A few weeks ago, I attended a Karate tournament in Stockton, CA, and overheard a young man telling his students about the history of his Eskrima which is the De Cuerdas style. Because I was at the tournament to support my students, I didn’t care to talk FMA and I resisted the nosy urge to join in. The gentleman then proceeded to tell the students about “other” versions of the history of De Cuerdas that were not valid or untrue. I made myself a mental note that the next time I saw him, we would talk. So, I went from pretending not to listen to actually not listening–as difficult as it was.
I would like to share with you the history that I am told about this style of fighting.
During the late 1800s, Filipinos in the Visayas were planning an overthrow of the Filipino government supporting Spanish occupation. Many Filipinos at that time were losing pride in themselves and their culture, dropping their own people’s practices in favor of European practices, adopting Catholicism and their ways over the Filipino’s own ways. There was a large group of people wanting to preserve the old ways and kick the Spaniards out of Filipino politics. Many of them were bitter to the wealthy Filipinos who wished to both hold onto their riches as well as eliminate competition for wealth. They were equally resentful of the wealthy and educated who looked down on the poor man and oppressed them as badly as the colonial masters. There was too much corruption and betrayal for revolutionaries to be effective, so the groups became secret societies and armies.
One of these armies was known as the Dyo-dyos. The Dyo-dyo had a three-part philosophy that was their strength:
- fierce loyalty to preserving and observing Filipino culture, language and spirituality,
- physical prowess and fearlessness, and
- a rejection of wealth, power, fame and lust.
They were mostly Catholic, but many practiced local religions and all were very superstitious. They believed that Eskrima practice strengthened the body and the spirit, and as proof of their indominability–performed feats of strength and displays of courage, such as diving off of cliffs into water, cutting themselves with knives, and fighting blindfolded. The Dyo-dyo also believed that because the Spanish and the Church had ordered so many Filipino deaths, any life they took was repayment of those deaths and that they could take lives for 100 years and the debt would not be repaid. Because of this, the Dyo-dyo felt justified in killing anyone they saw as a traitor to the Filipino people, including women, children, and old people. If you harbored an enemy, you were fair game.
They never revealed real names and often wore turbans, bandanas, and scarves to make themselves difficult to identify.
They believed wearing white during the day, black at night, and red in battle would protect them. Underneath their clothing they bound their bodies in hemp rope to resist cuts on the body and bullet wounds. They wore coconut shells in their turbans and bandanas to resist bullets to the head. Some covered their bodies in coconut shells and husk underneath clothing to resist bullets. Others wore red to hide bleeding injuries, but carried a white cloth in the left hand, believing the cloth could protect them. In fact, many cited being able to get close to their enemies in order to use their blades because of those rags. (I was recently told by a friend, that many soldiers would hesitate to shoot a man waving a white flag, because this was seen as a sign of giving up.) They prayed before combat, and came to fight swearing to take as many lives as possible before dying. In case you haven’t read it, check out my article on the “Spiritual Warrior”; no warrior is more dangerous than one who has already embraced the possibility of his death. These men took the cake. They are the Filipino Kamikaze. The Suicide Bombers with a machete. The story of Filipino “Juramentado” is incorrectly assigned to Muslims, in which being a Juramentado is a sin; the men who did this practice are the Dyo-dyo.
When it came to their martial arts, which was top-notch, the Dyo-dyo were almost unbeatable in man-to-man combat. They practiced their Eskrima to kill, they practiced their bladework to inflict as many life-threatening injuries as possible, since they were often outgunned and outnumbered. In battle, one warrior could run amok into a camp and take out 20-30 men by hacking limbs, necks, sides (below the rib cage), and insides and tops (pelvis) of thighs–before being killed. A preferred time to do so was after midnight while soldiers slept. One man would wake the camp, and another would run between the tents and inflict the injuries on the waking soldiers, from man to man, until he was either satisfied, or until he was killed. Even if not every man was killed immediately or later by the cuts, survivors could not stay and fight, and those who were unharmed were afraid to sleep. If the Dyo-dyo lost a man, it was no more than 1 man a night fighting this way.
They practiced their art at night, which improved night vision, sharpens the mind (since most people are groggy and tired at this hour) and made fighting at night easier. “Rusted iron doesn’t give you away like muzzle flash does.” “Learn to fight when most men yearn for the bed.” These are rules I learned when I was very young, which is why to this day, I prefer dark blades to shiny ones. And why my advanced class also got their training late at night.
The Dyo-dyo had two styles of fighting, the Eskrima is called “de cuerdas” and the empty hand is called “karate dyo-dyo”. There were other names, but I cannot remember them, they were in a Visayan dialect. The Karate Dyo-dyo, is a local style of fighting and I cannot remember why the name was called that. But here is where the name “de cuerdas” originated.
In order to join the Dyo-dyo, you had to prove that you were tough, unafraid of death and pain and torture, and willing to push forward regardless of the danger involved. Before being accepted, there were different tests you went through, and the final one was to be beaten by all the members of the group. The last test would be held in a secret location, like a cave or a secluded area in the jungle. The new member was either blindfolded or not, but a rope is tied around his waist, and he is pulled between the group, armed with nothing but a stick. The group also have sticks and you could fight them back. You could stop the beating at any point by refusing to move forward, or stopping. But once you went back, you never got another chance. When you made it through, you were now a member of the sect, and received your new nickname. Each group knew next to nothing about the next group, and each group had its own martial arts teachers. The Dyo-dyo was replaced by the Katipunan, who had more money and better weapons and no requirement of suicide, but those who were originally Dyo-dyo were held in very high regard as superior fighters and fearless. Few Dyo-dyo members would admit to being so, as they were still wanted by the government and offended many Filipinos through their many murders. In fact, so respected was their fighting skill that many Eskrima masters claimed publically to be Dyo-dyo members or trained by a dyo-dyo member.
Dyo-dyo members identified each other by referring to their Eskrima training as “de cuerdas” (“from the strings”), their nicknames, and scars on their bodies. If you encountered someone with a scar or some other marker, one could “start” a conversation by placing the right hand over the heart (a gesture very common with muslims as well as Eskrimadors) while greeting him, and if a certain hand sign was given, you knew he was a member. Then there were other signs. Some Muslims Dyo-dyo members would tatoo “la illaha il allah” on their bodies, so they could be identified as muslim for a muslim burial if they died in combat (tatooing is forbidden in Islam). Others would tatoo a Christian prayer if they were Christian. And then some others scarred or branded themselves. Outside of your own local group, however, few Dyo-dyo members knew each other, except for the leaders.
Over time, it became fashionable for some Eskrimadors to claim to have been a member, in order to give their Eskrima more notoriety. But there are still many Eskrimadors who did learn from a Pulah/Pulahan (another nickname, meaning “red”), but did not find out until the teacher was an old man. I am positive that wherever you hear this name, “De kwerdas”–the origin of the art is rooted in the Filipino Revolution, whether they were actually from the Dyo-dyo, or just inspired by them.
A side note, before writing this, I tried looking for the history of this group on the internet and could not. Perhaps it is just an oral tradition from an old man to his grandson, or this is a lost piece of history. But this is the story I was told as a kid. Just wanted to share my version.
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