(First of a Series)

Aurelio S. Agcaoili, PhD

All over the world, in airports and bus stations, in shopping malls and under the garish lights of entertainment marquees, I have seen the faces of my countrymen—radiant with smiles. Indeed, Filipinos are a happy people but beneath their brown skin is lacerated flesh and a bleeding heart for their lives are truly melancholy and harsh—these hapless, deracinated wanderers wrenched away from the sulky recesses of the provinces; from the slums of Manila and even the smug comfort of middle-class neighborhoods. They are everywhere, I am sure, even in the glacial isolation of the arctic, the pitiless deserts of the Middle East, the raging seas of the North Atlantic. Ah, my countrymen, dislodged from the warmth of their homes, to make a living no matter how perilous and demeaning, to strike but in alien geographies and eke from there with their sweat and their cunning what they can. I have seen them lambasted in foreign newspapers, ridiculed and debased by those who do not know how it is to be Filipino, how it is to travel everywhere and yet hold over precious and lasting this memory, stretching across mountains and oceans, of my unhappy country.

Salvador de la Raza, in Jose’s Viajero

The above quote from F. Sionil Jose’s Viajero, “a story of the Filipino diaspora,” illustrates the rich varieties and contradictions of exilic life. Home in exile, eventually, becomes an anomaly: the concept and reality behind the phrase are at best fantastic and illusory. When the experience of exile sets in, when the wandering carries with it the burden of recollection and remembering, the exile is no other but “an exile from home.” The warmth of home and family and friends is but a memory, a painful one. In the cold of isolation, distance, loneliness, the exile has not many choices: he can only hope, he can only despair, he can only die a thousand deaths each day, he can only examine the geographies of pain and longing and hungering for home. In a sense, this is perhaps what Hufana calls as “nadagsen a rikna” (a heavy heart): the kind of heaviness of being one goes through and finds himself in when he is away from the land of his birth. It is this same heaviness of being that drove Salvador dela Raza to come back to the Filipinas of his remote recollection, away from the North America of his nurturing and education to manhood, exotic scholarship, and intellectual detachment. Badong—the Salvador dela Raza of Jose’s creative imagination—expresses it aptly: “All of us, we do a lot of wandering, but in the end we have to return to where we came from. In a sense, that is what life is all about. And endless searching…”
At this time of the massive exodus of Filipinos to other lands and climes, there is the growing need to account a discourse of exilic experience from the literary productions of those who try to document such an experience. For this series, I wish to start with the experience of the Ilokanos by coming up with a selection of the works of Ilokano writers who have tried to build their own home in exile despite their having been exiled from the home of their birth. My interpretive scheme will hew on a number of domains—all metaphors of the imagination—which account the rich varieties and contradictions of a life lived both in rootedness as a hope and rootlessness as a reality. The conceptions of homeland, ili/pagilian (nation), daga a nakayanakan (land of birth), panagkatangkatang (wandering), panagramut (sense of rootedness), and panagawid are juxtaposed against the metaphors of community and estrangement, of recovery and loss, of self renewal and continuing invention of identity, both self and ethnic. The political dynamics of selfhood in a foreign land provides the nexus in which the metaphors are analyzed and thematized to account a discourse on the diasporic experiences of the Ilokanos.

Tugade and His White Gold

On the first pages of Puraw a Balitok, Tugade’s account of a wandering Alvaro Cortez, something is said of the Ilokano who goes away looking for the good life that could not be found in the Ilokos: “Ni Ilokano, uray sadino a suli ti lubong ti papananna, rumimbaw latta ti kinaandurna a puli—Wherever the Ilokano goes, he will always come out a member of a sturdy race.” While there can be some grain of truth to what Tugade says of the enduring trait of the Ilocano migrant, at best, such a generalization contains a romanticization, even an exoticization of migration—of going away from the comforts of hearth and home, of country and family. In 1996, an Ilocano woman who went to the Middle East to work as a domestic said she was thankful that she was able to come home alive. I was shocked by the statement of the woman. Only then did I realize that, indeed, survival is primordial, that it is the first of the ethical principles, that to be grateful because one is alive is not an act that cancels out the possibility of protest.

That was several years ago and Florence Salquiao, the DH, has gone home to Allilem, Ilocos Sur. I do not know if I wrote a poem for her with a touch of the apocalyptic. In the poem, I told her that there will come a time for us all migrants and exiles to come home and reap the fruits of our labor. There’s nothing revelatory nor redeeming in it, I guess, except for the empty promise the poem contains. Somewhere is a grim statistics: everyday four dead Filipinos are being brought home from various places of contracted work. Rosa Rosal’s work as governor of the Philippine National Red Cross, involves claiming the bodies of overseas contract workers now euphemistically called overseas Filipino workers. (To be continued)

Published, Inq, V1n13, 2005

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