mouthful. It has a bitter and tangy taste.

Mang Quintin sets up his simple apparatus; a prop staked to the ground—an inverted, L-shaped guava branch called the kalang, a sort of block (from the word sangkalan or chopping block). He sharpens the most important instrument –– the long white gleaming sharp labaha (razor)—the one that opens from its sheath like a jackknife. Although everyone is apprehensive, no one shows fear. After all they are no longer babies. They will endure the pain like real men.

The first boy, Maximo, approaches Mang Quintin, who then proceeds to put the former’s ari (euphemism for genital) on the crude block. The boy grits his teeth. His eyes turn white. With a flourish, Mang Quintin positions the blade and tapping it slightly with the help of a small wooden paddle, he makes a surgically clean incision. The boy flinches but feels nothing. Very little blood is shed. “Done!”

Mang Quintin, the real pro, barks, “Ibuga mo (Spit it out)!”

“Spit what?” Maximo says. He forgot about the tender guava leaves in his mouth he was supposed to be chewing during the whole operation, but in his confusion, swallowed. Mang Quintin again commands the boy to spit out the mashed guava leaves on to the excised appendage, to serve as antiseptic and poultice. All the boys looked at Maximo with unbelieving dismay. “Duwag (coward),” the other boys murmur under their breath. Mang Quintin says in a businesslike manner “Get on with it. ” Another mouthful and soon Maximo creates a swath of poultice all over the magsusunat and himself.


A young man undergoing the rite of circumcision chews on guava leaves (Photo from "Pukpok" the movie,

Pedro swaggers forward, perspiring nervously. The kalang is adjusted. With a tap on the razor blade, the incision is made. Pedro’s saliva dries out. The masticated greens sputter and dribble from his mouth.

“Done!” Mang Quintin yells “Next!”

Juan is next. Suddenly he becomes fainthearted and decides to postpone the event saying, “Ayoko na” (I’m out of here). He becomes an instant outcast—a supot, and all the boys tease and call him “the great uninitiated bagful.”

In the meantime, everyone has prepared strips of white clean cloth from their fathers’ old kamisetas (undershirt), which is used as gauze to dress the guava mush covered wound. Scrapings from a bao (coconut shell) is sprinkled over the guava poultice. This is an indigenous substitute for sulphanilamide. The boys also bring sarong-type sayas (skirts). No use for trousers for now. They each pay Mang Quintin with a cigar and troop back to the neighborhood. Mission accomplished!

With daily cleansing of water from boiled guava leaves and the judicious application of the cura vejetal (herbal cure), the wound will heal fast without complications and infections. But there is one more thing to guard against. It is taboo for girls to see your private part while it is in this particular condition. The wound will not heal. The Tagalog word is metaphorically descriptive: “manga-ngamatis.” In other words, the “equipment” will swell and turn as red as a kamatis (tomato).

An inner spark defines the boys personalities now. There is a certain may pagka-yabang (cavalier attitude), a determined bravado, even in that awkward limp and slow gait. Fiestas and merrymaking are part of summer fun for the group na nagbibinatilyo (on the way to full manhood). There is blood-brotherhood camaraderie in doing things together like the harana or serenading the dalagas (maidens) among others. Male-bonding opportunity abides.

What about Juan, the tuli drop-out, who opted for hospital anesthesia, sterilized surgical scissors and pharmaceutical ointments? Marginalized for having shared no part of this rite of passage—this traditional rite of summer—he has missed a benchmark in his journey through life. An outsider to the barkada (clique) who shared the same ritual, he is called “O. R.” with reference to the Operating Room and the attending nurses. In June, the young men will enter the freshman high school class. Some will strut, knowing that the others know. What an achievement!


Article originally published in Filipinas Magazine, May 1995.

Penélope V. Flores, Ph.D.

Penélope V. Flores, Ph.D.

Penélope V. Flores, Ph.D. is a Professor of Education Emeritus at San Francisco State University. Her main interest is in "Tracing the Footsteps of Jose Rizal in Europe." She is  building a Rizaliana library in San Francisco where scholars and researchers can have free access to her collection.